Wi-Fi tweaks for speed freaks

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

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Antennas and boosters: Blasting the signal

Almost every wireless equipment maker uses cheap antennas for its products. While the typical wireless router comes with dinky stub antennas that are rated at a gain of 2dBi, there are devices available that are many times more powerful at transmitting and receiving data.

(For those of us who slept through high school math and science classes -- myself included -- the dBi scale for measuring an antenna's power uses the logarithmic scale. Every increase of 3dBi translates into a doubling of the power.)

Installing a better antenna is easier than you might think -- that is, if your antennas are removable. It's a crapshoot, but if your antenna or antennas are on the outside of the router and come off when you gently twist them counterclockwise several rotations, you're in luck. If not, your router's antennas can't be easily upgraded.

If your antennas are removable, installing new ones doesn't involve any software. After removing the old antennas, just screw the new ones on, and power up the router. That's it.

Picking the right antenna can be hard because there are so many to choose from. The simplest ones are broadcast the signal out in all directions, ideal for setups where the router is placed near the middle of the building. For instance, Cisco-Linksys LLC's $15 HGA7S high-gain stalk antennas (Amazon price) are about three times bigger than the devices that come with a typical router and are rated at 7dBi, which more than doubles the signal's power. The problem is that they're so big they flop over; fortunately, the company includes a clip to keep them up.

But let's say you're like me and you can't put the router at the center of your building. There's help, because a directional antenna aims the signal to a specific part of the building in a cone-like pattern. These antennas are not perfect -- there's always some leakage out of the back -- but that leakage can actually be an advantage by providing connectivity behind the antennas.

For example, I have my router and antennas situated about eight feet from one end of a long, narrow house. My main work area is behind and to the left of the antennas, but I still get great connectivity in that area.

For my setup, I use a pair of Hawking Technologies HAI7MD Hi-Gain 7dBi directional compact antennas (no longer available) that push the signal across the building to cover the entire structure. Using them raised my router's range from 90 to 125 feet, although one end of the basement, which has several stone walls, was still a dead zone.

Hawking HSB2 Hi-Gain signal booster

The Hawking HSB2 Hi-Gain signal booster.

If you have dead spots that a powerful antenna still can't fill, as I did, it's time to investigate amplifiers, also known as signal boosters. These devices, which plug in between the router and the antenna, boost the network's broadcast power.

I use a Hawking HSB2 Hi-Gain signal booster, which costs $60 (Amazon price) and increases the network's broadcast power to 500 milliwatts, about 10 times the output of the typical router.

To add a signal booster, unscrew the antenna from the router and screw the antenna cable into the input of the booster amp. (If your router has internal antennas or external ones you can't remove, your best bet is to use a wireless or powerline extender instead of an amp.) Next, plug the output of the amp into the router and fire it all up.

With the directional antennas and the amp, my network's range rose to over 200 feet, and the signal now reaches throughout the basement.

Hawking HWUN1 Wireless-300N USB adapter

Hawking's HWUN1 Wireless-300N USB adapter.

One last tip for indoors: It takes two to tango wirelessly, and the client receiver is just as important as the router. The dirty secret of notebooks with built-in Wi-Fi is that they often have low-gain antennas that are buried inside the case.

A good way around that problem is to use an external radio -- a solution that does the trick for desktop computers as well. I chose Hawking's HWUN1 Wireless-300N USB adapter, which costs $50 (Amazon price) and has a pair of stub antennas and can work with 802.11b, g and n networks. It raised the signal strength on the margins of my network from 15% to 80%.

The best part is that those antennas can be replaced with high-gain antennas (as outlined above) to push the digital envelope even further.

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