Monday, September 3, 2012

Home networking explained, Part 2: Optimizing your Wi-Fi network

Since my last post on the basics of home networking, which is Part 1 of this series, I've been flooded with even more e-mails than I had been before (which explains why some of you haven't heard back from me). The good news is that nobody is asking about what a router is anymore. I guess I did an OK job explaining that in my previous post. 

Most of the e-mails this time asked about how to have the best Wi-Fi coverage at home and avoid "dead zones." A reader even asked me how to make his Wi-Fi network better than his neighbor's because the other network's Wi-Fi signal and Internet speed were "so much faster than mine." Well, I am not a fan of rat races, and you're not supposed to tap into your neighbor's Wi-Fi network unless you both explicitly share an Internet connection, in which case you shouldn't be complaining that the network is so good. 

Also it's not exactly a good thing that your Wi-Fi's range goes so far away from your home, either; that only increases the unnecessary interference for your neighborhood (and your network's chance of getting tapped into). In short, you should just focus on yours. 

And along those lines, there are a few ways to make sure you get the best out of your Wi-Fi network. With some, you just need to do a little bit of tweaking; with others, depending on your home, you might need to get extra equipment. 

Let's start with the ways that probably won't cost you anything, other than a little bit of time. 

1. Placement Location: 
A wireless router (from here on in this post, it will be addressed as "router" for short) broadcasts Wi-Fi signals away from it in all directions. Think of the signal coverage as a globe with the router being right in the center. Outside of this globe, clients won't get a signal. This globe, however, is not exactly spherical; one of the reasons is because the signals are generally turned to go out more horizontally than vertically, and like all radio signals, they tend to spread laterally and downward the farther they are from the broadcaster. That said, the best place to place your wireless router or access point is in the center of your home and elevated. 

To take advantage of this, use the telephone jack (or coax cable outlet) at or near the center of the house, preferably on the upper floor when applicable, to connect to your modem and then your router. If need be, hire an electrician to create a new outlet in the right place. If it's not possible to move the phone jack or run coax cable to where you want, use a long network cable to connect the router to the modem, leaving the modem where the jack is and the router/access point at the center of the house. (In my experience, it's actually quite easy to run cables above the ceiling, or under the house). 

A wireless signal works best outdoors in an open environment. Since it's not possible to have that indoors, you can improve the signal a great deal by making sure the immediate surroundings of the router/modem are clear, especially in the directions you want the signals to reach. This means you don't want to leave the router in a closet, or put it between a big TV and a wall. The best place to leave the router is in midair, but since that's quite hard to do, the second best thing is to put it on the surface of a desk, or mount it on the wall when applicable. Generally, all physical objects, such as walls, glass doors, and so on, weaken Wi-Fi signals, some more than others. 

Though this might be common, stashing your router/access point in a close corner like this reduces its range a great deal. (Credit: Dong Ngo/CNET)

Antenna positioning: 
With a router that comes with external antennas, you can slightly tweak the above-mentioned globe of coverage. Generally you want the antennas to stay vertical if you want the signal to go wide (which is the most popular usage). If want the signal to go deep into the basement and up to the top floor, set the antennas to stay horizontal. Note that this only works relatively, and with some routers, you might not experience any difference at all whichever way you set its antennas. If the antennas are detachable, it's likely that you can replace them with high-gain antennas (most of the time this means bigger ones), which noticeably helps increase coverage. (You might also be able to increase the power of the antennas, hence the range, by attaching to it a piece of aluminum foil curled up into a parabolic shape.) For routers with an internal antenna design, there's nothing you can do. Modern routers, especially N750, N900, and 802.11ac routers, however, generally come with very powerful and smart antennas that essentially increase their power toward the direction of connected clients automatically, using a technology called beamforming. 

2. Equipment 
Now that you have placed your router properly and still don't find enough improvement, it's time to check the equipment. Get ready to spend some money. 

Ideally you just want to have one wireless broadcaster at home and for most homes, a single router is good enough. That said, if you have a small house and the router (put in the middle) can't cover every corner, it's time to consider replacing it. I'd recommend at least an N600 router (check out this list) or if you're not on a budget, get one of the best routers on the market. 

