Life in the fast lane

Life in the fast lane

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By Jonathan Lansner / The Orange County Register

WHEN it comes to what works in your home—and what doesn’t—Wi-Fi is no longer just an amenity.

It’s a real-estate necessity, especially if you have kids—and broken Wi-Fi.

When Americans were recently asked what slice of life they couldn’t live without, Wi-Fi came in second—behind food—and, yes, ahead of sex! The poll, done by tech consultants IDC for Wi-Fi gear maker Linksys from Irvine—found 18 percent of adults polled listed wireless home Internet as a top priority, trailing food, at 30 percent. But Wi-Fi isn’t like plumbing—or even common appliances. Many household basics work well for years, if not decades, without much help from the user. Unfortunately, Wi-Fi isn’t that simple.

The service is powered by a confusing device called a “router”—a bit like a hot water heater—the hub from which a wireless network flows. Sadly, the tech industry has done a poor job of making these networks easy to set up. And once people finally get their wireless Internet working, they’re often scared to change it—the old “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality.

Please be aware, though, that the wireless world is rapidly evolving for both routers and the devices that require a strong Internet signal. That’s why household demand for Wi-Fi is exploding—along with the list of reasons to rethink your network.

IDC researchers found 69 percent of households have five or more Wi-Fi-enabled devices in their home—a horde that can stretch the performance limits of most of the Wi-Fi systems installed.

At this curious juncture in Wi-Fi evolution, router makers are now pushing premium-level machines—priced upward of $300. These boxes are filled with the latest Wi-Fi technology plus some serious computing and communications muscle.

Yes, the consumer should always get a tad squeamish at any technology’s push for higher performance products. Too often, the tech power only impresses geeks rather than improving everyday operations.

But Wi-Fi use for many households has ballooned to a point where most folks should consider new arrangements for their home wireless networks, from modest tweaks and upgrades to a total overhaul.

“Most people aren’t anxious to replace their router,” admits Dan Kelly, marketing vice president of router maker D-Link from Fountain Valley. “But it all comes down to need. There’s only so much Wi-Fi to go around from these legacy devices.”

Thanks to input from various tech sources—including Linksys and D-Link—here are 11 things to ponder if you want better Wi-Fi performance in your home—with or without a new router:

  1. Location. Location. Location. Got some dark spots in your home’s Wi-Fi coverage?

If so, consider placing the router as close to the middle of the home as possible—or closest to the area of the home where Internet usage will be heaviest. Make sure the location is flat (not the floor) and well-ventilated. If you own a two-story home, it’s best to place the router on the second floor or high up on the first floor—such as atop a bookcase.

And, yes, most routers are god-awful ugly. But if your Wi-Fi needs trump fashion, you’ll need to place the router in a prominent place in the home. And why not? Do you want fancy home design—or solid Wi-Fi?

  1. Avoid blockage. Did you know Wi-Fi signals go through most walls? Yes, most. Not all.

Bathrooms and kitchens are signal killers. Walls in these rooms are often full of pipes and wires that can slow down or stop Wi-Fi signals.

Also, metal objects—notably mirrors, metal cabinets and major appliances—can block signals.

Be aware of these signal blockers when exploring why your Wi-Fi seems lacking. If you have such problems, try moving the router to find a blockage-free position. Yes, a fix can be that simple.

  1. Learn antenna science. Does antenna direction matter?

Yes! If your router has external antennas, they should be pointed in a vertical direction for the best results. If you hope to push a Wi-Fi signal up or down a floor, position the antennas horizontally.

If that doesn’t help much, think about replacing the antennas with so-called hi-gain antennas. These add-ons come in various strengths—measured in decibels (dbi)—and can cost anywhere from $10 to hundreds of dollars. These antennas should increase the quality of your Wi-Fi connections by boosting the signal’s strengths. The best antenna-upgrade results are often found in single-floor homes.

  1. Find signal scramblers. Did you know Wi-Fi can get into wireless traffic jams?

Many routers transmit Wi-Fi signals on the 2.4 gigahertz (GHz) radio frequency band. That’s the same airwave space that carries signals for cordless phones, baby monitors and garage-door openers. And microwave ovens and hair dryers can also generate that signal. Again, router positioning is key: as far as possible from other 2.4 GHz devices to minimize radio interference. Note that so-called dual-band routers offer signals on both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz radio bands. That’s a plus if you have many 2.4 GHz devices in your home. Also, dual-band routers allow you to split users on two bands. Try that to maximize the router’s power.

  1. Add an extender. Still have a Wi-Fi problem spot in your home? The answer may be a Wi-Fi repeater/extender that can stretch a router’s signal in one direction around that secondary device. A repeater/extender is best placed roughly halfway between the router and the trouble spot. These offer the best results for people seeking better signals in two-story homes.

