Five Wi-Fi mistakes (and how to fix them)

Home networking is a complex business.

Sure they’ve made getting the basics up and running grandma-friendly these days, but if you really want to keep your network safe, get maximum speeds and build space-agey tools like IP camera networks and home automation, it takes a little know how.

Here we thought we’d look at the basic mistakes that people are making with their home wireless networks.

These are the reasons that you can’t even stream a 720p video from YouTube to your mobile without it stuttering and buffering, let alone a full HD downloaded movie. They’re why you get crappy reception in some parts of your home, and why you’re getting massive lag while playing online games.

We’re not even talking about security — that’s a whole other kettle of fish. We’re talking about the things that people so often do to cripple their own Wi-Fi networks. Fix these things, and your home network experience will go a whole lot smoother.

Putting the router in the wrong position

Nothing affects your wireless performance so much as where you put your wireless router. Nothing even really comes close.

The closer you are to the router, the better reception you get, it’s that simple. In most homes, however, you have one of two scenarios: 1. Where goes my ADSL/cable plug, there goes my router and 2. I’m gonna bury this plastic monstrosity in the deepest, darkest hole I can find so that nobody ever has to lay eyes on its hideousness.

Both methods often work out badly. First, you want to have the router at the epicenter of your wireless activity. Second, wireless likes clear air. The more stuff between the router and the thing it wants to talk to, the weaker the signal. Some materials like brick, concrete, tiles, mirrors, water and metals are major showstoppers.

The very worst thing you can do is put the router in an attic or basement. As anyone who has tried to set up a wireless network in a multi-storey home can tell you, signal reception on the vertical axis is usually much worse than on the horizontal.

While router antennae are usually technically omnidirectional, they are nearly always aligned to have much better signal reception on the horizontal plane.

Thinking it’s all about the router

Samsung S5So you’ve gone out and bought the fanciest, most tricked out router or wireless access point you could find. This thing scored 10 out of 10 in every review you read, has the fastest wireless performance available and is undeniably the Rolls Royce of routing equipment. And then your wireless performance still sucks.

That’s because you forgot that there are two parties involved in wireless communications, and it may be the other end that’s messing things up.

Let’s be frank: the Wi-Fi performance of many mobiles and tablets is abysmal. There are multiple implementations of the 802.11n and 802.11ac standards, and mobile manufacturers often go with the one that’s cheapest to implement and has the lowest impact on battery life.

That’s because they know that most users don’t bother to check on the details, other than to see if it supports Wi-Fi.

For the record, the best wireless implementation in mobiles is one that supports three things: 802.11ac, HT80 and MIMO.

The first one, 802.11ac is the latest and fastest Wi-Fi standard available. The second is the size of the Wi-Fi channel supported, in MHz; an 80MHz channel is the largest channel size commonly in use right now. And MIMO uses multiple antennas to double the total bandwidth available.

These factors are the difference between a phone capable of 867Mbps Wi-Fi and one with a cheap 72Mbps 802.11n/HT20/single antenna setup.

If you’re looking at phone vendors right now, Samsung is quite frankly way out ahead of the pack when it comes to wireless, with many of its Galaxy phones and tablets supporting the latest standards (the S5, for example, checks all three of the above boxes).

HTC, Nokia and LG have fair implementations in some of their higher-end phones (typically single antenna 802.11ac), while Motorola is a bit spotty. Sorry Apple fans — the company has yet to release an iPhone or iPad that even supports 802.11ac.

Using the wrong band and channel

wifi1It’s 2014, and it’s a fair bet that every one of your neighbours has a wireless network of their own, which makes for a lot of competition on the airwaves.

The thing about wireless is that it’s a shared medium, which means that when your neighbour is using their Wi-Fi, your Wi-Fi will suffer. That’s why wireless routers have multiple selectable channels, to try and cut down on those kinds of shenanigans. If you’re using channel 3 and they’re using channel 9, you’re actually not fighting them over airtime.

Changing channels is not something that most users think of, however, since it requires delving into some scary looking router settings.

Our best advice is to install WiFi Analyzer on an Android mobile — it’s available from Google Play — which will tell you what channels are being used in your local area and recommend a channel for minimal interference. Then you just have to go to your routers Wi-Fi settings (yes, we know you were never hoping to have to look at them again) and set the channel.

The other big thing is whether to use 5GHz or 2.4GHz. With the newer standard that’s not a choice, since it only works at 5GHz, but for 802.11n you can go either (or both).

It’s a complex technical story about which is better, but the nickel version is that 2.4GHz has better range characteristics and travels better through walls, while the 5GHz version suffers less from interference from other devices and has cleaner airwaves. Try them both out, and see what goes faster for you.

Trying to boost performance with a range extender

Range ExtenderWe’re not going to go so far as to say that range extenders are horrible in all situations. But we will say that they’re horrible in most.

Their only value is to extend a wireless network into places where it is otherwise unreachable. They will never improve the performance; a weak but steady signal without a range extender is better than a strong signal with one.

What range extenders do is retransmit data on the same channel. That introduces lag as it processes and retransmits, and it cuts the bandwidth in half, since both the original and retransmission will be on the airwaves at the same time. Instead of improving your wireless performance, it guts it.

If you’re having major performance issues in one part of your home, it may be better to get a second wireless access point and create an entirely separate Wi-Fi network, on a different channel, and link it back to your original network with a wired cable.

Using wireless where wired is an option

It doesn’t matter what the specs say: wired networks are better than wireless ones. If you’re hooking up a stationary device like a TV, a desktop PC or gaming console, you’re better off with wired 100% of the time. There are two reasons.

First, the gap between theoretical and actual speed is much smaller with wired. You’ll typically get 60-80% of the advertised speed on a wired Ethernet link, while on wireless that number generally goes from about 1%-60%, depending on range, noise, contention and a million other factors.

The second is that wired Ethernet is reliable. You won’t get sudden and inexplicable speed drops or disconnects. The latency is also extremely low, important for gaming and voice, and there’s no danger of being hacked. In short, string that cable.