Widespread Wifi: Reaching the Parts That Other Wireless Fails to Reach
There are three things most people want when it comes to wifi: a good signal, speed, and reliability. Often, if you have a good signal, the other two part of this wireless triangle will follow.
In this post we’re going to look at the many ways you can improve the wireless network in your home. Let’s list them first (click on any to go directly to that section).
First, a little background about wireless. It wasn’t that long ago that wifi used to be the bane of a network administrator’s existence. Poor connectivity, intermittent signal, slow (almost unusable) speeds… Fortunately things have moved on. Wireless equipment has dramatically improved to the point that it often just works (most of the time, anyway). Unfortunately, along the way it’s also become more confusing.
In a bid to help simplify matters, the Wi-Fi Alliance (yes, I know it sounds like something out of Star Wars, but it’s actually the body behind wireless standards) is introducing a new naming convention. The latest wifi standard, 802.11ax (or High-Efficiency Wireless, as it’s also known) – which has been designed to work more efficiently with a greater number of devices (even in densely populated areas like a stadium, for example, so it should be fab at handling plenty of wireless products around the home) – is being called Wi-Fi 6. The widely used 802.11ac wireless has been renamed Wi-Fi 5, and the older 802.11n becomes Wi-Fi 4. So basically, the higher the number, the newer (and better) the wifi device.
All clear so far? Great, let’s move on.
The biggest problem with wifi is that it’s invisible to the human eye. If you have a problem with a cable, it’s a physical object that you can test, but how do you go about checking something you can’t even see? We’ll get to that shortly. Another issue that often rears its ugly head when it comes to wireless networking is just because it’s working, doesn’t always mean it’s working well, and, despite the continual improvements, there may be times when it isn’t working at all – an infuriating problem, particularly if it’s intermittent.
So, let’s get started going through each step you can try to improve your wifi.
1. Check your speed
We need to know what we’re dealing with first. How will you know if your wireless has got any better if you have no idea how good (or bad) it was to start with? For this step, I recommend Speedtest by Ookla.
If you don’t want to use it in a web browser, you can always download the app (from Google Play or the Apple App Store). Run the test and make a note of it. This will act as our baseline, so we can come back and compare the results after completing our improvements.
2. Relocate your router
Consider the placement of your router. Where is it currently located? Ideally it should be in a central location to best serve the entire household. This isn’t always possible, depending on where your ISP (Internet Service Provider) wired your broadband connection at the property. Regardless of where it is, there are still a couple things you can do to help the signal.
* Don’t put your router in a cupboard, or any other concealed space – this will severely restrict the distance the wifi can cover (wireless doesn’t play well with obstacles).
* Get it off the floor. There are few worse locations than having your router on the floor. It’ll work best from an elevated position (as often the signal radiates downwards), so raise it up not down.
3. Tweak the antennas
Depending on the type of router you have this may not be possible. Some routers have the antennas fixed inside (in which case skip to the next step as this doesn’t apply to you), but if yours has external antennas, these can be positioned to help the signal. The important thing to remember is never have them all facing in the same direction – this will prevent them operating optimally.
For best results, have at least one antenna pointing vertically, and another laid out horizontally. Your wireless devices will usually have their antenna(s) positioned one way or the other, so by having the router match the signal on both directions, all your bases are covered.
4. What’s the frequency (Kenneth)
Okay, apologies for the R. E. M. song reference – I couldn’t resist – but this is an important step. Wifi operates on two frequencies: 2.4 and 5 GHz. 2.4 GHz is the older standard and has been around for years. As a result, it’s an extremely congested band. Lots of older technology uses it, as does Bluetooth – even your microwave oven and cordless phone handsets can interfere with this frequency.
In order to see what’s going on with your wireless network (at 2.4Ghz) you need to install an app on your smartphone (although you could also use a tablet) to analyse your wifi. The appropriately named, WiFiAnalyzer (open-source) app from Google’s Play Store is a good one. Open the app and wait for it to scan your wireless network. Then select “Channel Graph” from the menu (make sure it’s on the 2.4 GHz tab). This will show you how many other wireless networks in your area are using this frequency and what channels they’re broadcasting on.
Having viewed the congestion for yourself, you might consider moving all your devices on to the newer and less populated 5 GHz band. If you have some old tech that only works on 2.4 GHz and you absolutely must keep using it, at the very least try setting the channel to something different from most of your neighbours. You do this by logging into your router and looking in the wireless section.
Tone’s Tip. There are only 3 channels on the 2.4 GHz band that don’t overlap the others. These are 1, 6 and 11 – so pick one of these.
But how I log into my router, you may well ask? Read on, my good reader.
Logging into your router
To do this, you first need to know the IP address of your router. If you’re using a Windows PC/laptop, click on start and type “cmd” (without the quotes) and press enter. In the black command windows that opens, type “ipconfig” (again without the quotes) and press enter once more. Now look for the Default Gateway – that’s the IP address of your router.
Now that you have the IP address, simply open a web browser, type it into the address bar and press enter. For example, you might type 192.168.1,1 (if that’s your router’s IP address). You’ll now need to login by entering the username and password. If you’re not sure what these are look on the back of the router itself, as they’re sometimes printed on it.
If not, try a Google search (other search engines are available!) for your router’s make and model. Be sure to also include “default password” in your search. For example, you could type Netgear Nighthawk X6 default password (if you have a Netgear Nighthawk X6 router).
5. The Need for Speed
Various factors can effect the speed of your wireless network, but probably the single biggest factor is the wireless standard of your equipment. As stated in the last step, ideally you should stop using 2.4 GHz devices altogether. Although 2.4 GHz has the advantage of travelling further than the shorter 5 GHz spectrum, it is also much slower – and, as we shall see in the next step, there are better ways to increase the range of your wireless than using an older wireless standard. So go with the 5 GHz band wherever possible.
