Our tips will help to boost your wireless signal from your router, extend and optimize your Wi-Fi coverage, and speed up your surfing.
By Whitson Gordon
Browsing slowing to a crawl, the inability to stream, dropped Wi-Fi signals, wireless dead zones—every one of these problems is maddening in a world where getting online has become, for some, as necessary as breathing. (Well, maybe not that critical…but still important.)
If you feel like your Wi-Fi has gotten sluggish, there are many tools you can use to test the speed of your internet. There are also a few tricks you can try to troubleshoot your network issues. However, if the only way you can get decent reception is by standing next to your wireless router, these simple tips can help optimize your network.
Before you blame the Wi-Fi, make sure the internet coming into your house is performing as it should. Find an Ethernet cable and plug your computer directly into your modem—you may need a USB to Ethernet adapter if your laptop doesn’t have an Ethernet port.
Run a speed test to see your internet speed. If it doesn’t match the speed on your internet bill, you may need to call your ISP or replace your modem. If your speed test does match your internet bill, but it still seems slow, it may be time to pony up for a better plan. (My grandmother was convinced her Wi-Fi was faulty, only for me to tell her she was subscribed to a snail’s-pace 3Mbps connection.)
If the modem seems okay, try running the test again wirelessly, standing right next to the router. If you get similarly good speeds next to the router, but not elsewhere in the house, then your Wi-Fi coverage may be to blame. If your internet is still slow standing right next to the router, you may have some outdated gear that needs an upgrade.
Before you start tweaking things, it’s a good idea to update your router. Router manufacturers are always improving software to eke out a bit more speed. How easy (or how hard) it is to upgrade your firmware depends entirely on your device’s manufacturer and model.
Most current routers have the update process built right into the administration interface, so it’s just a matter of hitting a firmware upgrade button. Other models, particularly if they’re older, still require you to visit the manufacturer’s website, download a firmware file from your router’s support page, and upload it to the administration interface. It’s tedious, but still a good thing to do since it would be such a simple fix.
In fact, even if your wireless network isn’t ailing, you should make it a point to update your firmware on a regular basis for performance improvements, better features, and security updates. For help with this, we have a guide on accessing your router’s settings.
If you really want to get the most out of your current router, the adventurous should look at a third-party firmware, like the open-source DD-WRT. DD-WRT can ramp up performance and give you access to more advanced networking features, including the ability to install a virtual private network (VPN) right onto your router. It’s a bit more complex to set up, but for tech-savvy users, it may be worthwhile.
Not all homes will distribute Wi-Fi signal equally. The fact is, where you place the router can hugely affect your wireless coverage. It may seem logical to have the router inside a cabinet and out of the way, or right by the window where the cable comes in, but that’s not always the case. Rather than relegating it to a far end of your home, the router should be in the center of your house, if possible, so its signal can reach to each corner with ease.
In addition, wireless routers need open spaces, away from walls and obstructions. So while it’s tempting to put that ugly black box in a closet or behind a bunch of books, you’ll get a better signal if it’s surrounded by open air (which should prevent the router from overheating, too). Keep it away from heavy-duty appliances or electronics as well, since running those in close proximity can impact Wi-Fi performance. If you can eliminate even one wall between your workspace and the router, you can drastically improve performance.
If your router has external antennas, orient them vertically to bump up coverage. If you can, it even helps to elevate the router—mount it high on the wall or on the top shelf to get a better signal. There are plenty of tools to help you visualize your network coverage. We like Heatmapper or inSSIDer, which show you both the weak and strong spots in your Wi-Fi network. There are plenty of mobile apps, too, such as Netgear’s WiFi Analytics.
Take a look at your network’s administrator interface and make sure you have it configured for optimum performance. If you have a dual-band router, you’ll likely get better throughput by switching to the 5GHz band instead of using the more common 2.4GHz band.
Not only does 5GHz offer faster speeds, but you’ll likely encounter less interference from other wireless networks and devices, because the 5GHz frequency is not as commonly used. (It doesn’t handle obstructions and distances quite as well, though, so it won’t necessarily reach as far as a 2.4GHz signal does.)