Many wireless router can also work as an access point. In this case its WAN port is used like a LAN port.

Access point: 
A separate access point is an ideal solution for a large and sprawling home, one that you can't put the router in the center, or one with a deep basement, with an existing router. Basically, you want to put the second access point at the location where the signal of the existing router can't reach or gets really weak. A typical example of this setup is where you have the main router in the living room and the second access point in the basement. Now the trick is to connect the access point to the router. Ideally, you want to run a network cable from the router to the access point (you want to connect the access point's LAN port to one of the router's LAN ports). If this is too much of a job, you can resort to power-line networking. 

Power line: 
A power-line adapter basically turns your home's electrical wiring into network cables; this is more clearly explained in Part 1. In the case of the separate access point scenario above, you can use a pair of power-line adapters, such as the D-Link DHP-510AV. Connect one of the adapters to the router and the other to the access point, using network cables. After that, if you want to make your home network seamless, name the Wi-Fi network (or SSID) of the access point the same as that of the existing router. In this case, make sure you use the same security settings (encryption key, method, and so on). Or you can also keep them as two separate Wi-Fi networks for easy management. There are also power-line adapter kits with a built-in access point, called power-line range extenders, such as the Netgear XAVNB2001. 

In this case, you don't need to get the second access point/router. In addition to power line, you can also opt for a pair of MoCA adapters. MoCA stands for Multimedia over Coax Alliance, and similar to power line, turns coax cables (those used by cable TV) into network cables. MoCA adapters are great solutions for homes with multiple cable outlets in different rooms. I don't have a lot of experience with MoCA, however, since it's not possible to test those at my office. Range extender/repeater: These are wireless devices that can connect to an existing Wi-Fi network and then rebroadcast that same network's signal farther. Most of these devices support Wi-Fi Protected Setup and can connect to the existing router with the push of a button; after that, you can just put one at the edge of the existing network's Wi-Fi range and have that range increased. 

I am not a fan of this type of device because of a few reasons: First, it's hard to gauge their effectiveness; you need to put a range extender/repeater relatively close to the existing router for it to have a good connection with the main network, but at the same time far enough for it to really extend the range. It's very hard to find the sweet spot for it to be effective both in terms of range and connection quality. Second, the repeater basically duplicates the existing Wi-Fi network with one of its own, and as mentioned above, Wi-Fi signals are broadcast in all directions. 

This means devices in the area where the two networks overlap have to deal with interference and signal saturation. This is especially bad for the 2.4Ghz band. That said, a range extender/repeater is still the fastest way to relatively extend a Wi-Fi network's coverage.

You can easily find out a home network router's IP address by running the ipconfig command from any connected computer.

3. Settings 
One of the problems with Wi-Fi networks is the risk of losing your bandwidth to unauthorized users. This part helps you secure your network and optimize it for speed. Note that it's slightly more advanced and might seem intimidating to novice users. But you will be a novice no more if you go through with it. This part is only recommended for those interested in learning more about networking. Rule of thumb: Make sure you back up the router's configuration settings before making changes. This allows you to restore it to previous settings in case something goes wrong. 

With the exception of networking products from Apple, most, if not all, other routers and access points on the market comes with a Web interface. This means that from a connected computer, you can open up the router's management Web page by going to its IP address. Unless you have changed it, the default IP address is generally printed on the bottom of the router, or on its user guide, and tends to be in this format: 192.168.x.1. It's easy to find out your router's IP address; here are the common steps to get to any home network's router's Web interface: 

Step 1: From a connected computer (running Windows Vista or 7), click on Start button, type "cmd" in the search area, then press Enter. (If you use Windows XP, you can navigate the Start Menu and run the Command Prompt item.) 

Step 2: Now in the black command prompt window, type in "ipconfig," then press Enter. You will see lots of information displayed in the window. Find the string of number after Default Gateway, that's the router's IP address. 

Step 3: Type that IP address in the address bar of a browser, such as Firefox, and press Enter; now you are at the router's Web interface. You will have to log in with an account. The username is almost always admin; for the password, check the router's manual or ask the person who first set up the network for you.

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