So you have your new 802.11ac or 802.11n routers and adapter ready to go. Now you just have to set up your home for optimal wireless performance.
Wireless, you see, is a fickle beast. A million factors affect the performance of your wireless network, and you can’t just plonk the router anywhere and expect it to work at optimum speeds and reliability. Here are seven ways you can ensure good performance.
01 Range is the most important factor in wireless performance
Nothing affects the speed and reliability of a wireless connection like the range between the access point and the devices that use it. The closer they are, the better. For that reason, you want the wireless router to be placed at the epicentre of your wireless activity, rather than at the periphery. In general, that means putting it somewhere physically close to the middle of your house or unit, rather than hidden in a corner room or buried in the attic or basement. If the location of your broadband connection dictates where you have to put the router, you have several repositioning options. The easiest is just to extend the cable of your broadband connection. If you’re on ADSL, phone cables are cheap, and you just need to buy a longer one in order to reposition the router. An alternative is to have a separate modem and access point. You can buy either a dedicated wireless access point or a wireless router that you’re only going to use as an access point. Then you run an Ethernet cable from a LAN port on your modem router to a LAN port on the access point to give wireless devices access to the modem.
02 Think about what the wireless signal has to go through to get from point A to point B
This is too often neglected when people are setting up their wireless network. Wireless signals can travel through walls and other objects, but the success at which they do so it determined by the composition of the things it has to go through. Travelling through plaster and wooden interior walls is easy, for example, but beaming through double brick or concrete is not. Some of the things that will rapidly reduce the strength of wireless signals include:
- brick walls
- tiles and mirrors
- lead-based paints
And then there are your complete show stoppers, including:
- metal plates and chicken wire in walls
- water (for example, fish tanks)
If you have these kinds of walls and surfaces in your home, you need to think about positioning your wireless router to minimise their impact. Putting it next to a fish tank, for example, will likely create a large shadow in the wireless reception area. Angles are important too. You want the signal to travel through solid material for as little time as possible. If a wall between the router and adapter is at an oblique angle to the line between the two, there will be more signal loss than if the wall is perpendicular to the line between the access point and receiver. That’s because the signal has more solid material to pass through.
So you live in a multistorey home, or you have the idea to put the router in the ceiling, under the floor or in the basement. This is a tricky business, because the angle of the antenna can make a big difference. A standard dipole antenna (the kind that sticks vertically up out of the back of a router) for example, has roughly even coverage on a horizontal 2D plane around the antenna. Above and below the antenna are weak points where signal reception won’t be as good. If you put the antenna in a vertical position, you won’t get as good reception 2m above it as you would 2m to the side. In short, you don’t get even spherical coverage from any antenna you find in modern routers. That can make the vertical positioning of the router a tricky proposition. It’s definitely not a good idea to put the router in a basement or in the ceiling, because if you were standing directly above it or below it, your reception may be off. In fact, if you live in a large multistorey home, it’s often a good idea to set up multiple routers (one for each floor), and connect them via an Ethernet cable. Of course, it’s hard to know the exact alignment of antennae when your router has them internally like so many do now. In many cases, you’ll have to engage in a little trial and error when it comes to vertical position of your routers. Try rotating, tilting, wall-mounting and other positions to see which get the best reception.
04 Choose a band
802.11n routers and can work in either the 2.4GHz or 5GHz radio frequency spectrum. A little bit of experimentation might be required to work out which works best for you. As a rule, 2.4GHz has better range characteristics and travels better through walls and other materials thanks to its lower frequency. It’s also more compatible; not every 802.11n device supports 5GHz, but they all support 2.4GHz. But it’s also highly congested, with baby monitors, security cameras, cordless phones, wireless headphones and much more using the same spectrum. And then there’s vulnerability to 2.4GHz interference from microwave ovens. 5GHz, on the other hand, is pretty much only used by Wi-Fi, and you may get better performance on it in your home. As we said, experiment. Maybe run a few file copy tests to see how each performs. If you use 802.11ac, you don’t have a choice. 802.11ac only uses 5GHz (though most devices will also support 802.11n in the 2.4GHz band for ‘legacy’ compatibility).
05 Choose a channel
The 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands are broken into discrete 20MHz channels. That’s done so multiple Wi-Fi devices can coexist in the same area without stepping on each other’s toes too much. If you live in an area with multiple overlapping wireless networks, you may need to tinker with the router’s channel settings to get best performance. It’s usually a matter of trial and error. You log on to your router’s admin page, go to the wireless settings and randomly choose a channel and see how it goes. Run some file copy tests. See what kind of reception you get. There are some things you can do to speed this process up, however. Many routers default to either channel 1 or channel 6, so start with channel 3, 4, 8 or higher. They’re less likely to be used. Even better, get a tool like WiFi Analyzer, an app for your Android phone available on Google Play. It gives you an overview of what other networks are in the area and what channel they’re using, allowing you to choose a channel that’s free and clear from competition.
Wireless routers let you choose which of the available channels you’d like to use. You can switch channels to dodge congestion.
06 Upgrade your antenna
If you have a router with external, detachable antennae, you can swap them out for something with a bit better gain. At most, your factory router is likely to have antennae with 5dBi gain (and often only 2dBi), but you can replace them with an omnidirectional antennae with 7, 9, 11, 14 or even more dBi gain. This should improve the range and reception of your wireless signals. You can also look at ‘patch panel’ directional antennas. These offer higher gain and range than omnidirectional antennas, and can sometimes be useful if you need to position the antenna at the edge of your home, or if you need long-range outdoor reception.
07 Keep it away from EM interference
All electronic equipment emits EM radiation, and EM radiation is bad for radio signals. It’s best to place your router away from other electronic equipment for this reason. Don’t jam it in your AV cabinet with your other electronic gear, and most definitely do not put it near CRT TVs or monitors or on top of loudspeakers.
Don’t forget wired networking!
We’ve talked a lot about wireless networking here, but you shouldn’t forget wired networking. The fact of the matter is, as far as Wi-Fi has come it still can’t compete with a wired connection between devices. Wireless is prone to performance dips and random disconnects and almost never gets anywhere near the listed theoretical maximum in the real world. Wired connections, on the other hand, provide consistent performance, security and reliability. Straight up, a Gigabit Ethernet connection beats any type of Wi-Fi connection on every metric except mobility. If you have fixed devices and the ability to run cables between the router and them, it’s almost always worth doing so. If you’re going to the trouble of running cables, here are some tips to help things go more smoothly.
- Ethernet has a range of 100m (and more), so don’t worry about cables being too long.
- Many electronics stores will make cables to order, at lengths you specify.
- The plastic casing on Ethernet cabling is waterproof, but if you’re running it outdoors it’s best to surround the cable in PVC piping to keep it safe in case of wear or rot. You can also get outdoor Ethernet cables.
- Category 6 cabling is a better option than Cat 5e, and there’s very little price differential. Not only does it have better signal characteristics, it will be capable of handling 10 Gigabit Ethernet when it comes along. If you’re going to the trouble of running cable through wall ducts, ceiling or under floors, you may as well prepare yourself for the next evolution of Ethernet so you won’t have to do it again.
- Tight kinks and bends in the cable can reduce its performance — this is especially true for Cat 6 cables. Try to minimise them when running cables.
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