Home networking explained, part 2: optimising your Wi-Fi network

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CNET Editor

Craig was sucked into the endless vortex of tech at an early age, only to be spat back out babbling things like "phase-locked-loop crystal oscillators!". Mostly this receives a pat on the head from the listener, followed closely by a question about what laptop they should buy.

Since my last post on the basics of home networking, which is the first part of this series, I've been flooded with even more emails than before (and would explain why some of you haven't heard back from me).

The top of the fireplace in the living room is a good spot to leave your Wi-Fi router for best coverage — that is if you have one.
(Credit: Dong Ngo/CNET)

The good news is that nobody is asking about what a router is anymore. I guess I did an OK job explaining that in my previous post.

Most of the emails this time asked about how to have the best Wi-Fi coverage at home and how to avoid "dead zones". A reader even asked me how to make his Wi-Fi network better than his neighbour's, because the other network's Wi-Fi signal and internet speed were "so much faster than mine". Well, I am not a fan of rat races and you're not supposed to tap into your neighbour's Wi-Fi network unless you both explicitly share an internet connection, in which case, you shouldn't be complaining that the network is so good.

Also, it's not exactly a good thing that your Wi-Fi's range goes so far away from your home, either; that only increases the unnecessary interference for your neighbourhood (and your network's chance of getting tapped into). In short, you should just focus on yours.

And along those lines, there are a few ways to make sure that you get the best out of your Wi-Fi network. With some, you just need to do a little bit of tweaking; with others, depending on your home, you might need to get extra equipment.

Let's start with the ways that probably won't cost you anything, other than a little bit of time.

1. Placement

Location

A wireless router (from here on "router" for short) broadcasts Wi-Fi signals away from it in all directions. Think of the signal coverage as a globe with the router right at the centre. Outside of this globe, clients won't get a signal. This globe, however, is not exactly spherical; one of the reasons is because the signals are generally tuned to go out more horizontally than vertically, and like all radio signals, they tend to spread laterally and downward the farther they are from the broadcaster. That said, the best place to place your wireless router or access point is elevated and in the centre of your home.

To take advantage of this, use the telephone jack (or coax cable outlet) located at or near the centre of the house, preferably on the upper floor when applicable, to connect to your modem and then your router. If need be, hire an electrician to create a new outlet in the right place. If it's not possible to move the phone jack or run coax cable to where you want, use a long network cable to connect the router to the modem (assuming they're separate), leaving the modem where the jack is and the router or access point at the centre of the house. In my experience, it's actually quite easy to run cables above the ceiling or under the house.

Surroundings

A wireless signal works best outdoors, in an open environment. Since it's not possible to have that indoors, you can improve the signal a great deal by making sure the immediate surroundings of the router/modem are clear, especially in the directions you want the signals to reach. This means that you don't want to leave the router in a closet, or put it between a big TV and a wall. The best place to leave the router is in midair, but since that's quite hard to do, the second best thing is to put it on the surface of a desk or mount it on a wall. Generally, all physical objects, such as walls, glass doors and so on, weaken Wi-Fi signals, some more than others.

Though this might be common, stashing your router/access point in a close corner like this, reduces its range a great deal.
(Credit: Dong Ngo/CNET)

Antenna positioning

With a router that comes with external antennas, you can slightly tweak the above-mentioned globe of coverage. Generally, you want the antennas to stay vertical if you want the signal to go wide (which is the most popular usage). If you want the signal to go deep into the basement and up to the top floor, set the antennas to stay horizontal. Note that this only works relatively, and with some routers, you might not experience any difference at all, whichever way you set its antennas. If the antennas are detachable, it's likely that you can replace them with high-gain antennas (most of the time this means bigger ones), which noticeably helps increase coverage. If you're a little bit handy, you might also be able to increase the power of the antennas, hence the range, by attaching to them a piece of aluminium foil curled up into a parabolic shape.

For routers with an internal antenna design, there's nothing you can do. Modern routers, especially N750, N900 and 802.11ac routers, however, generally come with very powerful and smart antennas that essentially increase their power toward the direction of connected clients automatically, using a technology called beamforming.

