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Better Wi-Fi in six easy steps

With the countless of devices we have nowadays all wanting a piece of our internet connection, who doesn't want better Wi-Fi? Here's how to get the best possible coverage for the least hassle.

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Topic: Hardware
#1: Where do you want the best Wi-Fi signal?
1 of 7 Adrian Kingsley-Hughes/ZDNet

#1: Where do you want the best Wi-Fi signal?

Probably one of the simplest questions, but when I ask people it, they usually have no clue and start hand-waving towards the office, living room, bathroom and so on.

Start by making an audit of the stuff that you want connected, both fixed stuff like an Apple TV or Ring doorbell, and mobile stuff like smartphones, tablets and laptops. Where the fixed stuff is located, and where you use you mobile stuff the most dictates where you want the best signal.

This also lets you decide if you need to blanket the entire property in Wi-Fi, or whether you can get away with less then total coverage.

#2: Ditch the domestic gear
2 of 7 Adrian Kingsley-Hughes/ZDNet

#2: Ditch the domestic gear

In my experience hardware aimed at the home users is pretty poor, and ranges from awful to frustrating.

Yes, pan hard enough and you will find a few gold nuggets here and there, or you might be able to take a cheap router and load third-party firmware such as Tomato, OpenWRT, or DD-WRT onto it, but you're now burning a lot of time and effort.

Personally, I believe that the best way to go is pro-grade gear. I'm a big fan of Ubiquiti Networks, not just because the hardware is top-notch, but also because it gives me no end of high-end configuration options such as band steering and airtime fairness.

All this sounds expensive, but it's not as pricey as you might think. A single Unifi AP AC Pro access point is under $150 (I've seen them for about $125 on Amazon), and that's all you'd need to satisfy an apartment or even a small house. For those with more modest Wi-Fi requirements, the Unifi AP AC Lite is only $89.

#3: Think about where to position your router and access points
3 of 7 Adrian Kingsley-Hughes/ZDNet

#3: Think about where to position your router and access points

Too many times I've seen people just put their router next to the telephone point or near a power outlet because that's "convenient," but then complain they have poor signal in the living room because that's at the opposite end of the house.

I always recommend testing the location for routers and access points before settling on them, even if this means temporarily stringing power cords and Ethernet cables around your home or office. Try a device in a certain place and walk around and see what kind of signal you get, and then move it to a different spot and see if you get better signal.

Be especially conscious of devices that can cause Wi-Fi interference, such as microwave ovens, cordless phones, or neighbouring Wi-Fi devices. Also, if you have concrete, metal, or mirrors in your building, those too can cause problems. Even humans, who are bags of mostly water, can significantly diminish Wi-Fi signal strength if they get between the router or access point and the client, so bear that in mind.

It's weird how moving an access point a foot or so can make a big difference to the signal in adjacent rooms, or even shift the coverage so you need fewer access points (I found that I could cover rooms on two floors using a single access point whereas previously I had to serve the floors separately).

#4: If you can use Ethernet, use Ethernet
4 of 7 Adrian Kingsley-Hughes/ZDNet

#4: If you can use Ethernet, use Ethernet

Fixed devices such as Apple TV devices, desktop PCs, and NAS devices are prime candidates for being wired into the network.

The more you can move from Wi-Fi and to Ethernet, the less network congestion you will have.

If you're not comfortable weaving Ethernet around your office, home office, or home, then an easy way to keep the wiring simple is to place your wired device close to your router or gateway.

#5: Test signal strength and look out for interference
5 of 7 Adrian Kingsley-Hughes/ZDNet

#5: Test signal strength and look out for interference

There are applications out there that can help you scan your Wi-Fi environment to measure signal strength and look for interference (although pro-level gear comes with this feature built-in).

For Android I recommend Network Analyzer Pro, and for Mac and Windows I use the awesome NetSpot to carry out a detailed site survey. Not only will this give you a feel for the environment, but it will also let you know what you're dealing with.

#6: Watch out for defaults
6 of 7 Adrian Kingsley-Hughes/ZDNet

#6: Watch out for defaults

Relying on default settings for some things can get you into trouble. One good example is Wi-Fi channels.

For 2.4GHz Wi-Fi, channel 6 is the default for most routers, so it's best to avoid it if you're in a place where you're surrounded by other Wi-Fi routers. Try channel 1 or 11 instead (which are the other two other non-overlapping channels).

For 5GHz wireless N or AC routers interference is less of an issue because there are more channels, but if while you're scanning for signal strength and interference, it might be worthwhile looking for what Wi-Fi channels are in use around you.

If there's an "auto" setting for channels, try this (although I've seen this do nothing on some domestic routers).

Bonus: Test before and after making changes
7 of 7 Adrian Kingsley-Hughes/ZDNet

Bonus: Test before and after making changes

Make sure you test to see if your fiddling is having a positive or negative effect on network performance.

Before you make changes to anything - channels, channel width, enabling or disabling features such as QoS (Quality of Service) and so on - test your current speed and signal strength, and then do the same after making the change, because you may find that your well-meaning change has actually made things worse! This way you can always revert to the previous setting if things aren't working out.

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