Software: Keeping an eye on your connection
While much of optimizing a Wi-Fi network involves hardware, software can play an important part. Some routers, like those from Linksys, come with monitoring software that keeps track of the hardware that's connected and can do simple repairs; you typically set up this software during the initial network configuration.
Several other programs can be helpful as well. There's nothing like knowing how fast your network is, and an online bandwidth monitor like Speedtest.net or Alken (both free) can show your IP address as well as how fast data is flying -- or crawling -- into and out of your computer.
Dozens of these services are available online, and they all give wildly different speeds, so it's important to pick one and stick with it to compare speeds as you tweak your network configuration.
If things are moving slowly on your computer, JiWire's free Wi-Fi Security Test might figure out why. After interrogating your system, it displays your encryption type, signal strength and channel you're using, plus any obvious security holes you have.
If all you want is the basics of your network's operations, try NetStumbler, which is also free. It has been around for years and is technically still a beta, but it's still the best way to see what networks are active in your area and what channels they're using so you can avoid interference.
It'll also show how your signal strength has changed over time with a cool bar graph.
Wi-Fi troubleshooting checklist
Using the tips outlined above, your wireless network's range and speed should increase dramatically. But that doesn't mean your network will be completely without hiccups. Here are 10 steps to try if you've got a dead or weak connection:
1. Make sure that the cable or DSL modem and your router are connected and that everything's powered up.
2. Restart the router and PC to renew DHCP licenses.
3. Call your Internet service provider to see if it's doing maintenance or repairs to its network.
4. Got the latest firmware and client software? Get it.
5. Try to connect to the Net with a LAN cable. If that works, there's something wrong with the wireless portion.
6. Interference from cordless phones, baby monitors or even a powerful nearby network can knock your network out. Try a different channel.
7. Slow connections can occur when too many clients are connected or someone is a data hog. If you notice a sudden slowdown, scout around on your network to see if somebody might be watching videos or otherwise hogging bandwidth. You could ask that person to cool it while other users are connected, or try quality-of-service (QOS) software such as JDSoft Bandwidth Manager, which lets you monitor network traffic and prioritize data flow across it.
8. Getting "IP conflict" error messages? Consider using static IP addresses.
9. If all else fails, it's easy to reset the router to its factory configuration and start all over again.
10. Think you're done? Not yet. Before you forget it all, draw a map of the network with all the details scribbled in -- log-in names, passwords, IDs, static addresses and so on. Even if it's not completely up to date the next time you have a problem, the map will help you figure out what's what -- that is, if you remember where you put it.
Brian Nadel is a freelance writer based near New York and is the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing Communications magazine.