These signal boosters can run from $30 to $150—and it’s a bit of “you get what you pay for” and a bit of knowing what you’re extending the signal for. An area of heavy use (say, a playroom with a gaming console) might need a high-end extender. Some spot where a Wi-Fi signal might be an occasional bonus (say, a porch or patio) could be served with a more affordable extender.

  1. Change the channel. Did you forget that Wi-Fi is not magic—it’s radio?

Wireless routers come with 11 channels on that 2.4 GHz wave, much like channels on an old-fashioned TV. But most Wi-Fi devices default to Channel 6.

That means you and your neighbors may be clogging one narrow space of the radio spectrum. (Not to mention other 2.4 GHz gear in your home!)

Why not switch channels? Some experts suggest channels 3 or 9; others 1 or 11.

While we wish Wi-Fi’s channel changing was as easy as a TV clicker, check your router manufacturer’s web site or manual to see how it’s done.

In many cases, it should be a minor tweak of router settings. Next, do some trial-and-error research to see what channel works best for you.

  1. Know your use. Do you have a home filled with young adults addicted to heavy Internet use?

Are you a household that often uses streaming video programming or online gaming?

Or are you really low tech, infrequently using home Wi-Fi? It’s a critical point because heavy users will likely require state-of-the-art signal technology. Assuming the Internet signal coming into your home is solid—Wi-Fi is only as good as what it’s given to distribute—there are plenty of tips and technology to improve your home’s remote online experiences. Also, most routers aren’t smart—or personalized—enough to distribute Wi-Fi signals in an efficient manner. Do you have certain Wi-Fi-enabled devices that are rarely used, but are powered on constantly? They may be wasting Wi-Fi signal from most older routers.

  1. Know thy router. What kind of Wi-Fi do you own?

You may be like the 57 percent of Americans who couldn’t tell IDC researchers the generation of wireless technology in their home. Wi-Fi is radio science that’s technically dubbed “802.11” with a letter suffix informing you of the generational improvements. It’s confusing, trust us, but it’s a necessary conformity that enables routers and devices from all manufacturers to talk to each other.

The evolution is not just geek-speak, as each new standard has brought greater Wi-Fi performance. Here’s how you can check your specifications:

802.11 “a” or “b”—You’ve got 1999 tech. Signal range is maybe 140 feet.

Speed is literally one-thousandth of today’s high-end signal. It’s good for little more than Web surfing.

“g”—It’s 2003’s smarts with a similar range, but more data throughput (that’s how much data can be moved). It added music streaming to Wi-Fi.

“n”—In 2009, this technology doubled range, expanded throughput and permitted twin radio bands. It allowed video streaming to work.

“ac”—2013’s version added even more power, plus the ability to customize signals so devices can get user-prioritized Wi-Fi signals.

“MU-MIMO”—Don’t ask why 2015’s improvements get even dumber lingo. When this standard is in both routers and Wi-Fi-enabled devices, it creates automated, prioritized sharing of the signal.

Other technologies built into routers—better signal processors, computing power and improved antennas—let newer products deliver far stronger signal to more devices.

  1. Refresh your router. Does your router have the latest “firmware”—geek-speak for internal software?

Manufacturers are frequently offering new versions of the tech smarts that run electronics, such as routers. Checking the manufacturer’s website or consumer helpline should tell you if new firmware is available.

Typically, a simple download and installation will get your router new firmware. It commonly means improved performance, especially if you are years behind on such upgrades. The same exercise should be used to make sure all Wi-Fi-enabled devices have their newest firmware updates, too.

  1. Customize access. Did you know that newer routers offer to set up a “guest network” for visitors to your home?

Use it! For one, it’s more secure—keeping access to your own computers private. More important, this will also typically keep the prime Internet power directed at your own computers. That type of customization is also a powerful tool for maximizing a home’s Wi-Fi experience. If you’re a serious gamer or big watcher of streamed TV, those devices can be given top priority to prime Wi-Fi signal.

Of course, if you’re just the bill payer and want the best Wi-Fi for yourself, the same customization can be used by parents—perhaps as a display of who’s the boss!

  1. Try other tricks. Maybe this should be first on the list: Did you overlook old-school wires? Directly linking devices like a desktop or laptop computer to the Internet via Ethernet wires gets you high-quality and reliable online connections. Of course, it can be tricky or expensive to add wired linkage in a home.

Don’t overlook “Powerline” technology either. This little-known technology ships Internet signals over your home’s electricity wires. You need to buy gear that links your home’s wiring to your home Internet, and devices that take the signal off the wires and makes it available for wired or wireless use. So the bottom line to your Wi-Fi service? It’s not you! People would still be using horses for transportation if driving a car was as confusing as Wi-Fi installment and maintenance still is.

But today’s routers and add-ons—with greatly improved installation processes—offer an alluring chance to speed up your home wireless network.