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How to Increase the Performance of Your Wireless Network

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Wireless networks are so ubiquitous that many of us rarely pay any attention to their setup. For a lot of us, as long as we can get on the Internet, then that’s all we need. However, it’s likely that your wireless network isn’t anywhere near as good as it can be. With some simple tweaking, and some great utilities from the Mac App Store, we can make sure it's the best in the neighborhood!

Tip: This tutorial assumes you already have a good and steady wireless network set up and working at home with no major problems.


Just a Few Simple Tweaks

Over the years, demand for easy to use wireless networks have grown exponentially with the advent of cheap and accessible broadband. It wasn’t that long ago that WiFi connectivity wasn’t even a standard feature on a computer.

These days you’ll be hard pressed to find a computer that doesn’t come with WiFi connectivity, and wireless routers are so cheap that ISPs pretty much give them away with a broadband subscription. More recently, they are sent out with connection settings and a wireless network already set up, providing the password and network name on the base of the unit or on a card. This is a great idea as it means you don’t need to worry about things security and network name - a good level of security and a unique network name have been set up.

Unfortunately, it’s this simplicity that could cause problems for you and others. There are a few simple tweaks that can be done (very easily) to get the most out of your connection.

Many ISPs in the UK actually use the same router. Whilst it requires no setup, all the settings apart from security are the same, meaning a higher chance of interference.
Many ISPs in the UK use the same router. Many of the settings are the same, meaning a higher chance of interference.

What We’ll Look At

With the exception of Apple base stations, the vast majority of wireless routers usually come preconfigured with a unique network name and a password. If you received your wireless router from your ISP, chances are it was already configured and you only needed to plug it in. As we discussed above, this is great as it removes all the headache from setting it up.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible for an ISP or manufacturer to know which are the best settings for each customer because every situation is unique. The settings that work well for one person may not work well for another. In addition, if you set up your wireless network some time ago, you might find that it’s time to tweak those settings if more neighbors have been upgrading their wireless routers.

Network name

Most ISPs ship routers with completely random names such as “BroadbandISP2453454” or whatever. You can set this to whatever you want, making it really easy to customize your network further.

Security

There are three levels of security that most wireless routers will be able to support.

  1. WEP
  2. WPA
  3. WPA2

If your wireless router shipped with some level of security, chances are it’s either WEP or WPA. While this means your wireless network is password protected, if it’s set to WEP, then we need to change this straight away. You can usually tell if a network is using WEP encryption for passwords as the wireless network password is usually 8 or 13 digits long and normally just a number.

Tip:WEP security is so insecure that it’s the technological equivalent of locking the door of your house while leaving all the windows open! Modern routers no longer include this option but some still do. Avoid!

WPA offers a good level of security but it’s not the best. It’s still a decent level of security and ensures compatibility, but it’s been superseded by WPA2.

WPA2 offers the best level of security. It’s the best option to select, but there are times when you will want to use WPA over WPA2, specifically if you intend to use an old Windows XP PC or a Mac that isn’t Intel based. WPA is very widely supported on older devices, but WPA2 has been around for long enough that you shouldn’t have any problems using it.

In addition to the above, you’ll be able to set a more memorable password if you wish (but keep it secure)!

If it’s set to WEP, then we need to change this straight away.

Frequency

A wireless network operates over a certain radio frequency. There are two types of wireless network frequencies: 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz (don’t worry about the specifics or their exact meanings).

Most routers will operate on 2.4Ghz as this is the most common standard. More and more routers are supporting both types (often called dual-band routers) as more devices support 5Ghz. The iPad has always supported 5Ghz networks and the new iPhone 5 will also support them.

5Ghz has a shorter range than 2.4Ghz but can support much higher speeds and suffers from less interference due to the small amount of devices that use this range. For example, devices such as cordless phones, microwave ovens and other wireless equipment usually operate on 2.4Ghz, which can create interference.

Channel

So what’s a channel? You might’ve heard this word from time to time in regards to wireless networks. Well, a wireless network is a radio. 2.4Ghz wireless technology operates on a channel between the range 1–13. 5Ghz wireless technology operates on channels 36 onwards. These numbers do correspond to a specific frequency but this isn’t something we need to worry about. In fact that’s why they use simpler numbers.

