Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Improving WiFi Reception: An Improved Answer

In the Wall Street Journal on May 17, 2007, Walter Mossberg answered a question about improving WiFi reception. I think his answer could be improved.

He starts with "A more powerful router might help..." I am reasonably familiar with WiFi wireless networks and the power ratings for routers are not a standard topic. Even finding the power rating for a router is probably going to be difficult. While a stronger signal should help reception, anyone reading this needs to be informed as to what constitutes a low, medium and high power ratings for routers.

He also says "You might look for a new router that features a technology called MIMO...".

While true, this is not really the point. The point is to get a pre-N or draft-N router. They all use MIMO, something a non-techie shouldn't need to know. There are many important facts about Pre and Draft N routers that he failed to point out such as: their effectiveness varies greatly, there have been at least five (by my count) generations of "early" N routers, to get the best performance you need to pair an early N router with a matching WiFi adapter and, unlike WiFi G, there is no interoperability between brands.

Then he says "There are also various boosters and repeaters that can be used, though some of these require more technical expertise to install than most folks have."

If it takes technical expertise then its not a suggestion for the audience Mossberg claims to serve. A much better suggestion, and one that does not take technical expertise, is to buy a better antenna and connect it to the existing router. There are omnidirectional antennas that transmit the signal in all directions and directional antentennas for use when you only need the better signal in a single direction. Also, this would serve a heads-up to anyone buying a new router - get one where the antennas can be removed and replaced by better antennas should the need arise.

Then there is what Mr. Mossberg did not say.

The first and easiest step is to change the channel. The G flavor of WiFi uses a single channel, numbered 1, 6 or 11 (I'm simplifying this a bit). If your neighbor has a strong signal on channel 6, for example, it will interfere with your network if you also use channel 6. Determine the channels used by the strongest signals near you, then configure your network to use a different channel. Windows XP does not display the channel used by WiFi G networks, but pretty much all other WiFi software does.

Finally, the router is not the only end of the network that can be improved, so too can the network adapter in the computer.

You might try a USB based WiFi adapter because it lets you move the adapter around to get the best signal without moving the computer. I forget the exact spec, but USB wires can be pretty long. Then too there are PCMCIA (a.k.a. PC Card) network adapters that have very large antennas.

Posting viewed times since May 31, 2007


Anonymous said...

What you don't say...how do you determine the most powerful signal and what channel it is using, so you can choose a different channel?

Are you saying software does this? automatically? if not, isn't determining power of a signal too "techie" for a non-techie? Guess, it depends on your definition of "techie."

Michael Horowitz said...

One thing I hate about WiFi is the range of software involved in managing it. On any WiFi enabled laptop you can chose to use three different programs to manage the wireless environment: Windows, software from the company that made the WiFi network adapter or software from the company that made the laptop computer. And they can differ greatly in both their user interface and capabilities.

No matter what the software, when viewing the list of available wireless networks, the signal strength is reported for each network. Windows XP however, does not report the channel being used by each network. All the other WiFi software I've used does report the channel for each detected wireless network.

Iman Diaz said...

Michael I agree with your assessment on hating the software used to manage wireless networks, I find that more of my clients seem to respond better to the Windows Management software.

SK said...

The best option I have seen to increase wireless router network range is to use a reflector antenna. The link below has a short video on how to make one. It is very easy and almost doubles your range. There is also a ready-made image template which you can just print and cut out.