Seriously consider upgrading any older wireless devices (or adding a more up to date wireless adapter to them as we’ll look at later, if it’s supported). Using older equipment on the same wireless network as newer tech can slow all of the attached devices down. Certainly, if you want any kind of speed at all on your network, don’t use anything that pre-dates the wifi 4 (802.11n) standard – wireless G and earlier devices will significantly slow things down. Ideally go for Wifi 5 (802.11ac), and even look into wifi 6 (802.11ax) as it becomes more widely available.
While having a good signal never hurts, unfortunately this alone doesn’t guarantee a good wireless speed. Each wireless standard has a maximum throughput (and in the real world you’ll never get anywhere near the claimed theoretical figures). As such, anything less than wireless 802.11 N (Wi-Fi 4) shouldn’t even be entertained for watching video wirelessly, and even that may struggle with HD content, especially if multiple devices use the same wireless network. Your devices may help in this regard. You may have noticed when buying equipment that it sometimes states things like 2×2 or 3×3 for the wireless adapter, but what does that mean?
It’s all to do with the number of radio antennas built into the wireless adapter. Basically, the first number is the amount of antennas for transmitting the signal, the second is the number of antennas receiving.
2×2 is 2 transmitting and 2 receiving antennas
3×3 is 3 transmitting and 3 receiving antennas
and so on…
This usually implies the number of wireless streams that an adapter supports.
Note. Sometimes you may see it stated implicitly. For example, a wireless device could be listed as 3×3:3 or 2×2:2. The final digit simply confirms the number of streams it supports: three (in the case of 3×3:3), or two for 2×2:2.
A stream is a spatial stream of data that travels from a transmitter to a receiver (or vice versa). So a 2×2 adapter typically supports two streams. Having multiple antennas allows for a faster connection as, providing your router also has sufficient antennas, the data can be carried over all (streams) simultaneously.
In theory, a 2×2 wireless adapter connected to a 2×2 router will work twice as fast compared to if both devices were 1×1. Like most things tech, you won’t see this difference in the real world (due to the many factors you’re hopefully becoming aware of) but it will still produce a significant bump in speed.
The single best way to ensure good video playback over your wireless network is to only employ devices that use the WiFi 5 (802.11 AC) and above. Of course you’ll need a broadband connection that’s up to the task as well, which we’ll come to later.
Speed can also be significantly impacted by the number of wireless devices on your network. You may not think you have that many, but stop and consider it for a moment. We’re not just talking laptops. Odds are, any smartphones and tablets are connected too. Then there are other things, like smart TVs and Blu-ray players, for example. Not to mention the whole new Internet of Things (IoT).
Also consider, if you’re moving towards a smart home, you may have lighting, central heating, even a new smart doorbell. Add it all together and that’s a lot of items, all eating into the available wireless bandwidth. It may well be that you need additional wireless points to cope with the demand. It just so happens that we’ll consider potential ways of achieving this in the very next step.
6. Go the Distance
In order to achieve a good wireless signal in every corner of the home, you should think about the range. To do this properly we need to construct a heatmap (or wireless survey, as it’s also known). This is simply an outline of the property highlighting which areas require some wifi improvement. There was a time when carrying out such a survey required expensive equipment that only large enterprises could afford – it was certainly beyond the means of ordinary home users. Fortunately, these days everything you need is probably right in your very pocket.
Yes, I’m talking about your smartphone. By installing an app, we can carry out our very own wireless survey and produce a relatively detailed heatmap – certainly sufficient to identify any problem areas in the home. Start with a floor plan of all the rooms – you’ll need one for each floor, if you live in a multi-story building. We’re not after a work of art, just a simple plan of your house. So, if you don’t have one already, you could easily draw it by hand.
Okay, now we need a suitable app. If you’ve been reading from the beginning, you may have already installed the open-source WiFiAnalyzer from Google’s Play Store. We’ll use this excellent tool again here – though feel free to use any app capable of reading wireless signal strength (if you want something more comprehensive, you could try WiFi Heatmap, also available in Google’s Play Store). For WiFiAnalyzer, open the app and select “Channel Graph” from the menu. You probably want to set it to the 5 GHz band (though 2.4 GHz is also available).
Now the fun part. Walk around your home and make a note of your wireless network’s signal strength in each room. Jot it down on your floor plan. You’ll notice the number is in dBm (decibel-milliwatts), which is the unit signal strength is measured by. When you’ve filled in every room, it’s time to make sense of your jottings.
Right, so you’ve got a mapped out plan showing the signal level in every room, but what do these figures mean? As you’ve probably noticed, wireless signals are expressed as negative numbers. Basically, the higher the value (which, confusingly, actually looks like a lower number – remember these are negative numbers), the better the signal. It’s probably easier to visualise it, so have a look at the illustration.
You’ve also no doubt noticed that the further from your wireless router you get, the worse the signal. Obviously this is to be expected and is due to what is known as the Signal to Noise ratio. Put simply, the further the signal has to travel, the more interference (noise) it picks up along the way, and the more the signal degrades – which is a bad thing.
Obstacles play a large part in creating wireless interference. We already talked about not putting your router in the cupboard, but there are other obstructions too. Wifi hates metal – absolutely detests the stuff. Rather than travel through it, it pings off, bouncing about in all directions. This, more than any other material, will severely limit the distance the signal can travel. Some properties (at least here in the UK) have wire-mesh in the walls, which can be a major problem. Nor is wifi a fan of concrete; while nothing like metal, concrete will also significantly reduce the distance a wireless signal can go.
Right, enough theory. You’ve got your wireless heatmap, you’ve identified any problem areas that you need to address. So how do we improve the range of our wireless network to reach some of those awkward areas? Let’s look at a few ways, starting with the cheapest.
Make use of an old router
If you’re on a tight budget, this potential solution is cheap, possibly even free – and it doesn’t get any cheaper than that! Employing an old router will be of most benefit if you’re more concerned about coverage and signal strength than speed. So, if you happen to have one lying around, you could use it as a wireless access point.
