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Humans are on a constant quest to improve themselves. We’ll do anything possible to make ourselves taller, thinner, more muscular, or more educated. We’ll expand our homes, upgrade our cars, and stretch our imaginations out of a desire to make ourselves better, faster, and more efficient. We have refrigerators that talk to us, stoves and thermostats that think for us and even watches that tell us how unhealthy we are as we sit with a bucket of chicken in one hand and check our email with the other. And to what end—so the refrigerator can turn to the stove and say, “Hey, you’re kind of hot?” To which, I imagine, the stove would reply, “You’re kind of cool.”
"With just a few simple products, and a few even simpler tips, you could turn your Wi-Fi into Wow-Fi."
This brings me, in the most roundabout way possible, to the technologies we ignore, even though they, too, can be expanded—specifically, your home wireless network. Sure, you installed a brand-new fancy router a couple of years back, but like an old paramour, it’s gathered dust and now is relegated to “one of those things I have fond memories of, but just can’t deal with right now.” I mean, after all, the refrigerator has been a much better friend to you over the years, hasn’t it? Your poor router is being neglected.
But the funny thing is, you rely on the router and your home Wi-Fi network increasingly these days. Without your home network, work could not get done, movies could not be downloaded, streamed, and watched, and music could not be shared. Without your Wi-Fi, your home would revert back to the Dark Ages, somewhere around 10,000 B.C. (Before Computers). Your fancy talking stove and cheerful wireless thermostat would be as dead as Disco.
So why not pump up your home network? Why not infuse a little life into it? If I could take my 1991 Geo Prism and make it run like a Porsche Carerra, why wouldn’t I? Why wouldn’t you? With just a few simple products, and a few even simpler tips, you could turn your Wi-Fi into Wow-Fi.
Like Routers for Chocolate
Sometimes, assessing your home network is like a telenovela. Different characters float in and out, you forgot who shot whom, and then you get to the end and wonder why there’s a bandito running for mayor. This is why you should know your home equipment, señor. Everyone should. Don’t depend on the salesperson to convince you what you need. You may have a perfectly good router, and just don’t understand why it’s slowing down. Answer these questions first:
Is my router a dual-band router? Do I need that?
The answer to the first question is a definite I don’t know. The answer to the second question is a definite yes. Without really giving you the Wikipedia history lesson, Wi-Fi traffic travels along lanes of bandwidth. The 2.4 GHz is the old country road—everyone gets on it because it’s comforting, it’s reliable, and you’ve been traveling on it since you were a kid. But if you take a quick look to your left, you’ll see a brand-new, four-lane highway that has much less traffic, and on which cars are flying by. That’s the 5.0 GHz lane. A dual-band router lets you travel on either lane, and even combines the lanes so that you can increase your traffic and download speed. Don’t be your dad and continue straight down the old country road with your left-turn signal constantly blinking. Hop on the fast lane with a dual band router.
Is my router capable of Gigabit Ethernet speeds?
It may say that on the box, but don’t expect 10/100/1000 Mbps of traffic just yet. Your router’s speed is dependent on the incoming line. If you’re using DSL or dial-up, that will dictate the speed of traffic through your network. You can’t buy a Gigabit speed router and expect to see your DSL connection increase exponentially.
Does my ISP throttle my traffic? What does ISP mean? What does throttle mean?
An ISP is an Internet Service Provider, usually disguised as a cable conglomerate. Cable providers have become the oil barons of the new tech age—they have a lot of power, and they want you to pay for that power. They used to make their beans on providing cable channels like HBO and Showtime, but now the real money is in providing Internet service to the country. They control the information superhighway, and they want you to pay a toll every time you cross into traffic. If they see you’re driving too many trucks down their highway, they will slow you down on purpose, so that everyone can enjoy the highway at the same speed. This is throttling—purposefully scaling back your connection so you’re not hogging all the bandwidth. But, there are those who think this is wrong; the highway is big enough for everyone. But ISPs believe that since they own the pavement and guardrails and paint that make up the highway, they can tell you how to drive on it.
Which of the little pigs’ houses do I live in—straw, brick or stone?
Consider the home in which you’re setting up your network. Think about how many walls the signal will be bouncing from, whether those walls are made of straw, wood, or brick, and how many levels there are in your house. Do you want the same strength from your signal that you get sitting next to the router as you do sitting two floors and six walls away from the router? Then you should consider some type of extender or booster (more later). Solid metal doors or aluminum studs will impact your signal negatively, as will objects such as walls with insulation, water (as in fish tanks), mirrors, file cabinets, brick, glass, steel, metal, and concrete.
How many people are on my Wi-FI?
You’re footloose and fancy-free. Sitting in your apartment, YouTubing and Facebooking and Twittering like a fiend. Then you meet someone, move in together and share your Internet connection. No big deal, a slightly stronger router, some more clothes in the closet, far fewer ramen-and-potato-chip dinners. Six kids, three apartments, and a house with mortgage headaches later, and suddenly, your Wi-Fi seems to have slowed down to government-efficiency levels, meaning real slow. It’s not you. It’s your brood. Your clan. Your tribe. They’re sucking the life out of your Wi-Fi. As your situation and waistline expand, your home network should expand with it, although your waistline will probably win that race.
Is my signal leaking?
Do you suffer from line leakage? You should see a doctor. Does your Wi-Fi seem slower for no reason at all? You should consult some readily available online software for that. There are numerous and very simple ways that hackers can crack your Wi-Fi password within minutes of you setting up your network. Invest in software that shows who’s using your connection, and keep tabs on it constantly. That neighbor who borrows a cup of sugar and never returns one? They’re probably piggy-backing on your Wi-Fi, too.