2. Settings

One of the problems with Wi-Fi networks is the risk of losing your bandwidth to unauthorised users. This part helps you secure your network and optimise it for speed. Note that it's slightly more advanced and might seem intimidating to novice users. But you will be a novice no more if you go through with it. This part is only recommended for those interested in learning more about networking.

Rule of thumb: make sure you back up the router's configuration settings before making changes. This allows you to restore it to previous settings in case something goes wrong.

With the exception of networking products from Apple, most, if not all, other routers and access points on the market come with a web interface. This means that from a connected computer, you can open up the router's management web page by going to its IP address. Unless you have changed it, the default IP address is generally printed on the bottom of the router or on its user guide, and tends to be in this format: 192.168.x.1.

It's easy to find out your router's IP address; here are the common steps to get to any home network's router web interface:

Step 1: from a connected computer (running Windows Vista or 7), click on the Start button, type "cmd" in the search area, then press Enter. (If you use Windows XP, you can navigate the Start Menu and run the Command Prompt item.)

Step 2: now in the black command prompt window, type in "ipconfig", then press Enter. You will see lots of information displayed in the window. Find the string of number after Default Gateway, that's the router's IP address.

You can easily find out a home network router's IP address by running the ipconfig command from any connected computer.
(Screenshot by Dong Ngo/CNET)

Step 3: type that IP address in the address bar of a browser, such as Firefox, and press Enter; now you are at the router's web interface. You will have to log in with an account. The username is almost always admin; for the password, check the router's manual or ask the person who first set up the network for you. Common default passwords are admin, password or just leaving the field blank.

On the web interface, the following wireless settings will help your network stay safe:

The web interface offers a convenient and extensive way to manage a router's or access point's settings.
(Screenshot by Dong Ngo/CNET)

Network name and password

Most, if not all, routers come with a default Wi-Fi network name (or SSID) and password; you won't want to use those. This is mostly because it reveals to advanced users which router you have and that, well, you don't know much about networking. Changing the SSID and password to your liking also helps you remember them better.

Hide your SSID

By default, all routers broadcast the Wi-Fi network name. This makes it convenient since clients can "see" them. Hiding the SSID makes your Wi-Fi network invisible to others. The only drawback is that you have to manually type it in when you want to connect a new client to it. There's a trick for this: turn the SSID on briefly when you want to connect a new client, once that's done, hide it again.

Use WPA 2

Using the WPA 2 encryption method helps both increase the security and the speed of the Wi-Fi signal. The only catch is that WPA 2 might not be compatible with older clients. Most new clients released in the past few years support WPA 2, however. You can try using WPA 2 first, and if some of your clients are unable to connect, switch it back to WPA.

In addition, once you have accessed the router's web interface, there are many other settings that you can try. For safety, there are also MAC address filters, internet filtering and so on. Note that a router generally takes about a minute to restart to apply new settings.

Check your channels

2.4GHz Wi-Fi, in particular, is incredibly popular, and where most interference happens. We can mitigate this by changing the channel that your router uses. This slightly changes the frequency and, with any luck, will improve signal strength.

Many routers these days select channels automatically, but if you'd like to tweak a little more, a program like InSSIDer can help you see what wireless channels are occupied in your area. It'll change as you wander around your house, too, depending on how close others are living and where their routers are.

InSSIDer viewing the neighbouring 2.4GHz networks.
(Credit: MetaGeek)

A typical 20MHz 2.4GHz signal can bleed up to two adjacent channels on either side of your chosen channel as well, so try to choose one as clear as possible. Usually, this factor makes channels 1, 6 and 11 the better choices, but only if they're not heavily populated already.

There is an OS X version of InSSIDer, however, unlike the Windows version, it's not free. Mountain Lion has a basic Wi-Fi scanner built in or, you could try iStumbler.

Double your bandwidth

Although it's not friendly to your neighbours, if you really want to help get a stronger signal, turn on 40MHz mode, instead of just plain 20MHz. See that big yellow line in the InSSIDer graphic above? That's a 40MHz signal.

3. Equipment

Now that you have placed your router properly, but still don't find enough improvement, it's time to check the equipment. Get ready to spend some money.

