While plugging in always delivers the most consistent speeds, there’s no beating the convenience that is wireless networking.
Although more convenient, wireless connections are prone to signal degradation, dead zones, and moderate to severe speed loss between the router and your device. It’s not ideal, but it is convenient.
Here are a few simple router tweaks that could make a world of difference on your home Wi-Fi network.
Automate a Reboot Schedule
Most newer routers don’t need to be rebooted all that often, but if you’ve ever run into a dead Internet connection for no apparent reason, I’m sure you’ve discovered that rebooting your router is often all it takes to get you back up and running. In fact, when you call your ISP or tech support for your router manufacturer, this is often the first thing they’ll have you do.
If you find yourself rebooting the router with any regularity, the DD-WRT and Tomato firmware options both have timed reboot options. Set it to reboot once a day, while you’re sleeping and you’ll never even notice the down time while it powers off and starts back up.
Get a Better Antenna
The antenna (or antennas) on most consumer grade routers is flat out awful. An amplified aftermarket antenna is a great fix and a simple way to improve signal quality without the need for a new router. Powered and amplified aftermarket options start at around $10 to $15 and range all the way up into the low $100s.
Plug-in range extenders are a bit more expensive, but they act as a sort of powered antenna and wireless repeater in one (read Wireless Networking Simplified: The Terms You Should Know). While my experience with these has been less than perfect, I’ve read that these sometimes offer a significant improvement to homes with dead zones or signal degradation. Your mileage may vary.
Disable Older Wireless Protocols
Newer routers on the 802.11ac protocol offer capabilities far exceeding many ISPs service offerings. While the router might be fast, many of your devices are probably using older protocols – such as 802.11g – which slows the entire network down as soon as this device connects. To fix the problem, you’ll log in to your router and change the 802.11 mode to only allow newer protocols.
In case you’re wondering, the fastest protocols, in order of fastest to slowest, are:
Try to remove any device using the “b” or “g” protocol.
Change the Channel Width
Routers typically come with two channel width settings, 20MHz and 40MHz, the latter being primarily for newer routers which require using wider wireless channels. This, however, has detrimental affects for devices on older protocols as it often leads to interference due to the wider channel setting. This adjustment won’t change how fast you’re capable of browsing the web, but it will increase the speed of streaming or transferring files between machines on your network.
Keep Your Router Updated
Much like everything other electronic device, routers are subject to regular firmware updates by the manufacturer. These updates are often security fixes and won’t have much (or any) impact on speed, but that doesn’t mean you won’t squeeze incremental value out of them – especially if you haven’t updated the firmware in a while.
Experiment With Location
The location of your router is everything. Since the router competes with every other 2.4GHz and/or 5GHz device in your area, subtle movements often make a world of difference. Additionally, the structure and building material of your house might interfere with the wireless signal. My house, for example, is about 90 percent concrete with rebar reinforcement which makes it difficult for the wireless signal to penetrate walls and provide complete coverage.
The best plan of attack is typically creating a heat map of your home to help you discover both dead zones, and areas of above average signal degradation. Once you create the heat map, move your router around to different areas of the home in order to see if it improves signal to your dead areas. Having done this myself, I can tell you that it’s a lenghty process, but you will notice a significant improvement in your signal once you know the best location within your home to place your router.
Change the Channel
As a Mac user, I enjoy the semi-hidden functionality of being able to scan the airwaves for the channel that offers the least interference. To do this:
- Option click on the Wi-Fi icon in the menubar.
- Select “Open Wireless Diagnostics…”
- Ignore the popup and instead click the “Window” link in the menubar.
- Select “Scan”
- Press the “Scan Now” button
If you’re a Windows user, you won’t have this functionality built in, but there are some great options to download, such as Acrylic Wi-Fi (Free).
From there you’d simply log in to your router and change to the recommended channel. This typically leads to improved speeds if interference is the main issue.
Switch to a Different Band
A typical home is loaded with wireless devices. Televisions, tablets, phones, computers, and even your Kindle are all competing for space in a limited frequency range on your network. Luckily, with a dual- or tri-band router, you’ll have the capability of separating them in order to maximize speeds.
Essentially what you’re doing here is opening up another lane for network traffic. While a one-lane road will ultimately get you there, two (or three) is better for everyone involved. Instead of all your devices competing for space in the 2.4GHz band, you could assign some to the additional (and typically less crowded) 5GHz band. If you have a tri-band router, you may assign network traffic to a 2.4GHz band and two 5GHz bands. Moving forward, you can pick and choose the least crowded band, or segment your devices on to separate bands for increased network efficiency down the road.
Lock Down Your Router From Thieves and Hackers
An unfathomably high number of otherwise tech-savvy people still use the default username and password on their router. Intermediate hackers are capable of hacking even relatively secure networks with non-default passwords. If you’re still using the defaults, you’re just inviting hackers into your network to use it however they like.
The Wi-Fi password is equally important. While you might do a great job of splitting your devices up into separate bands, updating your firmware, and switching channels during high traffic periods, it’s all an exercise in futility if your neighbors are piggybacking your Wi-Fi and using it to torrent movies all day.
Apart from a strong password, encryption is just as (or even more) important. Always avoid WEP, and instead, opt for the stronger WPA2 setting with AES encryption (if you have the option) when locking down your router. Check out a few additional tips for securing your router.
Install New Firmware
Many routers keep the settings relatively dummy-proof so that you don’t screw anything up. While this is great for most users, sometimes you just want to dive in and hack the settings until you’re running a router that far exceeds its price tag.
If this is you, you’re in luck.
There are several open source firmware options for some of the most popular routers. While not every router is supported, there are no shortage of great options, and yours could be on the list of those that will support these new firmware options.
Some of the most popular are DD-WRT, OpenWRT and Tomato. Each of these has their pros and cons, but all of them are (probably) light years ahead of the firmware you’re currently running. Out of these, my personal favorite is Tomato due to its lightweight nature and its real-time bandwidth and connection monitoring. It’s also – in my opinion – the most user-friendly interface and it’s really quite intuitive once you dive in.
If you’ve had speed or signal quality issues in the past, let us know what has worked for you in the comments below.