To do this, first check in the router’s settings to see if it can be set up as either a wireless access point or wireless repeater, either of which will make life much easier as far as set up is concerned. Either way, configure your old router with a new static IP address – you’ll be able to do this within its network settings.
It’s a good idea to use the next free address after that of your main router. But how do you find out the address of your router, I hear you ask? To answer this, see the Logging into your router section (in Step 4). So let’s say that, for example, your home router has an address of 192.168.1.1 (quite common on home networks), you would set the old router to use 192.168.1.2. Don’t forget to also put in the subnet mask, which for a home network will almost always be 255.255.255.0 and the gateway and DNS addresses. For these last two it’s usually okay to use the IP address of your main router, eg. 192.168.1.1
Let’s quickly look at the difference between setting an old router up as an access point as opposed to a repeater.
Wireless Access Point
If you choose to set your old router as a wireless access point you’ll need to run a network (ethernet) cable from your main router to the old router, which could be a problem if the main reason you’re using wireless in the first place is to avoid unsightly cables. But, if you don’t mind going this route, you’ll get the advantage of a much stronger connection between the two devices and thereby gain a more reliable, better signal as well as much faster speeds than you’ll get with a repeater.
The main advantage of utilising an old router as a wireless repeater is that you don’t need to connect the two routers (old and new) together with a cable. Instead, the old router will pick up the existing wireless signal from your main router and then rebroadcast (or repeat) it. This will certainly extend the range of your wireless network.
The downside is that, as everything is operating wirelessly, there is the potential for it to be more prone to reliability issues (simply due to the very nature of how wireless works). Also, the speed (throughput) will be slower as when the old router retransmits the wireless signal to extend the range, doing so effectively halves the bandwidth – this is because both devices will most likely be operating on the same frequency. So only use this method if you merely want extra range, not speed.
Whether access point or repeater, you’ll want to find the sweet spot in terms of positioning that old router. For example, this could be in a central location in your home if your main router happens to be in some remote corner of the property. Its best to carry out some testing to see which spot works best.
What if there is no wireless access point or wireless repeater mode?
If your old wireless router doesn’t have either of these modes in its settings, fret not. You still have options. It is still possible (although a little more involved) to manually configure it to work as a wireless access point. Essentially, in the settings, you need to turn of DHCP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol) and the firewall.
Better yet, the router may be compatible with third party firmware. See the Replacing the Firmware section (Step 11) later in this feature, as you could potentially add extra functionality to the device.
Tone’s Tip. If you do decide to make use of an old router, be sure to change its password. Many of these older models tended to use the same default password (often something as simple as admin, or even password). Make sure you choose something more secure.
Range extender/Wireless repeater
A wifi (range) extender is the same as a wireless repeater, and the terms can be used interchangeably – this is technology, after all, so why stick with a single term when more than one will do! If you don’t fancy setting it up for yourself (as described in the last section) – or you don’t have an older router lying around – you can buy a range extender, practically ready to go, off the shop shelf. Essentially this device receives the signal from your router and then retransmits (boosts) it to the wireless clients – your device(s). The trouble is, in doing so, it usually cuts the bandwidth (speed) in half.
To remedy this, you can purchase a dual band repeater; this connects to your existing router on one band, then transmits (extends) the wifi on the other, allowing the signal to operate at “full speed” (note, there will still be some added latency due to the act of repeating the signal, but – providing the repeater supports the same wireless standards – the throughput, or speed, should remain close to that of the original router).
Powerline adapters (wireless)
Powerline adapters, also known as homeplugs, use existing mains electrical wiring to extend your home network. You plug one of these devices into the wall socket next to your router and run a network cable from the powerline adapter into a free port on your router. Next you plug a second homeplug (these devices are often supplied in pairs as you need a minimum of two to use them) into the mains electrical socket in another room – this will be in the area you want to extend your wireless.
The two plugs should automatically start communicating with one another. If not, there’s usually a pairing button on each that you press to initiate the process. All that’s then left to do is add your wifi network details to the second powerline adapter (the one with the onboard wireless adapter, not the one connected to your router).
Note. The cheapest homeplugs are wired only and you would have to connect a network cable at both ends, which may be fine for a desktop PC but not so handy with a laptop. Alternatively, you could connect a wireless access point (like a reconfigured old router, for example) to the second homeplug. However, for a bit more money you can get a set with wireless built in – which is just as well, since this is a wireless feature, after all.
Tone’s Tip. Powerline adapters do NOT play well with extensions cables. Always connect them directly to the mains power socket.
Mesh Wi-Fi networks arrived on the scene fairly recently. There are variations, but, in general, you tend to have a main router that connects to (or replaces) your ISP’s modem/router, then one (or more) satellites – also known as nodes – that communicate with one other to extend the wireless network to the far reaches of your home; thereby creating a wireless mesh (hence the name).
Some of these systems operate using a dedicated band as a backend channel between the nodes. This has the advantage of allowing the satellites to separate the wifi signal that devices connect to from the traffic travelling between the nodes, which results in much faster wireless transfer speeds.
Obviously, as well as dramatically improving wireless range and speed, having multiple devices incurs a cost and, although gradually dropping in price, mesh wifi systems are generally still more expensive than the traditional single router model.
There are now many brands and models on the market. A few of the most popular (in no particular order) are as follows.
BT Whole Home
Any of these systems will enable seamless roaming around the house (be aware that you may need more than one satellite, depending on the size of your home). Your phone, laptop (or other wireless device) will connect to whichever node is closest. Set up requires a little bit of testing, as you position the satellites in order to obtain the best overall coverage. That’s not to say these products are difficult to set up. Far from it. Mesh wifi is generally very easy to install – there’s often even an app you can install on your tablet or smartphone to get you going.
Note. As indicated earlier, some mesh wifi systems will replace your existing router, while others will work with it (some will do either). If you’re not sure, it’s best to check before purchase.
