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If you’re using a USB dongle that allows your desktop to receive a Wi-Fi connection, you may have noticed that your internet speeds are slower than expected. In some cases, a LOT slower. Unfortunately, this is a common problem for USB Wi-Fi dongles.
What causes this slowdown? In three words: other wireless devices.
Wireless devices transmit data using frequencies, and these frequencies are invisible but they have their own distinct shapes. The problem occurs when two or more devices transmit data using the same frequency shapes (i.e., on the same frequency channel).
Unfortunately, there are a very limited number of frequency channels available in the 2.4 GHz range — and most wireless peripherals transmit on 2.4 GHz, including Bluetooth, Logitech USB dongles, and more. They’re all on the same wireless spectrum, which leads to wireless congestion and dysfunction.
To illustrate, here’s what the 2.4 GHz spectrum looks like:
Notice how there are only three channels (1, 6, and 11) that do not overlap with one another. If you use multiple devices on the 2.4 GHz frequency, your wireless internet speeds simply aren’t optimal, and consumer electronics suffer majorly from these overlapping frequencies.
When two devices transmit on overlapping channels, their transmissions can interfere with each other, resulting in sluggish performance, limited range, and lag.
Why is it this way? Well, when the 2.4 GHz spectrum first came into use, engineers never predicted that the average home would come to include dozens of different Wi-Fi signals. That’s the reason why the 5 GHz band was invented (why dual-band routers matter).
So how can you fix this issue? There are three methods you can try.
1. Use a USB Extender
The simplest option is to use a USB extender. The main benefit here is that USB extenders allow you to reposition the location of your USB wireless adapter.
Not only does channel overlap cause dongles to misbehave, it’s also cumulative when combined with the radio-frequency-blocking properties of a computer case or metal laptop. Almost universally, repositioning the dongle improves the dongle’s performance.
In fact, many dongle manufacturers include an extender by default for this reason. For example, the Steam Controller (our review of the Steam Controller) includes a weighted extender with a microUSB cable attached.
Amazon stocks a large number of USB extenders, cradles, docks, and hubs. Any one of these options will provide an improvement in dongle performance — but the best will tilt the dongle at a vertical angle, which maximizes the dongle’s exposure to wireless frequencies.
Even better, it shouldn’t use a metal case, which can interfere with wireless signals. My favorite from Amazon is the Weme 4-Port USB Data Hub, which possesses all of the aforementioned characteristics and can connect up to four devices.
However, if you want more functionality out of your hub, check out the Geekdigg USB Hub & Card Reader. It throws in a microSD and miniSD card reader, along with a removable microUSB cable.
2. Change Your Wi-Fi Router Channel
The three non-overlapping channels used by Wireless-N and Wireless-G routers divide into 11 different overlapping channels. While Bluetooth devices automatically change their channel to the least-used frequency, many other devices do not.
On top of that, it’s impossible to change how dongles transmit data. So when conflicts arise, the only option is to change the channel that your router broadcasts on. I wrote a guide on how to adjust Wi-Fi channels so I won’t go into detail here, but it’s a simple two-step process:
- Use a Wi-Fi analyzer app to find the optimal channel.
- Log into your wireless router and change to the best channel.
We have a great guide on how to access your router’s settings, so check that out if you’ve never changed any of your router’s settings before. The article covers most of the nuances required for the majority of devices out there. It shouldn’t take more than a minute of your time.
3. Get a Dual-Band Router
Buying a new router is by far the most expensive option, but for apartment-dwellers it’s highly recommended because it has the highest rate of success in boosting slow Wi-Fi dongle speeds.
As mentioned above, most routers broadcast signals on either 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. While the 2.4 GHz band offers three non-overlapping channels, the 5 GHz band produces a whopping 23 non-overlapping channels. Combined with the other benefits of using 5 GHz, you’ll notice a big boost in performance.
However, you would also need to make sure that most, if not all, of your other devices can use the 5 GHz spectrum. If few or none do, you wouldn’t benefit at all from using a dual-band router.
Also, if you’re experiencing problems with a wireless adapter USB dongle, a new router would only make sense if the dongle itself is also dual-band! Otherwise it would continue to broadcast and receive over the same problematic portion of the wireless spectrum.
Wirecutter recommends buying the Archer C7 Dual-Band Router, which offers across-the-board performance and Wireless-AC, the latest wireless standard. Then again, if you want to take your home network to the next level with IFTTT (what is IFTTT?), try out the D-Link Ultra Tri-Band Router (our D-Link Ultra review).
Which One Is the Best Method?
You might be tempted to try the free option first, before buying either a USB hub or a dual-channel router. That’s a reasonable route to take.
However, rather than playing with your router’s settings (which can cause additional problems), you might get more mileage out of just buying a USB extender or hub. The cost hovers around $5 and has the best chance of quickly fixing your problems.
If you’re thinking of buying a new Wi-Fi USB adapter, check out our list of the best ones.
Image Credits: Wireless bands via Wikipedia