What’s the difference between a bridge, extender, access point, router, and bridge (also, the NFL and CFL)?
The short answer is this. The NFL plays football. About the other Wi-Fi stuff, try this on for size. A router, also known as a wireless access point, is a complete package. It contains the capabilities of all the other terms, and can be configured as an access point, extender, and repeater. But an access point, repeater, and extender cannot perform many of the functions that a router does.
Do I need a modem?
Yes. A modem brings your Internet into the home, and resides between your incoming signal and your router. Some modems now come with routers built in, but the typical setup has your ISP providing the modem, and you providing the router.
Access, and You Shall Receiveth
So, let’s clear up some more terminology. What’s an Access Point? Basically, any router is an access point. You use a router to access the signal on another machine. Some routers only use wired connections, while most produced today use wired and Wi-Fi connections, so you’re not running wires like a sci-fi movie to every device in the house.
B&H sells routers, tons of them, but to specifically add an access point, you should look at the Amped Wireless APA20 High Power 700mW Dual Band AC Wi-Fi Access Point. It provides an extensive 8,000 feet of additional coverage throughout your living area or office space, and includes three high-gain antennas and ten amplifiers. It also includes 4 Gigabit Ethernet hardwire ports and a USB port for added flexibility. Also available is the UniFi Access Point Long Range Enterprise Wi-Fi System from Ubiquiti Networks. This is part of a larger-scale enterprise-level system that is more fitting for business and office applications (we’re talking campus-wide Wi-Fi coverage here), but the Access Point can be purchased separately, and features a longer range than the base model UAP with a range of up to 183 m (600 ft). It also offers 802.11n MIMO, with speeds of up to 300 Mbps.
The Bridge over the River Wi-Fi
Let’s talk bridges. I like the Golden Gate and Verrazano. Now let’s talk Wi-Fi bridges. A Wi-Fi bridge is basically a device that connects two wired networks over Wi-Fi. So, you have a wired network, and in another room, you have a computer without wireless capability (or a game console that you want hardwired). You use a bridge to latch onto the signal from the router, catch it, and transmit it to another router, which can now be hardwired to your other computer or game console. What you’ve done is create a “bridge” for the Wi-Fi signal, to extend it—which is why bridges and extenders are often mistaken for the same thing. What sets a bridge apart from an extender is that an extender may not have Ethernet jacks, and usually just extends the signal. The Netgear EX6100 AC750 Wi-Fi Range Extender, for instance, bills itself as an extender, but its single Gigabit Ethernet port allows you to hardwire a compatible device at the other end of the chain. Another example is the D-Link Amplifi Wireless N PowerLine Gigabit Router. It calls itself a router, which it is, but it can also be used as a bridge. What sets it apart is its functionality as a PowerLine adapter, as well. Read on for more about PowerLine adapters.
Plug-and-Play with PowerLines
There’s also another option: PowerLine adapters. A PowerLine adapter is a device that plugs into a wall and uses the current wiring in your home to extend a Wi-Fi signal. Say you have a router downstairs, but your game console is upstairs. You connect one of the adapters in this kit to your router and then into a wall outlet near your router, and then plug the other adapter into the outlet in the room with the game console. Now you have extended the signal to the room with the game console. Magic.
Disadvantages to PowerLine networks? Slower speeds and limited connection options. If you do decide this is the way you want to go, look into the Linksys PowerLine AV Wireless Network Extender Kit. It promises 200 Mbps of transfer speed over the 2.4 GHz bandwidth, and has a single Ethernet 10/100 Mbps port at the terminal end to hardwire a device, as well as an internal 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi adapter. The DHP-W311AV PowerLine AV 500 Mini Adapter Starter Kit from D-Link goes a bit further with 300 Mbps of transfer speed, and an single 10/100 Ethernet port on the receiving and terminating end of the network. Like most PowerLine adapters, it works on the crowded 2.4 GHz band, and does not reach Gigabit Ethernet (10/100/1000 Mbps) speeds.
Need a Boost
Some users will not want to add to their network (and although all Wi-Fi networks should be securely locked down, adding to your network always increases the risk of line leakage), and simply need a small boost to a weak signal. Antennas and boosters can add some power to your signal, and can cut down on the noise level of competing technologies (your microwave and cordless phones are your biggest culprits). The lower dBM level of a product, the cleaner the noise generated, and the stronger the signal.
Since most (older) Wi-Fi routers use an omnidirectional antenna, the signal is radiated in a circular pattern from the centrally located access point or router, and as it fans out, it gets weaker as it spreads. An antenna like the Amped Wireless High Power 1000 mW Wi-Fi Signal Booster boasts that it can triple your Wi-Fi range and boost the signal by 20x using a 1,000 mW amplifier, which sounds amazing, but the caveat here is that a very strong antenna without a focused direction will broadcast your signal farther, adding the possibility of signal hacking and increasing the chances of you picking up interference from far more objects (and from farther away) than before.
So, go a level down and consider the Amped Wireless High Power 12dBi Wi-Fi Antenna, which promises to double your Wi-Fi signal and sports an antenna gain of 12dBi (gain is how well the antenna focuses the signal). This won’t blow your signal out of proportion, and is perfect for smaller spaces or home offices.
So there you have it: an exhaustive list of options to extend the Wi-Fi in your home or small office. The stove thanks you. The thermostat thanks you. The refrigerator wants to know if it will see you later. And the smart TV, waiting to stream movies and other content wirelessly, thanks you, too.