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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Repeat as necessary

One way around these difficulties is to use a Wi-Fi repeater to fill in some of the gaps. Think of a repeater as a small device that sucks in the router's Wi-Fi signal, amplifies it and then rebroadcasts it at full power to extend coverage.

Over the years, I've found that where you set up a repeater can mean the difference between success and failure. The repeater needs to be close enough to the router to get a strong signal that it can retransmit -- but far enough so that the repeater's sphere of connectivity extends farther into the house.

My best advice is to mentally draw a line between the router and where you want coverage to be and put the repeater roughly at the middle of the line using the closest AC outlet. If it helps fill in the Wi-Fi dead zone, you're done. If not, move to a new location and see if that helps. In other words, be ready for some trial and error work until you get a good spot.

I tried Netgear's WN3500RP repeater because it is small, works with both 2.4GHz and 5GHz transmissions and can be plugged directly into an AC outlet (as opposed to one that uses a power cord). Its software automatically set up the connection for me with a few clicks.

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Netgear WN3500RP Universal Dual Band WiFi Range Extender, Wall-plug Edition

I began by placing the repeater about 30 feet from the router, which worked well but still left the far end of the house only marginally improved in terms of available bandwidth. After placing the repeater in several alternate spots farther from the router, I found a good location where the whole main floor of the house was covered with at least 6Mbps of available bandwidth.

There will be some overlap between the signals of the router and the repeater, so a useful tip here is to use the same network name, encryption method and key that the router has. This way you can move between the zones of connectivity without losing contact.

Swapping antennas

While the main floor was now well covered, the second floor's coverage was marginal -- there was only between 1Mbps and 2Mbps of bandwidth available. The south end of the house, which is farthest from the router, was completely offline. But there was a way to fix it.

While many routers use internal antennas that make for sleek packaging and design, I prefer a router, like the Amped R20000G, that uses external antennas. Why? Because then you can replace the antenna with a better one.

For instance, the pair of black antennas that come with the router are rated at 5dBi for sending out and pulling in transmitted data. I decided not to settle for that. I was able to find several antennas that are more sensitive and can be used to extend a Wi-Fi network.

Amped Wireless WA12 Omni-Directional Wi-Fi Antenna

For example, Amped's WA12 antenna is rated at 12dBi at a cost of $40. The best part is that it connects directly to the router and doesn't need external power or software to work. (On the downside, it does take up more space.)

Before you get any antenna, I recommend checking which connector the router uses. The two most popular are the RP-SMA and the larger TNC connectors. They both twist on easily, but you might need to get an adapter if the antenna and the router connectors don't match.

In my case, the WA12 used the same RP-SMA connectors as the router and screwed on without a problem, instantly increasing the router's range to 130 feet. More to the point, the antennas raised the bandwidth of the repeater, giving it a stronger signal to retransmit and giving me at least 7Mbps throughout the main and top floors.

There is another way, though, that often works for long, narrow houses like mine. While the WA12 is an omni-directional antenna that pushes the signal out in roughly a spherical pattern in every direction, there are also directional antennas that send most of the signal in one direction.

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Hawking Technology HAI6SDP Indoor Directional Antenna

I installed a pair of Hawking Technology HAI6SDP directional antennas (which retail for about $50). They aren't as powerful as the WA12, but you can aim their coverage where you need it. You need to be careful pointing them because the beam of connectivity varies based on where they're pointed. I set them up to push the signal across the house.

There is also a security advantage to using directional antennas: The Wi-Fi network's footprint better matches the house so that there is less signal "leaking" out of the north end of the house. This makes the network less prone to being invaded by a roving hacker.

So the house was covered -- but the basement had its own issues. I had a plan for that as well.

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