Wi-Fi Tweaks for Speed Freaks

How many devices do you have on your home Wi-Fi? That many? Here are some strategies for optimizing your wireless performance.

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I installed a pair of Hawking Technology HAI6SDP directional antennas (which retail for about $50). They aren't as powerful as the WA12, but you can aim their coverage where you need it. You need to be careful pointing them because the beam of connectivity varies based on where they're pointed. I set them up to push the signal across the house.

There is also a security advantage to using directional antennas: The Wi-Fi network's footprint better matches the house so that there is less signal "leaking" out of the north end of the house. This makes the network less prone to being invaded by a roving hacker.

So the house was covered -- but the basement had its own issues. I had a plan for that as well.

Powerline to Wi-Fi

The final frontier for me was the basement, which had many places that were getting less than 1Mbps. This was because the kitchen floor, which the signal has to travel through, is made of concrete and is likely blocking most of the signal.

The worst spot was a guest bedroom at the south end of the basement that doubles as a gaming room with a PlayStation console connected to a TV. The area used to be a garage and has a thick layer of stone separating it from the rest of the house. The family gamers were not pleased with the situation.

To fill in this last Wi-Fi dead spot, my trick was to use the house's electrical grid and AC outlets. The Linksys PLWK400 Powerline extender ($90) uses the HomePlug AV standard to send a 2.4GHz Wi-Fi signal over the dwelling's internal power grid.

The system comes with two devices:

  • A network adapter that plugs into one of your router's Ethernet ports and into a nearby AC outlet. It then piggybacks the data onto the electricity's 60-hertz alternating current.
  • A Wi-Fi transmitter that plugs into an AC outlet elsewhere in the house and broadcasts a fresh Wi-Fi signal.

A tip: I've found that using a power strip diminishes the data signal that Powerline equipment can generate. In other words, always plug the two Powerline devices directly into AC outlets.

Linksys PLWK400 Powerline AV Wireless Network Extender Kit

In addition, Powerline devices will only work with electric wiring that is 300 feet in length and less, which is probably good enough for most homes. However, in some older homes the power cable routing can be quite convoluted, so that one outlet might work fine but another right next to it might not.

One trick that can lower the frustration factor is to start by plugging the Powerline transmitter in the outlet that's closest to the one used by the network adapter -- unless your wiring is possessed, it's just about guaranteed to connect.

Configure the device to your Wi-Fi network's specs. Then, unplug the transmitter, go to where you want it to end up and plug it in. Check the device's connection software (in this case, Cisco Powerline AV Utility) to see if it's online and do the final configuration.

Amped Wireless' Wi-Fi Analytics Tool scans a network and provides info such as which channels are in use and whether there is interference from nearby networks.

If it doesn't connect, try an outlet that is closer to the house's circuit breaker panel. Remember, the transmitter will have a range of about 100 feet, so you don't need to be exactly in the right spot.

In my case, one of the two outlets in the basement room was already filled up; the other refused to link with the router. Finally, I found a plug just outside the room that worked well and bathed the room in about 8Mbps of Wi-Fi, an amazing improvement from less than 1Mbps.

There's a bonus that comes with this type of networking gear: You can use as many as eight Powerline transmitters with one network adapter.

Get with the program

Wi-Fi isn't all about hardware. There are a lot of things you can do with software.

The first -- and best -- tip I have here is to always have the most recent firmware for the router, repeaters and other gear. I check to see if there are updates every month or so. Having the newest software can not only streamline the network's operations but also remove bugs.

I also suggest that you go through the router's setup screens and nose around once or twice after you set it up -- or after a firmware change. Not only do you want to check to make sure everything is still correct, but you might also want to try some extra tweaks. For example, many routers have adjustable transmitters and are not always set to full power at the factory. It's an easy matter to turn them up to full power for the best coverage.

All routers are different, but they often allow you to set them up for exclusively 802.11n operations (for top speed) or a mixture of protocols (for compatibility with older 802.11b and g devices).

