Wi-Fi tweaks for speed freaks

How to get the most speed and reach out of your wireless network.

The router will need an AC outlet and connection to your cable or Digital Subscriber Line data source, but if the building's DSL or cable modem line is in an inconvenient place, don't panic. You can use a directional antenna (see "Antennas and boosters: Blasting the signal," below) or extend your DSL or cable line.

If you choose the latter, you'll find that snaking wires through walls to put your router exactly where it needs to be is dirty and expensive work, and it can cause damage. Instead, consider FlatWire TV's thin coaxial or Ethernet cables. Enclosed in a tape one-hundredth of an inch thick, the cable sticks right onto the wall.

After routing the FlatWire to where it needs to be, cover it with a thin coat of joint compound or plaster and then paint right over it; it'll be your secret. The cable comes in 10- and 20-foot lengths, and the whole project should cost between US$80 and $120.

Configuring the router: Details, details

Now that everything's in the right place, turn on the router and enter your security settings (see our story "How to protect your wireless network" for details). Next, adjust the router to operate at full power. Many routers come with it set to 75 percent or -- worse -- to automatically adjust. I've found it's much better to just blast as much signal as you can.

Finally, set the router to use only one 802.11 protocol. Using mixed-mode operation, which is the Esperanto of Wi-Fi because it works with 802.11b, g and n clients, slows the data down. By working with just 802.11g clients, my router's performance nearly doubled, from 1Mbit/sec. to 2Mbit/sec. throughput at 70 feet. (Of course, you'll need to make sure all your connected devices are set to use the protocol you choose. If they don't all support that protocol, you'll need to forgo this tip or invest in new equipment.)

Antennas and boosters: Blasting the signal

Almost every wireless equipment maker uses cheap antennas for its products. While the typical wireless router comes with dinky stub antennas that are rated at a gain of 2dBi, there are devices available that are many times more powerful at transmitting and receiving data.

(For those of us who slept through high school math and science classes -- myself included -- the dBi scale for measuring an antenna's power uses the logarithmic scale. Every increase of 3dBi translates into a doubling of the power.)

Installing a better antenna is easier than you might think -- that is, if your antennas are removable. It's a crapshoot, but if your antenna or antennas are on the outside of the router and come off when you gently twist them counterclockwise several rotations, you're in luck. If not, your router's antennas can't be easily upgraded.

If your antennas are removable, installing new ones doesn't involve any software. After removing the old antennas, just screw the new ones on, and power up the router. That's it.

Picking the right antenna can be hard because there are so many to choose from. The simplest ones are broadcast the signal out in all directions, ideal for setups where the router is placed near the middle of the building. For instance, Cisco-Linksys' HGA7S high-gain stalk antennas (US$50 a pair) are about three times bigger than the devices that come with a typical router and are rated at 7dBi, which more than doubles the signal's power. The problem is that they're so big they flop over; fortunately, the company includes a clip to keep them up.

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Brian Nadel

Computerworld (US)
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