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.

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Positioning the gear

My first step was to replace my ancient Linksys WRT54GS 802.11g router with the Amped Wireless R20000G 802.11n router ($140). This gives me 802.11n compatibility and a 600-milliwatt transmitter, at least doubling the power output of the router it replaces.

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Amped Wireless R20000G High Power Wireless-N 600mW Gigabit Dual Band Router

When it comes to Wi-Fi, where you put your gear is almost as important as the equipment itself. That's because most Wi-Fi routers radiate their transmitted data signals in a spherical shape and are subject to the inverse square law. For those who slept through high school physics, that means that as you move away from the source (in this case the router), the signal's strength declines rapidly based on the distance squared. If you double the distance, the signal is one-quarter as strong; triple the distance and you have only one-ninth the original signal strength.

In short: You need to be as close to the router as possible, so put the router near to the center of your dwelling. If it is a three-story home or townhouse, try to put the router on the middle floor so that it can reach up and down as well as side to side.

Once you have your optimal location scoped out, look around for AC outlets and a way to bring the data to the router. If you can swing it, this is roughly where your router should be.

Admittedly, all this is often easier said than done. My house predates Wi-Fi by about 100 years and my cable data connection comes in at the north end of the house. Short of tearing up walls to bring the needed wiring to the middle of the structure, I need to keep my LAN gear on a shelf in the house's laundry room.

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In order to keep the router near the center of your dwelling, you may have to make some adjustments. This equipment is on a shelf in the house's laundry room.

Something else to think about: Avoid setting up your router near a stone or brick wall; in addition, avoid large metallic items like file cabinets or refrigerators that can block the wireless signal. While the walls in my house are mostly made of plaster, which doesn't affect Wi-Fi as much, I also have some stone walls in the basement and the kitchen floor is made of concrete. All this diminishes the signal.

Setting up your router

There are three important setup tips that can smooth the transition to a new router -- all of which can be done in about a minute using the router's setup screens.

To get into the router's setup screens, you'll need to enter the router's base address (for example: 192.168.3.1) into a Web browser. You'll be asked for your name and password (which often defaults to something like "admin" and "password" -- you can usually find the information on one of the first pages in the manual).

I usually start by changing the base address of the new router to match the old one so that the change from the old to the new router will be invisible to any of my devices that connect to it. I also change the new router's range of IP addresses to match the old router's range for the same reason.

Next, it helps to make sure the SSID (service-set identifier) on the new router matches the one on the old router. This way, all your devices will recognize the new router as if nothing has changed.

Finally, make sure you use the same level of encryption and passcode as before. I use WPA2 security and a 10-character code. An easy technique that can keep hackers at bay is to change this annually, something I'll do when everything is up and running.

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It's a good idea to check the IP addressing of the new router and make whatever adjustments are necessary and/or convenient.

Of course, don't expect everything to go smoothly the first time. After setting up and restarting the new router, nothing on my network would connect the first time. Fear not. A good troubleshooting tip here is to restart the broadband modem and try again in a couple of minutes. In my case, after a reboot nearly everything connected, from tablets to PCs to Internet radios.

The results? Measuring the throughput 40 feet from the router with Speedtest.net's bandwidth meter, the network delivered 8Mbps, up from the 6Mbps I got with the old router. More to the point, its range improved from 75 feet to 90 feet, just about covering the entire first floor of the house.

However, there were still plenty of difficulties to deal with. The areas farthest from the router were still not fully with the program. The extreme south end of the house remained problematic, with the main floor getting less than 1Mbps of bandwidth.

Major parts of the second floor and basement were still Wi-Fi blank zones, including a basement guest room and the room where my sons do their homework, play video games and avoid doing chores.

I needed to get those areas online.

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