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? In this two-part series, we are covering 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:

Theoretical speeds

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. When shopping for a new network adapter or a router that supports 802.11ac, you should take the following three tips into consideration:

1. Pick a dedicated USB adapter:

Even 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.

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.)

Use an external antenna for your router. You can significantly boost your Wi-Fi connection by replacing the antenna or by adding another external antenna. This guide as well as this one will help you figure things out.

2. 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.  

That was part 1 – look out for part 2, which'll show you even more in-depth tricks to improve your wireless network speed!

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