USB dongles for laptops

If your wireless device is a laptop that's around three to five years old, the cheapest thing you can do first is buy a new Wi-Fi adapter. Buying a new router is only part of the equation: if you've got old equipment that can't take advantage of it, you won't see a performance improvement.

While many laptops will take standard, internal mini-PCI-E adapters, if you're game enough to open them up, be aware that vendors like HP do have a habit of whitelisting. That is, only allowing specific adapters to be installed in their laptops. Quite annoying if you've just picked up a top-of-the-line Intel Centrino Ultimate-N 6300, and it doesn't work.

A safer alternative is to get yourself a high end, dual band USB dongle for around AU$100.

If you're using a smartphone, tablet or otherwise, I'm afraid you're stuck with the wireless adapter inside.

Router

Ideally, you just want to have one wireless broadcaster at home, and for most homes, a single router is good enough. That said, if you have a small house and the router (put in the middle) can't cover every corner, it's time to consider replacing it. I'd recommend at least an N600 router or, if you're not on a budget, get one of the best routers on the market, like the Asus RT-N66U or Netgear R6300.

Many wireless routers can also work as an access point. In this case, its WAN port is used like a LAN port.
(Screenshot by Dong Ngo/CNET)

Access point

A separate access point is an ideal solution for a large and sprawling home, one that you can't put the router in the centre, or one with a deep basement with an existing router. Basically, you want to put the second access point at the location where the signal of the existing router can't reach or gets really weak. A typical example of this setup is where you have the main router in the living room and the second access point in the basement.

Now the trick is to connect the access point to the router. Ideally, you want to run a network cable from the router to the access point (you want to connect the access point's LAN port to one of the router's LAN ports). If this is too much of a job, you can resort to power-line networking.

Editors' note: many routers can also work as an access point and will indicate this in its list of features. In this case, the router's WAN port will work as a LAN port. In fact, for the secondary access point scenario, it's best to use two identical routers; one as the main and the second as an access point for the far side of the house. This way, you don't have to learn about two different devices.

Power line

A power-line adapter basically turns your home's electrical wiring into network cables; this is more clearly explained in the first part of this series. In the case of the separate access point scenario above, you can use a pair of power-line adapters, such as the D-Link DHP-510AV. Connect one of the adapters to the router and the other to the access point, using network cables. After that, if you want to make your home network seamless, name the Wi-Fi network (or SSID) of the access point the same as that of the existing router. In this case, make sure you use the same security settings (encryption key, method and so on). Or you can also keep them as two separate Wi-Fi networks for easy management.

There are also power-line adapter kits with a built-in access point, called power-line range extenders, such as the Netgear XAVNB2001. In this case, you don't need to get the second access point/router.

Range extender/repeater

These are wireless devices that can connect to an existing Wi-Fi network, and then rebroadcast that same network's signal farther. Most of these devices support Wi-Fi Protected Setup and can connect to the existing router with the push of a button; after that, you can just put one at the edge of the existing network's Wi-Fi range and have that range increased.

I am not a fan of this type of device, because of a few reasons:

First, it's hard to gauge their effectiveness; you need to put a range extender/repeater relatively close to the existing router for it to have a good connection with the main network; but, at the same time, far enough for it to really extend the range. It's very hard to find the sweet spot for it to be effective, both in terms of range and connection quality.

Second, the repeater basically duplicates the existing Wi-Fi network with one of its own and, as mentioned above, Wi-Fi signals are broadcast in all directions. This means devices in the area where the two networks overlap have to deal with interference and signal saturation. This is especially bad for the 2.4Ghz band.

That said, a range extender/repeater is still the fastest way to relatively extend a Wi-Fi network's coverage.

Via CNET.com

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zzozzter posted a comment   
Australia

Can someone please help me... cannot find wifi scanner is the network diagnostics area.. infact when this program opens it doesn't allow me to do the following

"Launch Wi-Fi Diagnostics and ignore the frontmost menu, instead hit Command N to summon the new “Network Utilities” window (this is also where the wireless signal strength measurement tool is located"

Have these options changed with software update? I find Network Utility in a list of finders app's, but no wifi scan as stated...




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