7. Change your wifi adapter
As important as it is, the infrastructure of your network isn’t the only thing that can impact your wireless experience. Yes, it’s important to have a decent wireless network in place to connect to, but that won’t help at all if the device you’re connecting with is using some antiquated adapter that fell off the ark. In other words, your laptop, phone, tablet, etc, needs to also have a relatively up to date wireless chip.
Changing an internal wifi adapter on a laptop can be difficult, and not just physically. Even if the laptop itself is relatively easy to get into, often only a small amount of adapters are supported by the BIOS/firmware. A much simpler solution is to purchase a USB wifi adapter. As you’ve probably guessed, this plugs straight into the USB port on your laptop (or desktop computer, come to that). If you decide to take this route, check out the wireless standards supported by the adapter and make sure that its a worthy upgrade from what’s already fitted inside your laptop.
On a tablet or phone your options are even more limited. It’s all but impossible to swap out the internal wireless chip and you can’t even plug in an external adapter. Unfortunately, if you’re not happy with the your smartphone’s wireless performance, your only option is to upgrade your entire phone (or tablet).
8. Replace (upgrade) your router
This is, perhaps, quite an obvious suggestion, but if your wireless network isn’t up to snuff you could look into replacing your router. Why not speak to your ISP (Internet Service Provider) about upgrading? Maybe they’ve got a newer model out that they can supply you free of charge. Unfortunately, the routers that service providers usually offer aren’t always the best of what’s available. Often, they’re cheaper devices than what you may go for yourself, and there are certainly better models out there. So, better yet, you could replace one of these with a third-party product.
Tone’s Tip. If you’re contemplating buying a router be sure to check that your ISP supports using your own device – most do, but not all. Also, find out what settings you will need to configure the new router so that it hooks up to your broadband connection.
What to look for?
So, what should you be looking for when investing in a new router?
It never hurts to look at quoted speeds, but take these with pretty large a pinch of salt – bear in mind these figures are theoretical and, in reality, you won’t see anywhere near them. Basically, go for the newest wireless standard you can afford. You should only see Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) and newer products available these days. If you can afford a Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) router then go for it – it should be future proof for the foreseeable future.
You’ll see ratings such as AC1900, AC3200. AX11000, and more. These are all connected to potential speed. The AC or AX part is the wifi standard (Wi-Fi 5 or 6, as mentioned just a moment ago), the number is the (theoretical) total bandwidth or speed, quoted in Mbps (Mega Bits Per Second). Basically, the higher the number, the better.
As I already said, these are theoretical figures and you shouldn’t go getting overly bogged down in them. In the real world, you can usually say that (on average) you’ll probably see speeds somewhere between two and half to three times slower than this.
In the specifications for a wireless router, you may notice it states something such as 2×2 or 3×3. So what does that mean? Well (as mentioned earlier), it’s all to do with the number of radios and antennas that the router possesses. Originally there was just 1×1 (and what a sad state of affairs that was!) With just a single radio and antenna operating on the (much slower) 2.4Ghz frequency you could only have a single wireless stream which meant DIRE speeds.
Fortunately, time has moved on and now you can get 4×4 devices (and even higher, which we’ll come to later), though at this point in time 2×2 and 3×3 remain far more popular – no doubt driven by cost. What this means is that, providing both your router and the device connecting to it both have 3×3 hardware (three antennas transmitting and three receiving), they will be able to communicate using three wireless streams simultaneously.
This will effectively give you three times the speed as opposed to operating with hardware that only supports 1×1. Even if you’re on the older (and slower) 2.4Ghz band, in this scenario (with 3×3) you will still have treble the bandwidth of a single 2.4Ghz (1×1) stream. When this technology is employed utilising the 5Ghz bandwidth, we start to see some much more impressive results.
The takeaway here is that, when purchasing a new wireless router, the more radios and antennas the better. Yes, your wireless devices will need them as well (a 2×2 laptop will only communicate over two simultaneous streams even if the router supports 4×4), but you can always upgrade these over time to gain more performance once your wireless router is capable of supporting it.
Note. Be sure to take a close look at the spec sheet when considering a new wireless router. A manufacturer may quote a Wi-Fi 6 model as having 8 streams, which could lead you to think it’s an 8×8 device (yes, such hardware does exist). In this instance, though, it’s most likely a dual 4×4 configuration. While still technically eight streams, only four are in the (much faster) 5Ghz band – the other four residing in the older (and slower) 2.4Ghz frequency.
It’s worth looking for a router that supports beamforming. By its very nature, a wireless signal radiates outwards and spreads over a wide area. This is a good thing when a device is looking to connect to a wireless network as the signal is easy to locate. However, once the two devices are communicating it’s no longer as desirable as a lot of the signal is wasted, transmitting through empty air.
This is where beamforming comes in. This is a process where a wifi router that’s equipped with this technology can aim the wireless streams towards a receiver’s antenna (providing the client also supports this technology). In other words, once your device (say a laptop, for example) has connected to the wireless network, the signal will be directed from the router straight at your laptop. The result is a much more concentrated signal that will be stronger and provide higher bandwidth (a faster connection). What’s not to like?
When it comes to a wireless network, good security is everything. After all, anyone within range of the network could potentially connect to it – it’s not as though they need to find a network socket to plug into. For this reason, everyone should be using encryption on their home wireless router. This is why you have to enter a key/passphrase to connect to a wireless network, otherwise anyone within range could jump on.
It’s also why, when setting a passphrase on a wireless router, it should be of a decent length and not easily guessed. Random characters will help prevent brute force guessing, and I would advise that it is a minimum of fourteen characters in length.
Over the years various security standards have been used for securing wireless networks. The following are listed chronologically (with the oldest first).
WEP – NEVER use (highly insecure)
WPA – Should be avoided if at all possible
WPA2 – Try to use this as the bare minimum
WPA3 – the latest (and most secure)
When purchasing a new wireless router, look for WPA3. It’s not yet widely available (at the time of writing), but should be starting to appear more and more.
