Do you regularly lose connectivity to your Wi-Fi network at home? Are network speeds so low that it takes forever to even copy a picture or music file to your PC – let alone stream video? Well, here are the most important tips for boosting wireless (WLAN) throughput across your home network.
Ready? Let’s dive in!
Figure out the best possible router position
Have you wondered why your wireless signal is strong in some rooms and weak in others? It’s not only a matter of distance between your wireless router and your PCs or laptops. It’s also a matter of what objects (walls, doors, furniture, electrical equipment/outlets) interfere with a good signal.
In many scenarios, you will be able to boost wifi strength significantly by repositioning either your router or the connected PCs. Unfortunately, this trial-and-error method can take a long time. To get the best possible location, the best approach is to create a map of network coverage across your home. Heatmapper, free software for Windows, will do just that.
Click here to download Heatmapper. (It's free, but registration is required).
After installation, the program asks for a floorplan of your home. No worries, if you don’t have one. You can create one. Simply walk around your apartment or house with a laptop in your hand running Heatmapper. As you walk (slowly!) through all the areas of your home, left click as much as you can.
When you’re done, right click the application and you have your Wi-Fi sginal map. Here’s how mine looks:
The green area in the middle is also the center of my apartment – a good location for the router! In the bedroom (upper part of the screen), I only get OK wireless strength because the router is blocked by three walls. This gives me a clear idea of where best to place the router.
More generally, routers work best when given room to breathe. Don't position the router directly on the floor or next to thick walls. The best position is in the center (probably the corridor) of your apartment, with no or minimal objects blocking the signal.
Use the latest drivers and firmware
It’s rare to find router firmware or drivers for network adapters that works perfectly right out of the gate. Most "V1“ drivers and firmware for network equipment that I have used were bad, and came with all sorts of problems: slow connections, dropouts, missing features, and other quirks. So the first thing I always do when I get a new network device is look for updates.
For example, when I bought my Linksys WUSB600N adapter, it didn’t work (at all!) with the 64-bit-version of Windows 7. I actually bought the device and couldn’t use it for a couple of weeks until the manufacturer delivered an updated driver that worked with the x64 architecture.
Fortunately, upgrading firmware has become somewhat easier over the past couple of years. Simply open up firmware configuration page in your browser (see below) and find the "Firmware Upgrade“ page.
Of course you may still need those drivers. Here are links to drivers for some popular router manufacturers:
Upgrade your Wi-Fi hardware
If you’re using the 802.11g (or even b/a) wireless standard, more bandwidth-related tasks such as video streaming, launching remote applications, or file copy operations will be painfully slow. All three network standards provide a relatively low maximum bandwidth:
|802.11 (1997)||2 MBps|
|802.11a (1999)||54 MBps (short range, high cost - mostly in business use)|
|802.11b (1999)||11 MBps (slower, but higher range than a)|
|802.11.g (2002)||54 MBps (long signal range)|
|802.11n (2006)||300 MBps (through multiple channels and frequencies)|
|802.11ac (2012)||1 GBps (through multiple channels and frequencies)|
As you can see, 802.11ac is the way to go these days. Over the next couple of months, it’ll replace the older 802.11a/b/g networks, and offers much improved speed, coverage, and reliability.
In general, 802.11ac is at least twice as fast than its predessor “n” while promising theoretical speeds of up to 1000 Mbp/s. If you’re suffering from low network bandwidth, be sure to pick a router and Wi-Fi adapters that supports at least the 802.11n specification. If you bought a PC or laptop in the past couple of years, it’ll (very likely) have a 802.11ac wireless adapter. To check, fire up the Device Manager…
…or take a look at your hardware specification sheet, for example:
If your adapter does not support 802.11n or ac, but your router does, it’ll obviously use the lower N, G, B, or A modes. So make sure that all parts of your wireless chain are “n” compatible.
What to look for when shopping for a router that supports 802.11ac:
When shopping for a new network adapter or a router that supports 802.11ac, you should take the following tips into consideration:
1. Pick a dedicated USB adapterEven if your laptop or desktop has a built-in 802.11ac adapter that is connected to a full-fledged 802.11n router, you might want to look into getting a dedicated (external) USB wireless adapter. I know it sounds ridiculous, but in my experience, many external Wi-Fi adapters perform much better than built-in devices.
For instance, when I first got my Linksys WRT610N router, I got mixed results and only an average of 100-170 Mbps when the theoretical limit of this beast is around 300 Mbps. So I drank the Kool Aid and ordered the adapter that, according to the manufacturer Linksys, “works best with” my router – the WUSB600N USB wireless adapter. And what a difference. Signal strength did not change, but the speed went up significantly. Here’s a screenshot of my laptop that’s using both the built-in Wi-fi chip as well as the external USB adapter to connect to the router:
The maximum speed meter went up from 130 Mbps to 300 Mbps. That rise let me stream full-definition 1080p video across my apartment with no stuttering or delay whatsoever.
2. Stay in the family
Besides using external dedicated Wi-Fi devices, I’d also recommend to pick a router and adapter from the same company. Now, that doesn’t mean that a Linksys router wouldn’t work with a Broadcom or D-Link network adapter. But it’s also my experience that you get the best performance if you stay in the family. (I know that this is what the manufacturer wants, but i'd still go with it.)
