Wi-Fi tweaks for speed freaks

How to get the most out of your home or small-business wireless network

One thing you can depend on these days is that the claims made for wireless routers, like 300Mbit/sec. throughput and 1,000-foot range, are nothing more than digital pipe dreams. The plain and simple truth is that these speeds and distances just aren't going to happen in your home, office or any place on this planet.

If you're disappointed by the speed and reach of your wireless network -- and who isn't? -- there's a lot you can do to grab every last bit of data and foot of range. I spent a few hours optimizing my network and more than doubled its indoor range from 90 to over 200 feet (with an additional 150-foot extension into my backyard) while increasing performance fifteenfold -- all with a two-year-old 802.11g router.

Some of the techniques I used are basic, like where and how to set up the router. Others are more involved and require special equipment, but they can make a world of difference. Plus, for those who don't know what to do when the data connection goes south, I've also included a troubleshooting checklist that can help get your network back into the fast lane.

The beauty of modern Wi-Fi equipment is that it all works together, so you can build a network with best-of-breed gear. For instance, my network has a router from one maker, antennas from another, a print server from a third and client radios from several different companies. Think of it as the U.N. of wireless: the world cooperates to make your online life a little easier.

Setup: Location, location, location

Where you put the router and how it's set up are two of the most important -- and often ignored -- aspects of creating an efficient wireless network. Most people put the router in the first place that comes to mind. Big mistake.

Think of the router as the center of a sphere of connectivity that extends out in all directions from its antennas. My advice is to put the router as close as possible to the physical middle of the home or small office it needs to cover. Start with a building floor plan or rough drawing, and draw diagonal lines from the corners to mark the center.

Of course, some people -- including me -- can't follow that advice. Perhaps you have a stone wall or a brick chimney in the middle of the building, or, as in my case, the cable line enters the building in the worst place possible. If for these or other reasons you can't put the antenna in the ideal center location, don't despair; I have solutions for you later.

floor plan with x

Using a floor plan to find the center of the building.

Now, look around and find a good home for the router. Avoid corners (particularly in older buildings), which diminish the signal as it passes through, and don't put the router in a closet. A great place to stash a router unobtrusively is in a bookcase or an entertainment center.

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 Inc.'s thin coaxial or Ethernet cables. Enclosed in a tape one-hundredth of an inch thick, the cable sticks right onto the wall.

FlatWire sticks right on 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 $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% or -- worse -- to automatically adjust. I've found it's much better to just blast as much signal as you can.

Choosing 802.11g only

Setting the router to a single Wi-Fi protocol.

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.)

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