Most modern dual-band routers should offer you the option to use the same network name, or SSID, on both bands. Check your router’s administration interface, look for the 5GHz network option, and give it the same SSID and password as your 2.4GHz network. That way, your devices will automatically choose the best signal whenever they can.
(If your router doesn’t offer you the option to use the same SSID, just give it another name—like SmithHouse-5GHz—and try to connect to that one manually whenever possible.)
Interference is a big issue, especially for those who live in densely populated areas. Signals from other wireless networks can impact speeds, not to mention some cordless phone systems, microwaves, and other electronic devices.
Ever play with walkie-talkies as a kid? You may remember how the units needed to be on the same “channel” in order for you to hear each other. And if you happened to be on the same channel as your neighbors, you could listen in on someone else’s conversation, even if they were using a completely different set.
In that same vein, all modern routers can switch across different channels when communicating with your devices. Most routers will choose the channel for you, but if neighboring wireless networks are also using the same channel, you’ll encounter signal congestion. A good router set to Automatic will try to choose the least congested channel, but older or cheaper routers may just choose a predefined channel, even if it isn’t the best one. That could be a problem.
On Windows-based PCs, you can see what channels neighboring Wi-Fi networks are using. From the command prompt type netsh wlan show all, and you’ll see a list of all wireless networks and the channels being used in your vicinity. The aforementioned network analyzers can also show you this information, often in an easier-to-read graphical format.
At the PCMag office, for instance, most of our networks and those of our neighbors are using channels 6 and 11. In general, for 2.4GHz you want to stick to channels 1, 6, and 11 since they’re the only ones that don’t overlap with other channels (which can degrade performance). 5GHz generally uses non-overlapping channels, however, which should make selecting the right one much easier.
If you find the Auto setting isn’t working well for you, sign into your router’s administrator interface, head to the basic wireless category, and try selecting one manually (ideally, one that isn’t in use by many networks in your area). Run another speed test to see if that provides a better signal and faster speeds over the Automatic setting in your problem areas.
Keep in mind that channel congestion can change over time, so if you choose a channel manually, you may want to check in once in a while to make sure it’s still the best one.
It’s entirely possible the problem has nothing to do with interference or Wi-Fi range. If your network is open, or has a weak password, you could have an unwanted guest or two piggybacking on your network. If the neighbor is downloading all eight seasons of Game of Thrones on your Wi-Fi, your video chats will suffer.
These tools can help you find a list of devices on your Wi-Fi, which may help you sniff out uninvited neighbors. Your router’s admin interface may also be a traffic analyzer of some sort that will tell you which devices are using lots of data—you may even find one of your own kids is sucking up bandwidth without you realizing it. (If so, here’s how to kick them off).
Once you find the intruder and remedy the problem, secure your network with a strong password—preferably WPA2, as WEP is notoriously easy to crack—so others can’t join in.
Most modern routers come with Quality of Service (QoS) tools to limit the amount of bandwidth that apps use, like the Netgear menu below.
For example, you could use QoS to prioritize video calls over file downloads. That way, your call with grandma won’t drop just because someone else is grabbing a big file from Dropbox. (Sure, their file will take longer, but grandma is more important.) Some QoS settings even allow you to prioritize different apps at different times of day.
QoS settings can typically be found under advanced settings in the network’s administrator interface. Some routers may even make it easier by offering a one-click multimedia or gaming setting, so you know those applications will be prioritized. If you’re trying to stream games while sharing a network, there are steps you can take to make things better.
If your router uses an internal antenna, adding an external one would be a good idea, as the latter tends to send a stronger signal. Your router may have come with antennas you can add on yourself, but if not (or if you threw them away long ago), many router manufacturers sell antennas separately.
In many cases, you can choose between omnidirectional antennas, which send a signal to all directions, or directional ones, which send a signal in one specific direction. Most built-in antennas tend to be omnidirectional, so if you are buying an external one, it should be marked “high-gain” to actually make a difference.
