The ubiquity and low cost of Wi-Fi has freed us all from the tyranny of Ethernet cables, but Wi-Fi still isn’t as foolproof as a cable. Sometimes your Wi-Fi can drop out, get slow, or just plain not work in certain areas of the house. Before you throw up your hands in defeat and go crawling back to the Ethernet cable, here are some things you can do to improve your wireless.
Check for firmware updates
The hardware is only part of the equation when it comes to good coverage. Your router has software that runs the show behind the scenes, and manufacturers often release new versions that add features and tweak the performance. Upgrading the firmware used to be a huge pain on routers, but it’s better these days. You’ll need to log into your router’s administrator interface or management app. Look for the upgrade option and pull the trigger. Some old routers require you to download the firmware from the manufacturer’s website and upload it to the router manually.
Some new routers make it even easier by installing updates silently in the background when you’re not actively using the connection. This might need to be turned on in the settings, but Google’s routers do this by default. A few routers can also be flashed with third-party firmware like DD-WRT that have more options. However, you can brick the device if you’re not careful.
Move the router
Most routers look like computer equipment, what with all those antennas and blinking lights. So, the instinct is to put them someplace out of the way, or maybe even in a cabinet. That’s not good for signal strength, though. That just means the signal will be weaker by the time it reaches your devices. Your router will work better if it’s in a central location, usually higher up. You should also keep it clear of other devices that operate in the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands as that can cause interference (such as from microwaves). There are some routers designed to be stylish or understated that you can put out in the open, but you might have to stare at your unsightly router if buying a new one isn’t an option.
You can use your phone to test the signal strength around the house as you re-position the router. Grab a signal strength monitor app (there are dozens of them) and take a stroll around. If by some miracle you have access to a phone with Google Tango, you can create a 3D map of the space with Wi-Fi strength overlaid.
Change wireless channels
Routers all operate in the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, but there are different ranges within each that your network can operate within. Check your router’s settings, and you should have an option to manually change the channel. But what should you change it to? That depends what’s the most open channel.
On Windows, you can use the command prompt line netsh wlan show all to see nearby networks and the channel they are on. It’s easier to use your smartphone, though. Most network testing apps will show you WiFi channels. Simply set your router to a channel with lower usage in the area, and you should boost your connectivity.
Replace the antenna (if you have one)
Most routers still have external antennas, and the stock ones will be fine for most people. However, if you’re having connectivity issues, you can look at getting a more robust antenna for your unit. A new antenna will cost under $20, but it won’t make your router more powerful. An aftermarket antenna is about changing the shape of your signal.
For example, if you can’t get your router into a convenient central location, you can get an antenna with a cable that lets you place it in a more open area away from the main router. You can also get a high-gain antenna that projects more effectively at a distance, or one that can be used to direct the signal in a certain direction.
Pick up a range extender
If your router can’t handle the job no matter what you do, it may be time to get it some help. A range extender or repeater can expand your network coverage without the expense of getting a whole new router. There are systems that run your network over power lines to output Wi-Fi where you need it, and others that simply pick up the Wi-Fi signal and transmits a boosted signal for your devices to connect to.
One major drawback of range extenders is they can be tricky to set up. Settings changes to your router can also mean you have to completely redo the setup process.
Move to a mesh router system
In the event you can’t get your router to play nice and a range extender isn’t cutting it, you may be in the market for a mesh router system. These have become quite popular over the last few years with networking veterans like Netgear and Linksys diving in. There are also newcomers to networking like Google, Eero, and Luma with mesh Wi-Fi systems.
A mesh network consists of multiple access points that can be managed as a single unit. They use a little network capacity to maintain the connection between APs, but you get vastly better coverage if you spread them around the house. Your devices will be connected to the AP with the best connection as you move around, too.
Our sister site PCMag gives strong recommendations to both the Netgear Orbi and Linksys Velop. Those are both around $400 for the base-level bundle. Google Wifi is reviewed well also, and it’s $100 less expensive.
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