If you have three 2.4Ghz wireless networks in the same room in the following order:

  1. Wireless network A is set to channel 1
  2. Wireless network B is set to channel 6
  3. Wireless network C is set to channel 11

What you will find is that you can connect to each of these with no problems at all. However, if we did this:

  1. Wireless network A is set to channel 1
  2. Wireless network B is set to channel 1
  3. Wireless network C is set to channel 1

We will find your computer will struggle to connect and remain connected. That’s because the networks are competing to work on the same channel.

A way to explain it is to think of wireless networks as radio stations on your car’s FM radio. You tune in to each radio station on different FM frequencies. If you’ve ever driven through a populated area and tried to use an FM transmitter for your iPod and iPhone set to the same frequency as a local radio station, they compete with each other and all you end up with is a mixture of noise and static. Having a gap between them makes perfect sense as it means the radio can isolate the station so there’s no overlapping.

Tip: Not all 13 channels for 2.4Ghz are available due to licensing restrictions in different countries. In some countries, the higher channels are unavailable due to other technologies (such as emergency services and other wireless systems). Make sure to tell your router which country you reside in when changing the channel so you don’t get any interference.

Before We Begin

We’re going to need a few things before we start making changes to our network. This will let us make any changes reliably and if things go wrong, fix the problem.

Ethernet Cable

Depending on the router you have and the types of changes, we’ll need to have an ethernet cable handy. Some routers require changes to be made using an ethernet cable. When making changes, this is crucial in case a change doesn’t work.

USB or Thunderbolt Ethernet Adapter

If you’ve got a MacBook Air or a Retina MacBook Pro then you’ll need one of two adapters to connect the ethernet cable. They are the same price and really depends on speed and which port you have free. The USB adapter is only capable of megabit speeds. The Thunderbolt adapter will provide gigabit speeds. If you plan to use it frequently and you have a spare Thunderbolt port (either it’s not in use or your device has a passthrough) then go for Thunderbolt. For wider support, go for USB. I use a Thunderbolt display cable and have no port free, so I went for the USB adapter.

Apple’s USB or Thunderbolt Ethernet Adapter will provide a MacBook Air or Retina MacBook Pro
Apple’s USB or Thunderbolt Ethernet Adapter will provide a MacBook Air or Retina MacBook Pro

No Internet Access

Make sure no-one is needing to access the Internet! Whether it’s a FaceTime call or a software update, you’re going to cause some disruption if you make any changes. In addition, make sure no big data transfers are being done over your network.

Gathering Intel

So we can make the best changes possible, let’s see what we’re dealing with. There are a few questions we need to answer before we start optimizing our wireless network:

  1. How many networks are there near mine?
  2. How strong are their signals?
  3. Are they potentially interfering with the signal from my network?
  4. What are the security settings of my network?

Basic Information

A hidden feature of the Wi-Fi (Airport) menu bar item in OS X is that it can display additional information about your wireless network. Click on it while holding down the Alt key and you will see additional information.

Holding down the Alt key when clicking on the Wi-Fi menu icon reveals more useful information
Holding down the Alt key when clicking on the Wi-Fi menu icon reveals more useful information

As you can see from the extra details OS X is displaying, the network I’m connected to is a 5Ghz network. It’s on channel 48 and has WPA2 security. Already, we’ve gotten some crucial information about our own network.

WiFi Explorer

So we’ve found some information about our network, but what about those networks around us? To find out more, we’re going to use a great app called WiFi Explorer. It’s $1.99 on the Mac App Store and I’ve found it to be one of the best tools I’ve ever used.

WiFi Explorer scans the area and provides information about all detected wireless networks
WiFi Explorer scans the area and provides information about all detected wireless networks

WiFi Explorer has one function - it provides all available information about every wireless network your Mac can detect. WiFi Explorer will display a lot of technical information including discovered network names, signal strength and channel used.

In addition, we can view the wireless networks discovered on a graph to better see their impact. Let’s take a look at the above image in more detail.