Note. Within the WPA wireless standard you may come across TKIP and AES. TKIP is now deprecated and, for optimal security, you should only use AES.
Tone’s Tip. If your router supports WPS (and it’s enabled) you should turn it off, as this is another added security risk.
When considering a new router you may wish to take into account the number of LAN ports. The vast majority of routers come with 4 ports, but perhaps you’d benefit from more?
Look at the number of bands a new wifi router supports. Any modern device should have at least two radio bands – this is also known as a dual band router. It means that it can operate on both the (older) 2.4Ghz and current 5Ghz frequency. Cheaper models may only offer this, as you’re unlikely to find a single band router any more.
A better option is what is known as a tri-band router. You guessed it, these devices have three bands (one operating at 2.4Ghz and two at 5Ghz). These routers can make a big difference, particularly if you have several wireless devices in the home that are all being used at once. If, however, you usually only connect a single wireless device at a time to your network (not likely in the modern home, but still possible) you won’t really benefit from a tri-band router. You see, your laptop, for example, will only connect to a single band at once – usually 5Ghz these days. So it won’t take advantage of the second (spare) 5Ghz band, which will remain unused.
Essentially, a tri-band router simultaneously broadcasts three different wireless networks. But you don’t need to worry about that as the router takes care of sharing them between the various devices that you connect. The only choice you may occasionally need to make (and even this is handled automatically by many of the models) is whether to join your wireless device to the 2.4Ghz or 5Ghz band – this decision may be made for you if it’s an older piece of equipment that only supports the older wireless frequency (though these kinds of devices are becoming increasingly rare).
As stated earlier in this feature, if possible try to move away from the more congested 2.5Ghz band. Indeed, if you no longer have older devices that require it (providing your router supports doing so) you could even turn it off entirely.
You may like to look for a router that offers a USB 3.0 port(s) that can be used to either share a USB printer or a USB hard drive (effectively turning it into Network Attached Storage device, or NAS for short). Some routers even have two USB ports, so you could potentially do both.
Routers run their own software known as firmware. You can think of this as a router’s operating system (a bit like how you computer may run Windows, Mac OS, or Linux – in fact, lots of routers use a slimmed down, customised version of Linux). Making sure your router’s firmware is up to date may offer multiple upgrades, such as security enhancements, speed improvements and extra features.
So, always make sure yours is up to date – which is usually as simple as logging into the router’s web interface and checking the update section.
Note. As with most technology, a particular model will usually receive updates for a finite period of time; the newer the router, the more likely updates will be available.
As you’re probably realising by now, not all routers are created equal. And this is also the case when it comes to their core hardware. Cheaper models tend to have more limited resources. Consider the following.
Budget routers may only have a single core CPU (Central Processing Unit). While more advanced models could have dual or even quad core processors. While a powerful processor may not be as essential in a router as your desktop PC, a quad core model will be better able to push those packets of data around your network than a cheaper offering.
Routers don’t need to power fancy graphics on a high definition display or run lots of heavy-duty programs simultaneously and, as such, don’t require the same amount of memory as your home computer. That said, cheaper models may have a very limited amount of RAM (Random Access Memory). A busy (wireless) network will still benefit from a router with more memory as it will be able to better handle large volumes of traffic.
Again, less expensive routers will likely have fairly limited storage space. Not a huge issue; it’s not as though you can fill it with those precious family photos. Nevertheless, extra storage space never hurts – right? One situation where the amount of storage can be quite crucial, however, is if you’re planning on loading third-party firmware on to a (compatible) router. If you’d like to learn more about this, see the Replacing the firmware section (Step 11) further on.
Which wireless router?
This list of topics to contemplate when considering a new wireless router isn’t meant to scare you from making the purchase. The aim is to (hopefully) inform you of to what’s available out there in terms of features. By considering each of these areas you should be better able to make an informed choice when its comes to buying your next model, and better future-proof yourself (as much as is ever possible with technology).
In order to help you further, I’ve put together a checklist that you can download by clicking the following link. This should aid you in comparing different router models against each other.
Tone’s Tip. If you can afford to upgrade to one of the latest Wi-Fi 6 routers, remember that, in order to fully benefit from it, your device(s) – be it a laptop, phone… whatever – will also need to support the new Wi-Fi 6 standard. At present, there are even fewer of these available than routers, but they should start to appear as the wireless standard gains in popularity. It’s still a good idea to invest in the latest standard when upgrading your router as it will then support these devices when you purchase them later on.
9. Internet connection
In today’s increasingly interconnected homes, every member of the household is sharing the same internet connection – including those connected to wifi. It doesn’t matter how fantastic the wireless network is if your internet connection isn’t up to the job. This will be particularly relevant if, for example, several people are trying to watch HD (or even 4K) content on streaming services such as Netflix. If this is the case, consider upgrading to a faster broadband package (if one is available in your area, that is).
Test it with a cable
If you’re not using a desktop PC, and all of your devices are wireless, it could be worthwhile plugging a cable into your router from a laptop. With the two connected (and the laptop’s wireless turned off) run a speed test using something like Speedtest by Ookla (as mentioned earlier). This will help confirm if the slow speeds you are experiencing are due to your wireless network or Internet Service Provider.
If it does turn out to be the latter, there may be nothing left to do but contact your ISP (which depending on the provider, isn’t always the most pleasant of experiences). If you do find yourself in this unfortunate predicament, ask the support representative to run a line test. This should identify if there are any physical problems with your broadband’s line that could be effecting your connection.
By its very nature of using algorithms to encrypt and decrypt packets of data, wifi encryption will also slow your speed. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting for a second that you go and turn this off – that would be a VERY bad idea. Indeed, poor wireless speeds would soon be the least of your problems! You should be running at least WPA2 AES encryption. Just be aware this is another factor when it comes to wireless speed; a necessary evil, if you will.
