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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Powerline to Wi-Fi

The final frontier for me was the basement, which had many places that were getting less than 1Mbps. This was because the kitchen floor, which the signal has to travel through, is made of concrete and is likely blocking most of the signal.

The worst spot was a guest bedroom at the south end of the basement that doubles as a gaming room with a PlayStation console connected to a TV. The area used to be a garage and has a thick layer of stone separating it from the rest of the house. The family gamers were not pleased with the situation.

To fill in this last Wi-Fi dead spot, my trick was to use the house's electrical grid and AC outlets. The Linksys PLWK400 Powerline extender ($90) uses the HomePlug AV standard to send a 2.4GHz Wi-Fi signal over the dwelling's internal power grid.

The system comes with two devices:

  • A network adapter that plugs into one of your router's Ethernet ports and into a nearby AC outlet. It then piggybacks the data onto the electricity's 60-hertz alternating current.
  • A Wi-Fi transmitter that plugs into an AC outlet elsewhere in the house and broadcasts a fresh Wi-Fi signal.

A tip: I've found that using a power strip diminishes the data signal that Powerline equipment can generate. In other words, always plug the two Powerline devices directly into AC outlets.

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Linksys PLWK400 Powerline AV Wireless Network Extender Kit

In addition, Powerline devices will only work with electric wiring that is 300 feet in length and less, which is probably good enough for most homes. However, in some older homes the power cable routing can be quite convoluted, so that one outlet might work fine but another right next to it might not.

One trick that can lower the frustration factor is to start by plugging the Powerline transmitter in the outlet that's closest to the one used by the network adapter -- unless your wiring is possessed, it's just about guaranteed to connect.

Configure the device to your Wi-Fi network's specs. Then, unplug the transmitter, go to where you want it to end up and plug it in. Check the device's connection software (in this case, Cisco Powerline AV Utility) to see if it's online and do the final configuration.

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Amped Wireless' Wi-Fi Analytics Tool scans a network and provides info such as which channels are in use and whether there is interference from nearby networks.

If it doesn't connect, try an outlet that is closer to the house's circuit breaker panel. Remember, the transmitter will have a range of about 100 feet, so you don't need to be exactly in the right spot.

In my case, one of the two outlets in the basement room was already filled up; the other refused to link with the router. Finally, I found a plug just outside the room that worked well and bathed the room in about 8Mbps of Wi-Fi, an amazing improvement from less than 1Mbps.

There's a bonus that comes with this type of networking gear: You can use as many as eight Powerline transmitters with one network adapter.

Get with the program

Wi-Fi isn't all about hardware. There are a lot of things you can do with software.

The first -- and best -- tip I have here is to always have the most recent firmware for the router, repeaters and other gear. I check to see if there are updates every month or so. Having the newest software can not only streamline the network's operations but also remove bugs.

I also suggest that you go through the router's setup screens and nose around once or twice after you set it up -- or after a firmware change. Not only do you want to check to make sure everything is still correct, but you might also want to try some extra tweaks. For example, many routers have adjustable transmitters and are not always set to full power at the factory. It's an easy matter to turn them up to full power for the best coverage.

All routers are different, but they often allow you to set them up for exclusively 802.11n operations (for top speed) or a mixture of protocols (for compatibility with older 802.11b and g devices).

I use DHCP automatic IP addressing because it is easier to let the router decide which device gets which IP address. Assigning static addresses is time-consuming and cumbersome, and if you're not careful you run the risk of giving two clients the same address. The DHCP protocol can sometimes go haywire, though, creating IP address conflicts that can only be resolved by restarting the router.

If you experience IP addressing errors, happily, the problem is easily fixed. Simply go ahead and assign a static IP address to the problematic device. It needs to be done in the device's network settings; be sure to keep a list of the addresses used so you won't assign any twice.

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