When it comes to "boosting" wireless speeds, there are actually two enhancements users typically seek: Distance and speed. It's great having a speedy wireless network, but if you only get great speed when you use a wireless client right next to the router and get no signal if you are 15 feet away, then speed doesn't mean so much. You need to boost the signal's range. If your device can barely open friends' Facebook pictures when you're in the same room as the router, then we're talking about problems with speed.
In general, speed and range issues can all be lumped together as performance issues. You want both your speed and range to be as robust as possible. There are several factors that can impact both aspects of performance.
Distance can certainly impede performance. You may have a room in your home or office that is simply too far from your wireless router. Even the way your home or office is structured could be a culprit when it comes to poor wireless performance. If the signals have to bounce around too many corners to reach your wireless devices, that can cause problems (although a technology in newer premium routers called beamforming can help direct a router's signal to wireless clients).
Interference with the signal can be big factor in performance, too. If you live in an apartment building, your home might be inundated with signals from everyone else's routers. Maybe structural interference is the culprit. If your washing machine and dryer are between your router and your laptop, that doesn't help.
Maybe it's the software you're using. Routers need software updates just like everything else – and sometimes the firmware they initially ship with is improved with a later-released update.
These are just a few of the possible reasons your connection might be poor (or non-existent). Fortunately, there are many ways to extend your wireless signal, and most of them simply involve a bit of tweaking to your wireless network or adding some affordable components. In this article, we’ll walk you through ten of the most useful fixes for your connectivity woes.
Some of these suggestions require no additional hardware or software to purchase, while others may require a small or larger investment, depending on the particular performance problem you're experiencing. We’ll start off with free solutions, then move through the cheap to more expensive improvements.
1. Change the channel (free)
Not the TV's channel, but your router's. Wi-Fi routers operate on specific channels. When you set up a typical router, it usually chooses a certain channel by default. Some routers choose the least-crowded channel, but yours may not have. Check for yourself which Wi-Fi channel is the least crowded to boost the router's performance, perhaps boosting signal range. A good free tool to use is inSSIDer. Don't be put off by the graphs and excess information. What you want to focus on is the column "Channel." See how many routers in this area are on channel 6 in the image above? If your router is on the same channel, you want to switch it to a less-crowded one, like 4 or 1. You can change the channel of your router by going into its interface. All routers have different ways to access the interface, so check with your manufacturer on this score.
2. Update router firmware (free)
Updating router firmware is often overlooked by home users. Business networking devices usually display some sort of notification when newer software for the device is available for download. Consumer products such as home wireless routers, especially older routers, don't always offer this notification. Check often for firmware updates for your router. There is typically a section in the router's interface for upgrading the firmware. However, you often have to go to the router manufacturer's website and search for the firmware (most vendors make searching for firmware pretty easy) and then upload it through the router's interface. There's often accompanying release notes that tell you what the firmware helps to fix – and often the fixes are for connectivity problems.
3. Update adapter firmware (free)
Just like routers, network adapters on PCs and laptops are also subject to firmware updates. Remember, good wireless range and performance is dictated not just by the router but by the network adapter on clients (as well as other factors, but these are the two biggies.) Most laptops have on-board adapters. Go into your Network settings to find the name of the adapter (via the Control Panel in Windows) and then to that adapter manufacturer's site to make sure you have the latest firmware.
4. Change position (free)
Do you have your wireless router nestled up against your broadband modem tucked away in your entertainment centre in your basement that's converted into the family den? Well, move it if you have range issues. It isn’t necessary to have the router in close proximity to your modem. Ideally, a Wi-Fi router should be in a central location. You can purchase custom length Ethernet Cat 5 cable from any computer store (although if you do that, technically this is no longer a free option) if you need more flexibility in centrally positioning the router.
5. DD-WRT (free)
This one is for the more adventurous: DD-WRT is open source software for routers. It's known to ramp up router performance and extend the feature set beyond what typically comes with most routers. Not every router supports it, but the number of routers that are supported keeps growing. A word of warning, though – installing DD-WRT could possibly invalidate your router's warranty. Many manufacturers will not help you troubleshoot router issues once you have DD-WRT on them. Hence, this is not a recommended option for routers under warranty or in a business network.
There are also no guarantees that DD-WRT upgrades won't negatively affect a router. However, many users are finding it a free way to trick-out their routers. So, if you have an older, spare router laying around, or want to take the plunge to see if DD-WRT firmware helps your range issues on a newer router, check if it's supported on the DD-WRT site. Also note that it's not easy to remove DD-WRT from some routers without doing a lot research.
6. Set up a second router as an access point or repeater (cheap)
You can set up just about any router as a wireless access point. To do so, you need to connect the second router's LAN port to the primary router's LAN port. On the second router, you will want to give it the same addressing information as the primary router. For example, if your primary router's IP address is 192.168.2.1 and its netmask is 255.255.255.0; then you could make the second router's IP 192.168.2.2 and use the same netmask. It's also important that you assign the same SSID and security on the second router, and turn DHCP off on the second one as well.
Newer routers make this process easier. If you have a second router that's only about a year old, most of them can be set to operate in "access point" or repeater mode. Configuring is as simple as clicking a button. Check with your router's manufacturer or documentation.
7. Antennas (cheap)
Newer routers are increasingly manufactured with internal antennas. There are some that still have or support external ones, and these antennas can often be upgraded. Consider a hi-gain antenna, which you can position so that the Wi-Fi signal goes in the direction you want. Hawking Technology offers the HAI15SC Hi-Gain Wireless Corner Antenna, which the company claims boosts wireless signal strength from a standard 2dBi to 15dBi. Antennas like these can attach to most routers that have external antenna connectors, and are relatively cheap upgrades.
8. Dedicated repeater/extender (more expensive)
Most major wireless networking vendors offer devices that act as repeaters or wireless extenders. While they can extend a Wi-Fi signal, they can be tricky to setup, and can cause interference with the signal. They can also be on the more expensive side. Note that if you choose this option the best bet is to use an access point made by the manufacturer of your router (see tip number 10 for further details).
9. New router/adapter (more expensive)
How about getting a new router and adapter(s) altogether? Upgrading your home network to one of the latest 802.11ac routers, or an 802.11n model using the 5GHz band should give a noticeable performance improvement. 2.4GHz is said to actually have greater range than the 5GHz band, but that only becomes apparent when supplying wireless coverage to large areas such as university campuses. In our testing, we’ve found that for smaller areas like a typical home network, 802.11n and the 5GHz band maintained better throughput than 2.4GHz with most routers, at greater distances. This is certainly a more expensive option, but if wireless connectivity is crucial for you, it's a plausible one. If you’re pondering an upgrade to an 802.11ac device, we’ve got a group test of seven such routers you might want to check out (our benchmarks here show the benefit of ac, and indeed the benefit of 5GHz over 2.4GHz). Bear in mind that if you get a new router, to take full advantage of the speeds possible you’ll need to update client adapters to the same standard as well.
10. Stick to a single vendor (more expensive)
Vendors are quick to point out that their devices will work with other vendor's products. But it just makes sense that Cisco network adapters will work better with Cisco routers; Belkin adapters work optimally with Belkin routers and so on. If possible, try to limit your network devices to one vendor – that means not only your router/adapter, but antennas, repeaters and access points.