Network Overlap

The graph above is viewing all available 2.4Ghz networks, and as you can see, there are a lot of networks near me! The majority of networks are all clustered around channels 1, 6 and 11. This isn’t surprising. If you see some of the network names, most of the base stations are provided by BT. By default, most ISPs will ship their routers with the same channel settings. Useful for when we don’t want to spend time setting it up but if 10 neighbors in an apartment block decide to use the same provider, we get a lot of wireless noise!

Tip: When deciding on a channel, try to select a channel that doesn’t have a network already on it. If possible, start with channels 1, 6 and 11 as they have the least chance of overlap, but they are rarely available due to them being used as default settings.

Let’s take a look at the 5Ghz range and see what we find out.

Because 5Ghz is still not in widespread use we find that there are far fewer networks

Because 5Ghz is still not in widespread use we find that there are far fewer networks

Look at that! One network… and it’s mine! I recently purchased a new Airport Express which works on both 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz. The primary reason I bought it was for the 5Ghz capability. My office is on the other side of my house, pretty much the furthest point away from my existing router. Wireless signal strength on that side of the house was pretty weak and the amount of wireless networks around meant finding a sweet spot was really hard. In the end, I bought the Airport Express after using WiFi Explorer, which found no other 5Ghz networks. My 5Ghz network has absolutely no interference from other devices so I get incredible speeds and a very good signal.

Tip: If your Mac supports 5Ghz, I highly recommend investing in an Airport Express. It’s by far the best 5Ghz wireless access point out there (in fact, one of the only ones) and you’ll get some amazing speeds.

Network Strength

The height of the graph represents the strength of the network. The network TALKTALK–6A2BFC is very strong, so strong in fact that it’s stronger than the network I have in my home! WiFi Explorer aids us in determining how good our signal is. If my network was the one labelled SKY32DDC then I’d be wanting to change some settings to get the most out of it and hopefully increase the signal. The lower the signal, the harder it is to connect at a good speed.

Modifying Our Setup

So from the previous steps, you’ve been able to determine the following:

  1. The channel your network is on
  2. The security type your network uses
  3. What channels neighboring networks operate on

You should now be able to tweak your network in some way to try and increase it’s strength and range whilst reducing interference. Here are some of my tips to aid you:

  1. If you haven’t already, change your router’s default administration password.
  2. If your network has a rather obscure or default name, change it to something more unique.
  3. Wireless network using WEP? Change it to at least WPA. If possible, use WPA2.
  4. After using WiFi Explorer, find a free (or a less-congested) channel and change your router to it.
  5. If your signal strength is really low, try repositioning your router. Since wireless signals are omnidirectional (meaning it will transmit out in all directions), try placing the router higher up on top of a cabinet or bookcase.
  6. Similar to above, make sure your router isn’t near any source of interference such as a cordless phone or microwave.
  7. If your router has antennas, make sure they’re securely connected.

Additional Resources

There are a couple more apps that I’d like to briefly introduce. These aren’t required for the tutorial we’ve just been through but I’ve found them extremely useful when providing network support and you might too.

Signal - $0.99

Signal continually monitors your wireless network and suggests improvements
Signal continually monitors your wireless network and suggests improvements

Signal runs as a menu bar item and continually gathers information on your wireless network. It can determine if there’s a lot of interference and if the signal is too low. In addition, it will even recommend alternative channels to switch your network to that will work better.

NetSpot - Free

NetSpot allows you to map out your wireless signal
NetSpot allows you to map out your wireless signal

NetSpot will go way beyond what most home users will need but if you need to manage multiple networks in an office or building, it’s absolutely fantastic in maintaining a wireless map. Simply draw a map of your office within NetSpot and set the scale by specifying two points. After that, you can specify where you are on the map and it will take a full wifi reading. Do this enough times in different rooms and you’ll be able to determine where signal black-spots are. It even supports multiple floors.

Wrapping Up

From the utilities I’ve shown you above, you should be able to tweak your wireless network and get a little bit more performance from it. The majority of problems with wireless networking stem from the types of settings we’ve talked about above - more specifically, interference from other networks. If your network misbehaves or doesn’t seem to be as quick or as reliable as it once was, chances are there’s a new network somewhere nearby. With the tools and suggestions above, you’ll be able to keep your wireless network running smoothly.

If you’ve got any other tools and tips on maintaining your wireless network or have some suggestions for best practices, feel free to discuss further in the comments section!

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