11. Replacing the firmware
Putting different firmware on your existing router can be a great way to give it (and its potentially ageing hardware, if it’s an older model) a new lease of life. Before you get too excited, though, note that your router model needs to support it – so do your homework if you intend to go down this route. Probably the largest two projects that provide third-party firmware are called OpenWrt and DD-WRT, both of which are free and open source. You can visit the following links to find out more about each and obtain a list of supported routers.
Warning. Flashing (which is the technical term for installing) a router operating system is not for the faint of heart. While it is not a particularly difficult process, should it go wrong there is the potential for it to brick your device (making it about as useful as the object this term is named after – and while a brick may be very useful for, say, building a house, it won’t do much to route data around your network). Also, be aware that flashing a router’s firmware can invalidate the manufacturer’s warranty (although not always, so check this first). If you’re not sure, it’s best to do this kind of procedure on a router that’s outside of its warranty period.
Okay, warnings over. Why would you want to flash new firmware on to an (older) router? Well consider each of the following benefits.
* Extra features – for example, built in OpenVPN (Virtual Private Network), QoS (Quality of Service) support, lots of configurable options
* Boost transmission power (be careful not to go too high, or you could damage the hardware)
* Security enhancements
After you’ve treated a router with some nice new firmware, wander around your house with a smartphone or tablet. See if, after the fruits of your labour, you’re able to pick up wifi in every room. Also, check the connection speed again. Has it increased?
I hope that this feature has been worthwhile and you’re now benefiting from better, stronger and faster wifi. Feel free to leave things here. For those of you who’d like to delve a little deeper into the “secrets” of wifi (or at least some of the technology behind it), we’ll finish off by going through some wireless theory that’s a tad more involved. Beware, there be maths (or math, if you prefer) involved – and the odd acronym, or ten!
Warning, techie stuff ahead!
Let’s get down to brass tacks (what an odd expression that is!). In order for wireless to function, we need devices that are able to transmit (TX) and receive (RX) a wireless signal (stream). This can be as simple as a wifi router and single laptop, or as complex as hundreds of wireless access points dotted around a corporate building connecting to myriad wifi devices.
First there was MIMO
I would have started with “In the beginning…” but MIMO or Multi Input Multi Output, to use its full name, wasn’t the first wireless standard (far from it), but for our purposes here it will do nicely. Wireless computing uses the 802.11 protocol where, basically, users are served on a first-come, first-serve basis. Although MIMO introduced multiple streams (so the connection was faster than a single stream, as data could be simultaneously sent over each stream), devices still had to queue up in turn.
The problem with MIMO – sometimes known as SU (or Single User) MIMO – was that, no matter how fast the wireless connection (and it didn’t help matters that, back then, connections weren’t very fast) having multiple users introduced congestion – which with all of today’s wireless devices is a bigger issue than ever. The fact is, nobody likes waiting (especially in this day and age). So MIMO needed a successor. Welcome then to…
MU-MIMO (Multi-User Multiple Input Multiple Output) streams traffic to multiple (compatible) wireless devices (clients) simultaneously instead of sequentially. Wireless 802.11ac was the first wifi to support this, and is sometimes known as Next-Gen AC or AC Wave 2.
To understand this a little better we need to consider the number of radios and antennas in a wireless router and in an endpoint device (e.g. your laptop). In the main feature, I talked about 2×2 and 3×3 (among others). In other words, having 2 antennas transmitting and 2 receiving (to communicate using 2 streams of data simultaneously), or 3 antennas transmitting and 3 receiving (for 3 simultaneous streams of data).
With MU-MIMO, let’s say you have a 4×4 wireless router, a 2×2 laptop, a 1×1 tablet and a 1×1 smartphone. All three of these devices (laptop, tablet and smartphone) could simultaneously stream data with the wireless router with no queueing involved (as 2+1+1 adds up to the 4 streams the router provides); and the laptop would benefit from twice the access speed of the other two devices due to its better (2×2) wifi adapter.
Let’s use a quick analogy to try and help us remember this a little easier. Let’s pretend we’re at the local supermarket. With (SU) MIMO, even if there were multiple streams, all of your wireless devices would have to queue up at a single checkout. With MU-MIMO, however, (and taking our 4 stream router from the last example) the supermarket now has 4 checkouts.
Sticking with the previous example, your 2×2 (2 stream) laptop can split its shopping (packets of wireless data) between the first two checkouts at the same time. Your 1×1 (1 stream) tablet can use the third checkout. This leaves your 1×1 (single stream) smartphone able to scan its shopping at the fourth (and final) checkout. See how much faster MU-MIMO is than MIMO?
Now that we (hopefully) understand the concept a little better, let’s confuse the issue slightly. What would happen if we had the same three devices, but their specs were as follows: a 3×3 laptop, a 2×2 tablet and a 1×1 smartphone? Obviously these wireless endpoints totalled together would come to 6 streams. So what happens when we connect them all to the same MU-MIMO 4×4 (4 stream) wireless router?
All three endpoints could still, potentially, simultaneously connect to the wifi router, but they wouldn’t be able to use all of their radios and antennas simultaneously. So, for example, you may end up with the laptop connecting to two simultaneous streams (even though it supports 3), the tablet connecting on one simultaneous stream (although it supports 2) and the smartphone also connecting on one simultaneous stream (which happens to be the maximum it supports anyway).
Are you’re still with me? Great, then let’s continue. Sadly, in real life things aren’t quite as straight forward as I’ve just described – are they ever? Don’t worry, I won’t get into every little technical detail – we’d be here for ever. But I would like to cover some of the basics. If you recall earlier in the main feature, I discussed beamforming. A quick recap, this directs the wireless signal between router and connected device to improve both the signal and speed. Remember, in order to take advantage of this, both devices (router and client) have to support the technology.
Lots of modern routers take advantage of MU-MIMO and beamforming, but due to wireless physics – even with these technologies – you may not always see the benefit. The problem is, wireless streams are spatial. What this means in reality is that if you have two (or more) devices physically in the same line of sight as one another they won’t be able to take advantage of MU-MIMO (even with beamforming). Instead, each device will have to queue with the other(s).