A directional antenna tends to be a better option, since odds are that you aren’t experiencing weak spots in your network in every direction. Point your external antenna in the direction of your weak spot, and it will broadcast the signal accordingly. Check your router manufacturer’s website for details on what to buy.
It’s a good idea to get the most out of your existing equipment, but if you’re running old hardware, you can’t expect the best performance. We have a tendency to subscribe to the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality with back-end devices, especially networking gear. However, if you bought your router years ago, you might still be using the older, slower 802.11n standard (or God forbid, 802.11g).
Older routers may cap at fairly low bandwidths, and may even have shorter ranges. Thus, all the tweaking we’ve outlined above will only get you so far—the maximum throughput for 802.11g is 54Mbps, while 802.11n caps out at 300Mbps. The latest 802.11ac supports 1Gbps, while next-gen Wi-Fi 6 routers can theoretically hit 10Gbps. Our list of the best wireless routers is a good place to start the search for a faster router.
Even if your router is new, you might have some ancient devices that are falling back to older, slower standards. If you bought a PC within the last couple of years, you likely have an 802.11ac wireless adapter, or at least 802.11n. But the older your devices, the less likely they are to have modern tech built in. (You might be able to buy a USB Wi-Fi adapter that makes things a bit better on those old machines, though.)
Remember, a higher-quality router won’t just support those faster standards—it’ll also do all the things we’ve outlined above better. It’ll have better channel selection, perform better band steering for 5GHz devices, and include better QoS features.
Others may have features like Multi User-Multiple Input Multiple Output (MU-MIMO), like the Netgear Nighthawk X10 AD7200 Smart WiFi Router. MU-MIMO routers can send and receive multiple data streams simultaneously to multiple devices without bandwidth degradation and require specialized testing with multiple clients, but the clients need to be MU-MIMO compatible.
If you do end up buying a new router, the setup process won’t be too scary. We have a guide on how to set up and configure the device.
Some newer routers may have better range than your old beater, but in many homes, you may still not get the range you need. If the network has to cover an area larger than the router is capable of transmitting to, or if there are lots of corners to go around and walls to penetrate, performance will inevitably take a hit.
If all of the above tips fail, it’s possible that your house is just too big for a single router to send a good signal everywhere. If you want to extend your signal beyond what the router is capable, you’ll need a range extender of some sort.
Typical range extenders receive a signal from your router, then rebroadcast it to your devices, and vice versa. However, while they’re inexpensive, they’re often not as effective as mesh Wi-Fi systems, which replace your existing router entirely. Instead of merely repeating a router’s signal, multiple units work together to intelligently route traffic back to your modem, blanketing your house in a single Wi-Fi network that reaches everywhere you need.
When setting up these mesh points, you should still use the same rules for figuring out placement: one node will be connected to your modem, and each of the other nodes should be close enough to pick up a solid signal, while still far enough to extend coverage to your dead zones.
The traditional downside to Wi-Fi mesh systems has been that they’re generally more expensive than simply adding a range extender to your existing router. However, we expect to see that change in 2021, spurred by Amazon’s Eero 6 and Eero Pro 6 announced in late 2020. These new mesh entries are coming in around $100 to $200 less than much of their mesh competition while offering not only Wi-Fi 6 compatibility, but even a Zigbee smart home device hub built into the main router.
Even with a mesh system, however, note that you may still incur some performance loss on the far ends of your house, especially if your Wi-Fi has to make multiple “hops.” Again, placing the main unit in the center of your house is best, and connecting the nodes with Ethernet will produce the best results. Trust me: if you truly want problem-free Wi-Fi, it’s worth having an electrician run a couple of Ethernet cables to each mesh unit, because in my experience, anything else is a compromise that may or may not measure up to your standards.
Mesh Wi-Fi Systems aren’t cheap, especially if you have a large home, which will require multiple nodes. However, if you’re in the market for a new router anyway, they’re absolutely worth considering as an alternative. Here’s our guide on setting one up.
(If you’re tech-savvy, you might be able to save some money by setting up a few cheaper-but-more-complex Ubiquiti UniFi Lite access points.)