4 Things That Might Be Slowing Down Your Home Network

speedtest icon   4 Things That Might Be Slowing Down Your Home NetworkFor 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.

Wifi Coverage

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.

inssider   4 Things That Might Be Slowing Down Your Home Network

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?

Router

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.

wifi settings   4 Things That Might Be Slowing Down Your Home Network

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.

coverage   4 Things That Might Be Slowing Down Your Home Network

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

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).

netgear switch leds   4 Things That Might Be Slowing Down Your Home Network

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.

Network Cabling

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.

lined up ehternet crossover cable   4 Things That Might Be Slowing Down Your Home Network

How do you know which you have? Just check on the cable itself – they will either say “CATEGORY 5” or “ENHANCED CATEGORY 5”.

cabling differences   4 Things That Might Be Slowing Down Your Home Network

Don’t discard old cable though – use it for your next Arduino project!

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!

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31 Comments -

2 votes

Alex Slutsky

Thanks for the info, will try some of those on the home router.

0 votes

MP H

Good read – Easy for new home networkers to understand…

1 votes

jasray

What I typically find is the customer’s wireless card is outdated. I rarely see tech sites recommend installing/upgrading a wireless card or using something such as the Alfa antenna and driver on the laptop/desktop needing faster performance.

Even with DDWRT installed on a router with increased output performance, I’ve yet to see a dramatic change in connection speeds or reliability in the connection until the adapter card was changed.

0 votes

Doc

“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.” Where are you getting 50MB? That’s 400Mbits/sec (Capital B is “bytes,” not “bits.”)
I’ve got one of the higher RoadRunner packages, and it’s only 15Mb/s peak, with lots of sites markedly slower because of bottlenecks. With 802.11n giving me a shared speed of 150Mb/s, there’s no way I can saturate my Internet connection with WiFi.

“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?”

Unless you’re on Gigabit Ethernet (and gigabit routers are still a good deal more expensive than their 10/100 brethren), *and* you’re moving gigabytes of files from PC to PC, then your WiFi connection should be more than sufficient…and yes, I’ve got Cat5 cables hooked where I don’t have room (or sufficient cards) for WiFi…I’ve yet to find a low-profile WiFi card for my mini-PC home media server. And *yes,* they’re an eyesore.

0 votes

Jason Papapanagiotakis

Nice overview, still need to find a way to make things work in my house, cant stream a 3D movie yet..!

0 votes

Nicola De Ieso

Thanks for these tips. I use cables cat-5e.

3 votes

Charles Klug

Keep in mind that if you have a DIY NAS your hard disks could be the limitiing factor instead of the CPU. I turned a old 3.2GHz P4 into a FreeNAS machine and learned that my 2TB Seagate HDD was the limiting factor. The HDD only spun at 5200RPM and only went up to 30MB/s transfer. I bought a new network card, updated router firmware and monitored the NAS CPU load. Granted 30MB/s is a great improvement over 12MB/s with 10/100 router.

0 votes

James Bruce

Good point; I guess in this case a striped RAID would help.

0 votes

Charles Klug

Or if you set up a ZFS Pool which can be safer than a RAID but the RAM needed (1GB RAM for Every TB of HDD) would be beyond using an old computer.

0 votes

Achraf Almouloudi

If you want to setup a home storage using your old PC it is better to make sure it has a faster drive or SSD if possible or you’ll suffer when transferring files.

2 votes

Mike McClure

Could you please tell me where you found the information that states that Category 5 cable is incapable of running Gigabit Ethernet?

Not only does that conflict with the Category 5 Wikipedia article, but I’m also using Cat 5 on several 1000baseT network links and it seems to work just fine.

0 votes

Jose Paolo Gonzales Otico

I’m actually interested to know too since it does conflict with the Wiki article.

1 votes

James Bruce

Hmm, good question. In my experience, none of *my* cat5 cables have ever successfully supported 1000baseT – switches and routers only ever let them go to 100. In theory, they *can* support it, but only if (a) all four pairs are wired (some cat5 cables only had 2 pairs wired since those are all thats needed). (b) the run is short enough, and (c) the interference is not too high or the cable is of good enough quality.

Made to spec, I believe you’re correct in saying cat5 should be able to support gigabit. In reality, I’ve found they don’t. I guess it will vary, but for most home users it will be easy to check – just look at the switch lights and see the speed it has auto-negotiated. Obviously, if the cat-5 cable you have supports gigabit, no need to upgrade it. Sorry for the confusion, and thank you for commenting on that bit.

0 votes

Mike McClure

Sorry to nitpick, but even a Category 5e or Category 6 cable won’t work on 1000baseT if all four pairs are not connected. It also might not work if it is poorly made, damaged, or interference is really high. But that has nothing to do with the type of cable.

Your article makes it sound like a Category 5 cable will *never* work.

0 votes

Mac Witty

Thanks, will check this when I’m home to see if I can get better speed

0 votes

Jorge Andrade

thanks for the info. beeing trying to enance my home network for awile, this is going to help

0 votes

Scott Macmillan

This was a real help.I wasn’t aware of the network interface card.

0 votes

Gerald Huber

nice article. you forgot one thing that slows down a network. Kid playing Call of Duty.

0 votes

muotechguy

Hehe. I always wondered how much bandwidth gaming actually used. Acording to some tests, COD clients actually only use about 5-10k/s, which is quite remarkable really. The host can expect to have about 20X that since they receive everyone else’s info, but still. Less than you might think!

0 votes

LovesFLSun

The bottleneck will always be the internet connection.

0 votes

muotechguy

That’s not true. A slow wifi can easily be eclipsed by some of the faster net connections.

0 votes

Igor Rizvi?

Thats true about old cables.i switched to a new cable (odl one was old for about at least 3 years) and i got slightly increas in speeds…

0 votes

Walter Askew

Now you’ve given me a lot of work to do, but at least you told me what to do and how. Thanks.

2 votes

Alan

WIFI = Slow even the 5Ghz ‘N’ 300 mpbs stuff. light use only other than that, Avoid like the plague.
Best for home = 1gbps to the desktop via CAT6 and a good Gigabit switch.
Depending on the length of the cable runs you can get 1gbps connections over Cat5 and Cat5e. not the best tho.

Ultimate = 10Gbps fibre to the desktop (i haven’t seen it used in home setups tho)

0 votes

Alan

i have a fluke DTX1800 if anyone wants cable test results…..

0 votes

Brandon Brown

Some very useful information here. I feel a weekend project coming…

0 votes

Anonymous

Good article, very informative on the subject! Looks like I have some tweaking to do myself.

0 votes

Eli

for wifi analysis – I found that wif analyzer is much more convenient than wifi scanner

0 votes

ELIZABETH G.F.

yes.

0 votes

babu vhora

Thank you….

0 votes

Nikhil Pandey