To help illustrate this issue, consider the figure opposite. While the laptop and one of the tablets are benefiting from both MU-MIMO and beamforming – having a stream each (the wireless signals visualised in blue and green, respectively) – this, unfortunately, is not the case for the second tablet and smartphone. Because these devices are sharing the same line of sight to the router, they also end up sharing a single stream between them (the wireless signal visualised in yellow).
Another problem was that MU-MIMO only worked on downlink connections, at least with wireless Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac). This was because the half-duplex wireless signal; in other words, the device(s) could only transmit a single stream of data to the wireless router (the uplink) no matter how many antennas there were. This was great for watching all those YouTube cat videos, but not so hot if you needed to upload content to the internet.
Fear not, my fellow techies, you may have noticed that the previous paragraph was in the past tense. A solution is at hand! For the first time, wireless – or more specifically, Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) – supports bidirectional MU-MIMO. This means that the latest wireless standard is now full-duplex; so not only can one of these new wireless routers transmit (using downlink MU-MIMO) concurrently to multiple receivers, they can also simultaneously receive (using uplink MU-MIMO) from multiple transmitters – as always, both router and client (your laptop, for example) need to support this new technology in order for it to work.
But it doesn’t stop there. Dependant on the hardware, Wi-Fi 6 can support up to 12 streams at once! Before you get too excited, though, this is actually a combination of 8×8 (8 radios and antennas on the 5Ghz band, which supports MU-MIMO) and 4×4 (4 radios and antennas on the 2.4Ghz band, which only supports MIMO).
You may recall, we saw something similar in the main feature, where a router advertised as 8-stream is usually two lots of 4×4 antennas (four streams at 5Ghz and four at 2.4Ghz).
With 12-stream Wi-Fi 6, obviously if you discount the older (and slower) 2.4Ghz band, it’s not quite as impressive as it first sounds as – on the arguably more important 5Ghz band – it’s really just a jump from Wi-Fi 5’s previous 4 streams up to 8, but that’s still a pretty nice upgrade.
The bigger issue is availability. While 12 stream wireless routers are (slowly) beginning to make their way to market, it could be a considerable time before we see an 8×8 wifi adapter (in your laptop, for example) – 4×4 wireless chips aren’t exactly overflowing in today’s devices, and the 802.11ac standard that supports them has been around for quite a while now.
As usual it boils down to cost, and the more radios and antennas, the higher the price, which tends to make these premium-type devices not as commercially viable as their cheaper relations. Still, even if the client side of the equation is playing catch-up, a new router that supports plenty of streams will still be of benefit even now if you have multiple wireless devices on your network.
Let’s take a look at these extra wireless streams by briefly returning to our earlier supermarket analogy (we’ll also stick with the more modern 5Ghz band). This (8×8 configuration) gives us eight checkouts to scan our shopping (or process the wireless data) instead of four. And that’s far from the only benefit of Wi-Fi 6 (which as with previous wireless standards has once again been developed by the IEEE, or Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers).
Note. As you’ve probably already gathered, not all Wi-Fi 6 equipment will feature 12×12 (8×8 & 4×4), just as not all Wi-Fi 5 tech had 4×4.
Unlike Wi-Fi 5, which only operates on the 5Ghz band (as well as providing backwards compatibility with 2.4Ghz), Wi-Fi 6 is designed to operate using all spectrums between 1Ghz and 7Ghz (as and when they become available). This is in addition to the existing 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz bands.
QAM (Quadrature Amplitude Modulation), is a modulation scheme used to vary sinusoidal waves through phase and amplitude. In simpler terms, by altering the shape of the wireless waveform more data can be sent. Wi-Fi 5 uses 256 (bit) QAM to send 8 bits of binary at a time. By contrast, Wi-Fi 6 uses 1024 QAM to transmit 10 digits of binary per transmission. This alone provides a whopping 25% increase in wireless throughput – great for 4K video streaming!
Wi-Fi 6 also makes use of 160Mhz channel bandwidth for a faster connection. Although this was available in Wi-Fi 5, it wasn’t widely implemented. In contrast, it is one of the key features of the latest wireless standard. Another new feature to arrive in Wi-Fi 6 is Target Wake Time (TWT). This lets devices work out how frequently they’ll wake up to transmit or receive data. By efficiently increasing sleep time it should significantly boost battery life.
The latest iteration in wifi should also see a small enhancement in range – mainly as a result of the newer technologies reducing interference and increasing performance in dense networks.
I’ve saved (probably) the best feature of Wi-Fi 6 until last. For all these changes, the biggest improvement (along with full-duplex) has to be the introduction of OFDMA (Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiple Access). What a mouthful that is! Putting aside its complicated title, let’s look at what it actually does – and, for fear of repetitive strain injury through typing such a long name, I’ll simply refer to it as OFDMA from here on in.
Without getting too bogged down in the details, OFDMA divides each wireless channel into hundreds of (smaller) sub-channels, operating across a wider range of different frequencies. The signals can be turned orthogonally (that’s right angles, to you and me) and stacked on top of each other and demultiplexed (separating multiple unrelated streams into one signal).
Due to the extremely high risk of all this technical jargon making our brain hurt, let’s get back to the supermarket and try and simplify things by returning once more to our analogy. What all this means in everyday English is that, even with eight checkouts (wireless streams) all operating (hardware permitting) simultaneously, on a busy day shoppers (packets of data) would still have to queue up at one of the eight checkouts. Sure, this is way better than everyone having to queue at a single checkout – or even four checkouts, come to that – but a queue is still a queue.
That’s where OFDMA comes in. Previously with wireless, devices on the network had to listen to see if someone else was transmitting (and wait for the transmission to end) before they could send data. This was akin to a customer at the supermarket having to join one of the queues to pay for their goods. Now imagine those same eight checkouts, but this time each cashier can deal with multiple customers at a time. So, for example, as one customer is counting the money to pay for their goods, the cashier (rather than waiting) starts serving the next customer.
