For most people, home networking consists of knowing the wifi password; it’s an oft-neglected yet significant topic that has a big impact on performance. If you have more than one computer in your house, home networking knowledge becomes essential. But there are many factors which can slow down a home network, often quite easily fixed.
While these tips might not improve your Internet speed, they can make all the difference between that network file transfer taking days or just minutes.
First up, go read through Ryan’s article on Wifi Feng Shui; if you find your router is in a non-optimal location, use a long network cable to move it.
The most important step is to check if your wifi channel is overlapping with others from your neighbours; many routers will just default to using channel 6, while some will automatically find the best channel. The best tool to do this is a free app called Wifi Scanner for Android; you can view a nice graph of channel usage to identify which are unused as well as checking signal strength in various parts of the house.
For a Mac computer, use KisMac, though no suitable mobile alternative for non-jailbroken iOS devices exists due to limited hardware access. InSSIDer works for Windows, which Ryan did a full rundown of back in 2010.
Also, seriously consider hard wiring ethernet cables to devices that can use one. Wireless internet is very convenient, but also incredibly unreliable and slow. With home Internet speeds of 50MB and higher now commonplace, a wifi connection will never be able to make full use of that.
Fixed computers and devices should always be cabled where possible to minimize wifi traffic; obviously if you don’t own your home it’s difficult to drill holes in walls and such, but would a cable around the edge of your rooom really be such an eyesore?
The router should be your first port of call, but unfortunately it’s also the most difficult to configure; adjusting wifi settings that seem to indicate they will operate faster may inadvertently also cut your wifi coverage, or completely prevent some wifi devices from accessing it at all.
Experimentation is the key here, and no one solution will work for everyone, nor is there even a general solution you should follow. If in doubt, leave it on the default.
You can however always make sure the firmware is up to date. If you’re using a router provided by your cable provider, this typically means you just need to restart it so it can pull an update over the network; otherwise, check out the manufacturers download pages.
In some cases, you may be able to replace your firmware with DD-WRT or similar open-source replacements. Though risky, you can then “overclock” the wifi to run at higher power output for increased coverage. This is not an exact science though: boosting the signal will also boost the amount of noise, so a balance must be found.
If your router comes with detachable wireless aerials, you might also consider upgrading them for larger, more expensive aerials that will again increase your coverage.
Routers that have more than one network port for internal devices may only be rated up to 100Mbs, not Gigabit. Use the advice on switches below to diagnose this. If they are limited to 100Mbs, I suggest you either replace the device with something Gigabit capable, or use them simply as a gateway to the Internet with internal devices networked together on a separate switch or another router.
Check out our full guide to home networking to learn about different network setups. Note, if your router only has one port for computers, then it doesn’t matter if it isn’t Gigabit as only internet or traffic from wifi devices will travel through it, neither of which are fast enough to warrant Gigabit.
Switches are used to expand the number of possible devices on the network, but they may also be a point of slowdown if you’re using an older one. Simply check the speeds your device is capable of on hardware: if it just says 10/100, its maximum speed is 100mbs and it’s almost certainly slowing down any devices connected to it. If it says Gigabit or 10/100/1000 then you’re good in theory, but the indicator lights will give a quick diagnostic of the actual speeds detected for the devices plugged in.
The front panel of your switch should tell you how to read the LEDs – in most cases, either a specific color like green for 1,000 mbs, orange for 100 mbs; or both LEDs will light to show the fastest speed is being used, or one or the other to indicate lower speeds. This is how my switch looks (notice where it says Both=1000M, so both LEDs on would indicate it’s detected as Gigabit cabling and connected device).
It’s also important to consider the physical subnetting of your network; though this shouldn’t be an issue on most home networks. If you do have a networked device that sends high bandwidth traffic to a particular internal server, try to keep them plugged into the same switch.
Though network cabling will always get you a faster speed than wifi, not all network cables are created equally and some will be faster than others. Broadly speaking, cabling can be divided into Cat–5, Cat–5e and Cat–6.
Cat–5 is the oldest and slowest type. It can go up to 100Mbs speeds with a maximum distance of 100 metres; it is not Gigabit capable.
Cat–5e supersceded Cat–5 and is the most common type of cabling used in home networks today. It can support Gigabit ethernet speeds.
Cat–6 shields each pair of signal wires from others and uses copper with less impurities; it supports up to 10 Gigabit speeds for about 37 metres (though Cat–6a goes up to 100 metres).
For home users, Cat–6 is expensive and uneccessary. However, if you’re still using Cat–5 then this is undoubtly a bottleneck, limiting your internal speeds to 100Mbs. Cat–5e is very cheap, and you can make some yourself easily if you purchases in bulk on a reel; there really is no reason not to replace all your Cat–5 cabling with Gigabit capable Cat–5e.
How do you know which you have? Just check on the cable itself – they will either say “CATEGORY 5” or “ENHANCED CATEGORY 5”.
Don’t discard old cable though – use it for your nextproject!
Network Interface Cards
Lastly, just like your network switch or router, the network card inside your PC may be limited to 10/100 speeds. In a desktop PC, you can easily add a PCI Gigabit ethernet network card for less than $20, but in a notebook or all-in-one these can’t easily be changed.
Remember that if you’re copying to a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device or even a very old PC, the limitation may not even be related to a network connection. The slow CPU could be the limiting factor here, so regardless of how fast your network is, the device simply won’t be able to read or write to the drives fast enough to keep up.
That’s everything I can think of; networking is a complex topic though, and you could spend a lifetime trying to optimize a wifi signal. My best advice would be to always use Cat–5e ethernet cabling to devices that can use it for the best internal transfer; leave wifi to mobile devices.
Do you have any other ideas or advice you think I might have missed? Help us out in the comments!