I use DHCP automatic IP addressing because it is easier to let the router decide which device gets which IP address. Assigning static addresses is time-consuming and cumbersome, and if you're not careful you run the risk of giving two clients the same address. The DHCP protocol can sometimes go haywire, though, creating IP address conflicts that can only be resolved by restarting the router.

If you experience IP addressing errors, happily, the problem is easily fixed. Simply go ahead and assign a static IP address to the problematic device. It needs to be done in the device's network settings; be sure to keep a list of the addresses used so you won't assign any twice.

Changing channels

Let's say you did everything right and your coverage still is not good enough. You could be using the wrong channel. Check the channel configuration on the router and the client to see that they match. Most equipment comes set to Channel 6.

There's a nifty free app from Amped Wireless (available for Windows and Android) that sniffs out problems like this. Called Wi-Fi Analytics, it scans the network and provides information such as which Wi-Fi channels are in use and whether there is potential interference from nearby networks. My favorite feature shows a line graph of my network's signal strength in red along with the other networks in a variety of colors. (Apple iOS users can try Network Analyzer or IP Network Scanner.)

Save your settings

Take it as read: You're going to forget your router's key settings. Since you'll need them for any future tweaking, it's a good idea to save them somewhere. Doesn't matter how: You can send them to yourself in an email, save them in an Evernote note or whatever. (I usually write down the router's key settings on a sticky note and attach it to the bottom of the router.)

If you didn't save the info and you need it, then you'll have to reset the router to its factory settings and start over. (Windows users can recover the settings with NirSoft's WirelessKeyView, a free tool that finds the WEP or WPA encryption keys on your computer.)

Finally, take a walk through the house with a connected notebook or tablet and take a survey of your work. I usually use a streaming music service such as Spotify and listen for breaks in the music.

It's time to tell the family that Wi-Fi is back, better than ever.

Wi-Fi checklist

A checklist for the tips, tricks and techniques offered in this article.

  • Don't rely on a single way of distributing Wi-Fi. Use a router for basic coverage and augment it with a repeater.
  • Before you do anything, warn those who depend on the Wi-Fi network that it will not be available.
  • Check your network's throughput before and after you do anything significant, like changing the router.
  • Mark where all the network's devices are on a floor plan.
  • Put the router at the center of the house, if you can.
  • Steer clear of placing the router near a stone or brick wall or large metallic items.
  • When setting up a new router, use the same SSID, or network name.
  • Duplicate the router's base IP address on a new router.
  • Set up the same level of encryption and passcode as before.
  • If the router doesn't work on the first attempt, restart the broadband modem, wait a few minutes and try again.
  • Wi-Fi repeaters work best when they are close enough to the router to get a strong signal that they can retransmit.
  • Draw a line between the router and where you want coverage to be and put the repeater roughly at the middle of the line.
  • Use the same network name and encryption code for the repeater so you can roam throughout the house without losing contact.
  • If you can, get a router that can accept replaceable antennas, and make sure the connector on any substitute antenna matches the router's.
  • If you want to aim the signal to a specific location, get a unidirectional antenna.
  • When using Powerline equipment, plug it directly into the AC outlet rather than into a surge protector.
  • Configure the Powerline equipment next to the router and then move it to the chosen location. If the Powerline gear doesn't connect, try another nearby outlet.
  • Always use the most recent firmware for the router, repeaters and other gear.
  • Make sure the router is broadcasting at full power.
  • Get top speed by setting the router to 802.11n-only operations or use mixed mode for compatibility with older equipment.
  • If you get IP addressing errors, use static addressing; keep a list of the addresses.
  • Always use the same broadcast channel for the router and its clients.
  • Use a monitoring app to minimize interference.
  • Keep a record of the router's key settings.
  • Take a final walk through the house with a device to make sure it all works.

This article, Wi-Fi tweaks for speed freaks: 2013 edition, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Brian Nadel is a frequent contributor to Computerworld and the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine.

Read more about wireless networking in Computerworld's Wireless Networking Topic Center.

This story, "Wi-Fi Tweaks for Speed Freaks" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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