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A guide to testing your wireless router's performance

Slow Internet and network performance are annoying. However, it's hard to troubleshoot issues when you just feel that performance is slow. You've got to know the kind of performance you are getting in order to improve it. Let's take a look at a few ways you can actually gauge and monitor network performance.

Bandwidth versus throughput

The first order of business is to understand the difference between bandwidth and throughput. If you understand these terms already, bear with me. Bandwidth is a fixed amount of data speed you pay for and receive from your Internet Service Provider. Throughput is a measurement of data speeds within your local home, or small business network. It's common to refer to Internet speed as bandwidth and internal network speed as throughput. For example: Your router may support a theoretical throughput speed of 450Mbps, but your Internet connection may only have bandwidth rates of 20Mbps for downloads and 1Mbps for uploads.

Measuring and improving bandwidth

When it comes to improving Internet bandwidth, that performance does not significantly change with any real tweaking because, as we’ve mentioned, the data rate is fixed from your ISP. However, there are ways to optimise and monitor bandwidth.

A good and robust router may help improve your Internet connection with features such as Quality-of-Service (QoS), and help route traffic better between the Internet and your internal home or small business network. When I upgraded my router, which was a little over five years old, to a new dual-band premium router with QoS, my Internet performance perked up a bit.

Of course it's fairly easy to measure your Internet speed with online tools such as Hint: To get a good measure of your Internet speed, take several measurements at different times of the day on weekends and weekdays, and take an average.

Measuring throughput

Measuring your wireless network throughput is a different story. What is wireless throughput? As we’ve discussed, that's the measurement of the data rate between network devices within your home or small business network, also referred to as your LAN (Local Area Network) – which is different to your Internet bandwidth, or WAN (Wide Area Network) connection speed.

So why only measure a network's wireless performance? Why not measure the speed of wired devices? For instance, why not measure how fast the data transfer rate is between a computer you have connected via an Ethernet cable to a LAN port on your router, and a NAS (Network Attached Storage) device you may also have connected to the router?

Because that speed, like Internet bandwidth, is fixed. Most current laptops, desktops, and NASes – really any computer with an Ethernet port made in the last five years or so – likely has a Gigabit Ethernet port. If it's connected to a router that also has Gigabit Ethernet, then the connection (the data rate) between the computer and the router is Gigabit speed – 1000Mbps. Now remember, if you have a slower, older port on a computer, one that is only Fast Ethernet (100Mbps) and you connect it via wire to a router that has Gigabit Ethernet, the connection rate will only be 100Mbps, not the Gigabit speed of 1000Mbps. The network speed golden rule is that your network is only as fast as your slowest connection.

I test for throughput and performance on all the wireless routers and NAS devices that I review. For routers, I use Ixia's IxChariot tool which measures the performance of data streams sent between two network devices (called endpoints). It's a great tool, because you can use it to simulate all types of traffic – such as VoIP or gaming traffic – and find out how different types of network data can impact network performance.

However, Ixia can take a while to learn and it is an expensive utility. To get a good measure of your network throughput, you can utilise a test I use in cases where I don't have Ixia handy (or for home testing).

Here's how it works: Take two network devices and wirelessly connect one to your router (we'll deem this Device 1) and using an Ethernet cable, connect the second device (Device 2) to one of the LAN ports on your router.

Set up a network share folder on Device 2 so you can access it from Device 1. In Windows Explorer, this is done by creating a folder, right clicking on it, clicking the Sharing tab, and then the Share button. In the image below, I created a folder called "testshare" and gave Read/Write permissions to "Everyone" on my network (you can remove or change permissions after testing for security, but for the test, Device 1 will need permission to write to the share).

From Device 1, you can browse through Windows Explorer for the newly created share (or map a drive to it).

Once you can open the Device 2 share on Device 1, you will want to copy a relatively large file from Device 1 to Device 2's share. I use a 1.5GB video clip for this test. During the copy, you will time how long it takes for the file copy to complete.

This gives a baseline of how fast it takes your wireless network to move data from one device to another. Let's say a 1.5GB file takes 2 minutes to wirelessly copy from Device 1 to Device 2. You then want to perform some quick calculations as follows…

First, convert GB to MB (I use an online converter like this).

1.5GB is 1536 MB. Since we want to get the MB per second rate, you should convert minutes into seconds. You then end up with the formula: 1536 (MB)/120 (seconds) = 12.8 MBps.

For the data speed rate, we then want to convert MBps into Mbps (sometimes shown as Mbit/s). 1 MBps (megabyte, being a data storage measurement) equals 8 megabits per second (megabit is a data transfer speed measurement, which is what you want to note).

Therefore: 12.8 x 8= 102.4 Mbps.

You can also just plug the numbers into an online converter like this one.

Interpreting the results

Now, 102.4 Mbps is a decent throughput rate, especially for a router with a theoretical speed of 300 Mbps and with Device 1 and Device 2 connected to the 2.4GHz band. In general, I like to see somewhere near half of the maximum throughput the router's manufacturer states the router can reach (that rate is only in a testing environment free of any Wi-Fi interference – you will never see that speed in real life).

I can almost hear some of you saying, "but Windows already shows me how fast my wireless network connection is." This is a reference to the little Wi-Fi icon in the bottom-right of the System Tray which, if you click on your connection and then right click on "Status," looks like this:

What that typically shows you is the connection rate between the PC's adapter and the router – it does not give an actual measurement of throughput performance when data packets are flying about!

I also like to perform the file copy test on the 5GHz band as well. You should see some performance gains at 5GHz as long as the devices you are testing are not too far from the Wi-Fi router (the 5GHz band has a shorter range.) Also, you should test different scenarios – do the copy test when you have several devices and users connected to your network or while you are streaming music or video from a media player. Once you have a baseline, you can see how streaming multimedia or having multiple users connected at once impacts bandwidth. You can then tweak settings like QoS in the router, to see if you can improve throughput.

The first step towards eking out the best performance from your network is knowing what that performance is. Once you do, you can perform other troubleshooting steps to maximise network performance. For more speed-up tips, check out 10 tips for boosting your wireless router signal. We also have a piece on securing your wireless network, which you might want to read.