In terms of our wireless network, this means that a Wi-Fi 6 router (or 802.11ax wireless access point) can simultaneously process packets of data arriving from multiple sources (wireless devices) on each wireless stream. It does this by scheduling traffic (there’s a preamble to set it up), but unlike the kind of scheduling you think of when it comes to PC-related activities (which tends to imply a delay), this process actually speeds things up.
To help visualise this, we could say that the customers in our supermarket have a quick natter with the cashiers to quickly work out where they can get served the fastest. But, in this instance, I think we can get a clearer picture of what’s going on by switching analogies. So instead of a supermarket, picture a busy motorway of moving traffic. Now picture an equally busy slip road joining the motorway.
In reality, this would be a recipe for disaster (and major traffic jams would surely ensue). But let’s imagine an automated future, where cars drive themselves – not such a stretch of the imagination these days – and the whole vehicular network works together (instead of pain those selfish bleeps pushing in).
In this dream-like scenario, with all of the vehicles working in unison (and controlled in a timely manner), the cars driving down the slip road can join the motorway by neatly slipping into (and filling) the gaps between the existing (and constantly moving) motorway traffic. This way none of the traffic has to slow down. Everything can keep running at a decent pace.
Returning to our wireless network, this means that (utilising OFDMA) as many as thirty clients can share a single channel instead of taking turns broadcasting and listening on each, which in turn leads to a far less congested network.
This ability to connect more devices is perhaps the single biggest reason the latest wifi standard is being touted as an excellent solution for crowded venues, such as the type of events hosted at stadiums and arenas. And it’s all possible thanks to OFDMA, which is a technology that has actually been borrowed from the 4G (mobile/cellular network) communications standard.
By the way, OFDMA is a multi-user version of OFDM (which was used as part of previous wireless standards), which in turn is a variation of (the far less bandwidth efficient) FDM.
With Wi-Fi 6, MU-MIMO and OFDMA work well together and, when combined, offer greatly improved throughput (speed) when compared to the the previous generation of wifi. The overall result is that (depending on the size of wireless network and other real-world factors) Wi-Fi 6 is said to be around four times faster than the older Wi-Fi 5 standard.
That’s the terminology over with. It may not seem like it, but (to preserve both time and sanity) I simplified things quite a bit – we’re dealing with physics here, after all. Even so, I hope it’s given you a better understanding of what’s going on inside that shiny brand new wireless router.
With all of that dry theory, I think a coffee is in order – especially as we’ll finish off with some mathematics.
The Maths (or math) bit
AC1200, AC1900, AC3200, AX6000, AX11000… What do all these digits mean? Well, we know that the AC or AX part refers to the wireless standard; Wi-Fi 5 or Wi-Fi 6, in that order. But what about the number – is it merely a figure plucked out of fresh air?
If you recall, earlier in the main feature I mentioned that this is actually the total (theoretical) bandwidth of the router. In other words, it’s wireless speed in Mbps (MegaBits Per Second). But how do we arrive at this number?
There are a few factors involved; elements such as channel bandwidth and QAM. Rather than attempt to analyse every little detail (and to simplify things), I’ll concentrate on band frequency and number of radios/antennas.
Let’s consider the following (remember, all figures are theoretical and will never be replicated in the real world).
802.11n (Wi-Fi 4) – operating at 2.4Ghz – has a single stream speed of up to 200Mbps
802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5) – operating at 5Ghz – has a single stream speed of up to 433Mbps
802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6) – operating at 5Ghz – has a single stream speed of up to 600Mbps
With this in mind, let’s take a look at an AC3200 tri-band wireless router. Yes, I know this is from the previous generation of wifi, but we’ll go with a Wi-Fi 5 model as the numbers are lower which makes the calculations easier! This router has two bands operating at 5Ghz, and one band operating at 2.4Ghz. As the calculations will show, this is a 3×3 (3 transmitting and 3 receiving antennas) router.
By doing the sums, we can now deduce that each 5Ghz band will have a (theoretical) speed of up to 1,300Mbps. This is because 433Mbps x 3 (streams) = 1300Mbps (it’s actually 1299, but who’s counting!) On the single 2.4Ghz band, we can work out that this will have a (theoretical) speed of up to 600Mbps. This time because 200Mbps x 3 (streams) = 600Mbps.
To arrive at the total wireless speed the router is (theoretically) capable of, we have to remember (on an AC3200 tri-band wifi router) there are two 5Ghz bands and one 2.4Ghz band. Here are the calculations.
2 x 1300Mbps = 2600Mbps (5Ghz bands)
1 x 600Mbps = 600Mbps (2.4Ghz band)
2600Mbps + 600Mbps = 3200Mbps (total bandwidth of router)
And, what do you know, we have the final figure (or total theoretical bandwidth) of 3200Mbps; hence the AC3200. The theoretical part is important (which is why I’ve mentioned it so many times). The super sounding speeds make for a good sales tactic but are, sadly, far from reality. As we’ve already discussed, many factors can affect a wireless signal, but you’re unlikely to see the sorts of numbers advertised even if your practically sitting on top of your router, and the further away you travel, the slower things will get.
Maybe one day a wireless connection will be able to challenge a wired one; each time a new Wi-Fi standard comes out we get that bit closer, but – as with all technology – the goal posts shift, and wired connections also improve. The bottom line is, where wireless speeds are quoted, the higher the number the better – but don’t go paying over the odds. In day to day use, for example, you’re unlikely to see any discernible difference between a wireless AC1750 and AC1900 router – and certainly nothing worth paying much extra for.
And that’s it. Time to go lie down in a darkened room and recharge those brain cells! I hope you feel better prepared to tackle the world of wireless. Thanks for sticking with me to the very (or should that be bitter) end.