Wi-Fi tweaks for speed freaks: 2013 edition

How many devices do you have on your home Wi-Fi? That many? Here are some strategies for optimizing your wireless performance.

What with smart TVs, Internet radios, tablets and video streaming, a home's Wi-Fi network is no longer just for Internet access and shuffling data among computers. It has evolved into a full-fledged entertainment hub, requiring top speed and range to fill the home.

That's the problem I recently faced in my own home. With more than a dozen Wi-Fi-connected devices hooked into the network, things can slow to a crawl. And as the closest thing to my family's IT support technician, I needed to make Wi-Fi work a lot better by rethinking and upgrading my family's network.

Our Linksys WRT54GS router was state of the art when it came out more than a decade ago, but it had reached the end of its useful life. We also had a Linksys WRE54G repeater that extended the router's range, but it had recently stopped working. While I had fine-tuned my wireless network five years ago, it was time for an upgrade. Rather than replace things piecemeal, I decided to junk it all and start from scratch.

This time out, I approached the problem of complete coverage in two ways: I first set up a high-output router to cover most of the house and then I augmented it with a couple of devices to fill in the dead zones here and there.

In total, the gear cost $410, and I spent about four hours putting it all together. At the end, my upgrade was well worth the cost and effort because I filled in several network gaps and can now go anywhere in the house and remain online. Hopefully, the setup will last as long as its predecessor did.

(Note: Before you open a single box or unplug a single Ethernet cable, warn your family that you're taking the network down for an extended period so they can seek an alternative online fix. If not, you might have an open revolt on your hands.)

The tips, tricks and techniques that follow are based on my experience.

Setting a standard

It may sound mundane, but the first step is to select the 802.11 protocol you'll be using. In the early days of Wi-Fi, most routers ran either 802.11a (with 11Mbps service in the 2.4GHz spectrum) or 802.11b (with 54Mbps service in the 5GHz spectrum). They were replaced by 802.11g in 2003, which boosted the theoretical connectivity of its 2.4GHz network to 54Mbps.

Today, it's all about 802.11n. The protocol debuted in 2009, adding the ability to use multiple streams of data employing both 2.4GHz and 5GHz transmitters. It tops out at 600Mbps with a maximum range of 230 feet.

The next big thing will be 802.11ac, which in theory can deliver up to 1 gigabit of data per second. It is still in the draft stage, but you can buy an 802.11ac router today -- just be ready to update its firmware as the final protocol takes shape. This generation of equipment will likely dominate the Wi-Fi scene over the next couple of years.

That said, the best tip I can give anyone setting up or revamping a Wi-Fi network is to stick with the most stable platform you can get. Today, that's 802.11n.

(Another note: Take any and all performance specs with at least a grain of salt. It's been my experience that the best you can hope for is between half and a third of the throughput and range that any Wi-Fi protocol promises. For example, you can reasonably expect an 802.11n network to deliver up to about 200Mbps and have a range of between 75 and 125 feet indoors.)

So unless you live in (or can move to) one of those places that can get gigabit services directly from a fiber optic cable, the best thing you can do is tweak your existing equipment to wring out the last possible drop of throughput. With any luck, some of these tips will help.

Check along the way

Before you do anything, it's a good idea to make sure you're improving the situation with each step. So, check your network's throughput before and after you do anything significant, like changing the router. I use Speedtest.net's online benchmark because it measures actual usable Internet bandwidth delivered to the computer you're working with. There are also Wi-Fi-specific programs that can help measure throughput and signal strength.

Speedtest.net measures usable Internet bandwidth delivered to the computer you're working with.

Finally, when everything is up and running, take 10 minutes to mark where all the devices are. I wrote mine on a copy of the house's floor plan.

Part of a floor plan showing the location of where all the home's tech devices are.

This may seem rather old-fashioned, but it can help diagnose problems when they crop up. (If you feel embarrassed by dealing with hard copy, scan the marked-up floor plan and save it as a PDF or send it to your favorite cloud storage service.)

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