3. Use an external antenna for your router
Change the Wi-Fi channel
All modern routers are capable of communicating to your PC or laptop on several different channels. However, if your neighbours Wi-Fi equipment is communicating on the same channel, your network speeds and reliability might suffer. Windows offers a built-in solution that lets you see on what channels all your surrounding Wi-Fi networks conmunicate. This is how it works:
Step 1 – Launch the command line. To do that, click on the Start orb, go to "All ProgramsAccessories“ and click on Command Prompt.
Step 2 – Type in the following command: netsh wlan show all
Step 3 – You’ll see a large list of wireless networks in your area. Scroll through the list and watch for the entry that says "Channel“. Out of the seven in my screenshot, four networks are using channel 6 to send data, two use channel 5, and one uses channel 13.
This is why I should probably choose either a lower channel or a channel between 6 and 13.
To change the channel, you need to use the router configuration page.
To get there, you’ll usually enter it’s IP adress into your browser (check the manual to see which address you need to type in). For example http://192.168.1.1, and enter the user name and password you specified at setup – or the default credentials if you never specified it (which is potentially dangerous).
Find your wireless channel settings. On my router, it's under the “Wireless” tab in the “Basic Wireless Settings” category:
Pick the channel that is not (or barely) used in your area. In my example, I chose channel 10. Reconnect all your devices and see if you’ve got better speed and if you’re reliability issues are fixed.
Set up a wireless repeater
If your flat or house has thick walls or is so large that your router cannot broadcast a solid signal from one end to the other, it’s probably wise to get a wireless repeater.
These look very similar to a router. They pick up Wi-Fi signals and rebroadcast them with renewed strength. The repeater connects to your wireless router as a regular client, receiving an IP address over DHCP much like your regular laptop or PC.
- Position: I suggest following the first tip of this guide to locate the weak singal areas. Place the repeater close to one of these spots. But make sure that it’s still in a strong signal area and able to pick up at least 80% of the signal from your main router.
- Hardware: When choosing a repeater, don’t be confused by the different names – some companies name their repeaters "range extenders" while others call them "Wi-Fi expanders" or something similar. They are all the same. Simply make sure to pick one that rebroadcasts your 802.11n or AC signal. And make sure that it’s compatible with your router.
- Set up: Every manufacturer has different setup procedures. In general all you need is your network name and password.
Tip: Check out resources for a general overview of extenders. Or try this comprehensive guide on how to use your router as a universal wireless repeater.
Optimize Wi-Fi settings
There are many complicated settings on your router which can help you optimize the signal in your home. Unfortunately, manufacturers tend to offer options under different names, so we’ll just give a handful of hints that explain where to look and what to look for. It is also necessary to check the default values of some settings.
- 5 Ghz Wireless Mode: If your router and adapter has a 5 Ghz mode, I’d recommend using it instead of the regular 2.4 Ghz. Known as dual band, these devices can give you a better throughput when the 5 Ghz mode is activated.
To enable a 5 GHz connection, go to your router configuration page (normally shown on the device), and find your wireless settings. If you can see an option for a 5 GHz connection, enable it.
- RTS Threshold: RTS stands for "Request to send". The function essentially asks laptops and smartphones for permission to send the next data packet. The lower the threshold, the more stable your Wi-Fi network, since it asks to send packages more frequently.
If you don’t have problems with your Wi-Fi, make sure that the RTS Threshold is set to the maximum allowed. To do this, go to your router configuration and try to find the "RTS Threshold value" in the wireless settings. Set it to 2347.
If you DO have problems with your wifi (dropouts, the need to restart, etc), try lowering this value.
- Fragmentation Threshold: This value is used to set the maximum size of a packet that can be sent. Smaller packets improve reliability, but they will decrease performance. Unless you’re facing problems with an unreliable network, reducing the fragmentation threshold is not recommended. Make sure it is set to the default settings (usually 2346).
- Enable multimedia/gaming settings: Some wireless adapters can be configured for regular use or for gaming/multimedia. If you’re streaming video or playing games, enabling this second mode will make sure that network packets for these are prioritised. Going forward, if you’re watching a video file over your network, the video will get prioritized.
Benchmark and diagnose your Wi-Fi
This tip is not an optimization technique per se, but it’s a great way to determine if our tips so far have had a positive effect on your network. The free "QCheck" tool will show you the response time, throughput, and streaming performance of your wireless setup. You can easily get it from this website after filling out a short form.
Enter your IP address under "Endpoint 1" and another IP address in your network under "Endpoint 2". Then run the test.
Replace your antenna!
Some router manufacturers sell external antennae that are much stronger than the router’s built-in antenna. If your signal is weak in places (and all our other tips have failed), then you’ll need to check if your manufacturer sells either omnidirectional or directional antennae.
- Omnidirectional: Sends out a signal in all directions. By default, most built-in antennas are omnidirectional, but they are not all the same in terms of power, so make sure to get a longer one with "high gain".
- Directional antenna: This kind of antenna sends a strong wireless signal in a certain direction instead of spreading it in all directions, improving the performance in the target area. It’s like pointing a flashlight in a certain direction instead of using your regular ceiling lamps.
To connect a new antenna, you’ll usually use the SMA connector or MMCX. For more on wireless antennae, I recommend the Do-It-Yourself Wireless Antenna Update website by BinaryWolf. You’ll find great how-to guides and hardware recommendations that’ll help you pick the best antenna and the right setup.
And that’s it! Using these tips and tricks should improve your Wi-Fi performance and experience!