5 Tips for Pain-Free Wireless Home Networking

Like the popular new restaurant that suddenly can't turn out a decent meal, home networking is a victim of its own success

3. Buy a Wi-Fi Extenders to boost the signal

It's frustrating to have a really strong Wi-Fi signal in one room, only to have it fade away in another. The signal's strength may be dropping because you're using an older "b" or "g" router, or your home may simply be too big to cover easily.

Before you spend money trying to fix this, it's not a bad idea to move the router and maybe one of your computers around and see where you get the best signal. I suggest this because your house may have old-style wiring or something in the walls that blocks the signal. If that's the case, you may need to run Ethernet cable to connect a computer in the wireless dead zone.

Assuming the problem is simply the size of your home, buying a Wi-Fi range extender makes sense. Newer "n" compatible extenders cost US$80 to $100; "g" compatible extenders are somewhat cheaper.

4. Use better connectivity software

Windows does only a so-so job of sniffing out available wireless networks and helping you repair a damaged connection. A third-party application called Network Magic (now owned by Cisco) is a lot better. I've been using it for years to add devices to my network, keep track of what devices, including intruders, are using it, and to install passwords and share files and printers securely.

It's especially useful when your connection drops; simply push the "repair connection" button, and if the problem is relatively simple Network Magic will correct it and get you back online.

The software comes in a number of versions, but for most users Network Magic Essentials, priced at about $30, is all you need.

5. If you just need the basics, meet Cisco's Valet

Cisco's new Valet routers -- the Valet and the Valet Plus -- are designed for the home user who only needs fairly basic wireless connectivity and has little patience for tweaking settings. (Sadly there's no word on Australian availability yet.)

I tested the Valet, listed at $99, and as I mentioned, was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to set up. All of the software is on a USB drive that guides you through the setup and handles the configuration. I was on the Internet in 10 or 15 minutes from the time I opened the box, and then added my iPhone to the new network in five more minutes.

That was it. The only call I made to tech support was for a problem I faked, just to see if Cisco's support was any good. It was fine. I reached a tech pretty quickly, and he found the correct solution to my bogus problem right away.

The Valet's signal was strong enough to cover my entire flat and I haven't noticed any dropped connections. The built-in software offers a few extra options, like parental controls.

The Valet doesn't offer the advanced features, such as support for a VPN or network attached storage devices, and has just two internal antennas. The $149 Valet Plus has three antennas, sports faster ports on the back, and has more range. Like its cheaper sibling, it's not designed to manage complex networks.

But if you just want to build a basic wireless network, the Valet is the best entry-level router I've seen.

San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. He welcomes your comments and suggestions. Reach him at bill.snyder@sbcglobal.net.

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Bill Snyder

CIO (US)
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