How to improve your Wi-Fi network's performance

Get answers to your questions about boosting the speed and range of your wireless network

How can I extend the range of my home Wi-Fi network? First, make sure you are getting the most out of your current Wi-Fi router. Mount it in a central location in your house, preferably high on a wall; make sure that other 2.4-GHz devices, such as cordless phones, baby monitors, wireless audio speakers, Bluetooth gadgets and microwave ovens, are not causing interference; and separate your router from your neighbors' routers on the Wi-Fi spectrum. If they are using Channel 1, for example, try Channel 12 to minimize the chance of cross-channel interference.

If you still get a poor signal, consider upgrading to a router that incorporates MIMO (multiple-input, multiple-output) or draft-N technology. (See our latest review of these devices, "Wireless Routers: The Truth About Superfast Draft-N"). These routers not only provide far greater range than standard 802.11b/g routers, but they also boost speed by as much as 10 times.

Finally, if you have particular Wi-Fi trouble spots in your house, such as odd corners, a basement or an attic, power-line networking can be a great way to serve those areas. With power-line devices, you simply plug one adapter into a wall outlet and run an Ethernet cord to your router. Then you plug another adapter into an outlet near the device you want connected to the network and run an Ethernet cord to that device. You'll need reasonably clean power that's free from excessive interference from other electrical devices,  but the newest technologies, such as HomePlug AV and HD-PLC, work very well.

What's 802.11n? Do I need to upgrade my router?

Wi-Fi standards are continually evolving as technology advances. The first Wi-Fi routers were 802.11b, with a maximum of 11Mbit/sec. throughput. Next, 802.11g increased that to 54Mbit/sec. Now, MIMO and draft-802.11n routers have pushed the wireless frontier to 280Mbit/sec. and beyond, rivaling wired Ethernet. This year, the Wi-Fi Alliance will start certifying draft 802.11n routers. If you are in the market for a new router, definitely buy one of these models.

But if your old router provides satisfactory performance throughout your house, you needn't upgrade immediately. Your current equipment will operate just fine with 802.11n devices as they begin to appear. Wait to upgrade until you really need the added performance for bandwidth-intensive applications such as streaming video. Prices will only go down in the meantime.

How do I share a printer or game console over a Wi-Fi network?

For between $50 and $100, you can buy an adapter that will convert any device that has a wired Ethernet port into a Wi-Fi-capable one. These Wi-Fi-to-Ethernet bridges are available from companies like D-Link and Netgear and are usually marketed as "wireless game adapters" for PlayStations, GameCubes, and Xboxes. But they work equally well with Ethernet printers and network security cameras.

Often, the adapters work right out of the box if your Wi-Fi network is configured to use DHCP, which enables dynamic IP addressing. If it's not, you can set up an adapter by connecting it to your PC and then assigning an IP address. Note that with some older game consoles, you must attach a networking adapter that equips them with an Ethernet port before you can add the bridge. The Xbox 360 has a USB port, for which Microsoft sells a Wi-Fi adapter.

For printers without Ethernet ports, you can buy a wireless print server, also available from companies like Belkin, D-Link and Linksys. Be sure to choose a print server with ports (USB and/or parallel) that match your printers. Note, however, that multifunction devices usually lose all but their printing functions when networked this way.

Can I add a network hard drive to my Wi-Fi net?

There are two basic ways to add storage to your wireless network, but in either case, it's best to physically locate the drive(s) next to your router and connect them by wires rather than using a wireless adapter. Generally, you needn't put a network drive in a different room, and a wired connection is always faster and more reliable than wireless, especially if you have Gigabit Ethernet equipment.

What you are really looking for is access to your network storage over your Wi-Fi net, which you can achieve by connecting any network-attached storage (NAS) device to one of your router's Ethernet ports. Alternatively, you can buy a device like the Linksys Network Storage Link NSLU2, which connects two USB hard drives to any router via Ethernet.

Can I use VoIP over Wi-Fi? What kind of quality will I get?

Voice over IP actually requires comparatively little bandwidth -- under 100Kbit/sec. per call -- whereas network throughput is normally measured in megabytes per second. The problem with VoIP over Wi-Fi is more an issue of priorities: If someone else on the network is downloading large files from the Internet at the same time that you are making a call, choppiness and delays can occur.

Although the faster your router is the fewer problems you should have using VoIP, most late-model wireless routers also incorporate a technology called 802.11e, or QoS (quality of service), that prioritizes streaming data ahead of regular data transfers. Be sure to get matching adapters that also support QoS, however.

How do I stream audio and video from one room to another via Wi-Fi?

Any audio or video that you can stream over a wired net, you can also stream via Wi-Fi. You just need to be sure that your Wi-Fi equipment's pipes are broad and fast enough to handle the data. For high-quality video, you'll probably need either 802.11e or a vendor's proprietary implementation of QoS enabled in both your router and adapters.

To stream your media, you'll also need some kind of streaming server, such as a Windows Media Center PC; a NAS drive with software like the open-source SlimServer; or one of the many dedicated wireless streaming-media consoles, such as the D-Link MediaLounge Wireless HD Media Player or Roku SoundBridge M1001. See "Get More Out of Your Wireless Network" for more on wireless streaming.

This story, "How to improve your Wi-Fi network's performance" was originally published by PCWorld.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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