How to to Boost Your Wi-Fi Signal
Browsing slowing to a crawl, the inability to stream, dropped Wi-Fi signals, wireless dead zones—every one of these problems is maddening in a world where getting online has become, for some, as necessary as breathing. (Well, maybe not that critical…but important.)
If you feel like your Wi-Fi has gotten sluggish, there are many tools you can use to test the speed of your internet. However, if the only way you can get decent reception is by standing next to your wireless router, these simple tips can help optimize your network.
Perhaps your router just needs an update. Router manufacturers are always tweaking software to eke out a bit more speed. How easy—or how hard—it is to upgrade your firmware depends entirely on your device manufacturer and model.
Most current routers have the update process built right into the administration interface, so it’s just a matter of hitting a firmware upgrade button. Other models, particularly if they’re older, still require you to go to the manufacturer’s website, download a firmware file from your router’s support page, and upload it to the administration interface. It’s tedious, but still a good thing to do since it would be such a simple fix.
In fact, even if your wireless network isn’t ailing, you should make it a point to update your firmware on a regular basis for performance improvements, better features, and security updates.
In addition, wireless routers need open spaces, away from walls and obstructions. So while it’s tempting to put that ugly black box in a cabinet or behind a bunch of books, you’ll get better signal if it’s surrounded by open air (which should prevent the router from overheating, too). Keep it away from heavy-duty appliances or electronics as well, since running those in close proximity can impact Wi-Fi performance.
If your router has external antennas, orient them vertically to bump up coverage. If you can, it even helps to elevate the router—mount it high on the wall or on the top shelf to get a better signal. There are plenty of tools to help you visualize your network coverage. Personally, I like Heatmapper or our Editors’ Choice inSSIDer, which shows you both the weak and strong spots in your Wi-Fi network. There are plenty of mobile apps, too, such as Netgear’s WiFi Analytics.
Not only does 5GHz offer faster speeds, but you’ll likely encounter less interference from other wireless networks and devices, because the 5GHz frequency is not as commonly used. (It doesn’t handle obstructions and distances quite as well, though, so it won’t necessarily reach as far as a 2.4GHz signal does.)
Most modern dual-band routers should offer you the option to use the same network name, or SSID, on both bands. Check your router’s administration interface, look for the 5GHz network option, and give it the same SSID and password as your 2.4GHz network. That way, your devices will automatically choose the best signal whenever they can. (If your router doesn’t offer you the option to use the same SSID, just give it another name—like SmithHouse-5GHz—and try to connect to that one manually whenever possible.)
Ever play with walkie-talkies as a kid? You may remember how the units needed to be on the same “channel” in order for you to hear each other. And if you happened to be on the same channel as your neighbors, you could listen in on someone else’s conversation, even if they were using a completely different set.
In the same vein, all modern routers can switch across different channels when communicating with your devices. Most routers will choose the channel for you, but if neighboring wireless networks are also using the same channel, then you are going to encounter signal congestion. A good router set to Automatic will try to choose the least congested channel, but many cheaper routers will just choose a predefined channel, even if it isn’t the best one. That could be a problem.
These wireless standards cap at fairly low bandwidths. Thus, all the tweaking we’ve outlined above will only get you so far—the maximum throughput for 802.11g is 54Mbps, while 802.11n caps out at 300Mbps. The latest 802.11ac supports 1Gbps, while next-gen Wi-Fi 6 routers can theoretically hit 10Gbps, but it’s early days. Our list of the best wireless routers is a good place to start the search for a faster router.
Remember, a higher-quality router won’t just support those faster standards—it’ll also do all the things we’ve outlined above better. It’ll perform better channel selection, band steering for 5GHz devices, and have better QoS features.
Others may have features like Multi User-Multiple Input Multiple Output (MU-MIMO), like the Netgear Nighthawk X10 AD7200 Smart WiFi Router. MU-MIMO routers can send and receive multiple data streams simultaneously to multiple devices without bandwidth degradation and require specialized testing with multiple clients, but the clients need to be MU-MIMO compatible.
If all of the above fail, it’s possible that your house is just too big for a single router to send a good signal everywhere. All routers are only capable of broadcasting reliably up to a certain distance before the signal gets weak. If you want to extend your signal beyond that, you’ll need a range extender of some sort.
Even though it’s not a router, you should still use the same rules for figuring out placement; the extender should be close enough to your main network router to pick up a solid signal, but close enough to the weak spot so it can do its job of, well, extending that signal.
The extended signal will almost never be as good as the original, but it’s better than nothing—though if you can connect the extender with Ethernet or Powerline instead of wirelessly, it’ll be much better.
You don’t need an extender that is the same brand or model as your existing router, though in some cases, extenders of the same brand may offer extra features (like Linksys’ MaxStream routers and their “seamless roaming”).
Above all else, make sure you pick one that can broadcast an equivalent signal: don’t buy an 802.11n extender if your router is on 802.11ac.
The resulting setup blankets your house with a single wireless network, which uses a single administration interface (in the form of a friendly mobile app), and often dedicates at least one wireless band to network backhaul, offering better performance than many extenders. Lots of mesh systems will even update your firmware automatically, so you always have the latest performance and security enhancements—no more downloading firmware from the manufacturer website.
The downside: mesh Wi-Fi Systems aren’t cheap, especially if you have a large home, which will require multiple nodes. But if you’re in the market for a new router anyway, they might be worth considering as an alternative.