Optimizing wi-fi networks

Fewer Apple computers and devices come with Ethernet ports. AirPort Extreme 2013.jpgClearly, the world’s pulling the plug. But how can you get the best speed from your wireless network?

For starters, we recommend the Apple AirPort Extreme (2013) with the latest 802.11ac wi-fi.

We tested the ac wi-fi speed in a home environment and found it’s twice as fast as the old 2007 standard, 802.11n. If you’re in the same room it can be twice as fast as 100 Base T Ethernet and 1/3 the speed of gigabit Ethernet. Choose an AirPort Time Capsule, and copying files back and forth to the internal hard drive is nearly as fast as a directly-attached USB 2 drive. 802.11ac can also focus the beam in a particular direction to get a stronger signal. Only 2013 and later Macs have 802.11ac, but it’s included in every Mac from now on. The router also provides g and n, so it’s backward-compatible.

With an older router (802.11n), we found some parts of the house showed only 802.11g. That’s 6 times slower than n; 12 times slower than ac. 802.11g can’t even keep up with 20 mbps broadband. But with the new router? We got ac speeds in most of the building and n speeds where we used to get g. We could take full advantage of 50 mbps Comcast broadband, get reliable Time Machine backups and quick transfers between connected devices. Learn how to check your wi-fi connection.

Many people don’t realize how complex wi-fi can be. Aside from g, n & ac, modern systems run on two frequency ranges: 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. G is 2.4 GHz only, ac is 5 GHz and n works with either frequency. The 2.4 GHz range is very crowded, with interference from many other devices. Aside from that, there are 11 wi-fi channels crammed into a narrow range. They overlap badly and can interfere with one another if there are other wi-fi networks nearby.

If you have 3 wi-fi routers operating in the 2.4 GHz range, the only channels that won’t overlap are 1, 6 & 11. Not a problem in the countryside or mountains, but in an urban setting coordinating channels with the neighbors can be a challenge. We’ve seen cases where 30 wi-fi routers are in range! More routers can mean more noise… and reduced speeds.

Wi-fi channels

The 5 GHz range doesn’t have this problem. In the U.S., you can choose from at least 8 non-overlapping channels and most consumers aren’t using 5 GHz at all. That’s why you should! The 5 GHz signals don’t go as far as 2.4 GHz but they are much faster and suffer less interference. Check out this Macworld article for details.

We use the Netspot app to test and help plan wi-fi networks. Netspot created the heat map of the property below. The house (bottom of the diagram) is at one end of a 50 x 125-foot lot; a detached garage is at the other. Each red dot is a wi-fi sample point Color ranges show where signal is strongest (yellow) and weakest (blue). The AirPort router (Elm Extreme) is on the second floor office.

Like most modern routers, the AirPort has more than one radio so it can broadcast on both 5 GHz (ac/n) and 2.4 GHz (g/n). Turn both on and you get the benefit of fast ac speeds close to the router and g/n further out. Like this:

The signal from this single AirPort Extreme is strong enough to reach throughout the building, across the property to the garage… and beyond.

We walked half a block in every direction and still got perfectly usable wi-fi – perhaps not fast enough to stream video but fine for checking email and web pages. Not bad for one single router!

Bottom line: Sure, you can rent a router from your internet provider, or pick up a cheap one at BestBuy. You can plug it in and use the default settings. But you may suffer the consequences without even knowing why. You might pay extra for faster broadband and never get the benefit. You might be tempted to buy extra routers thinking it will help… and only cause further interference and poor performance.

There’s a science behind wi-fi and it pays to learn it, buy the right equipment, test and configure it properly. Or hire a professional who can do the job right. Contact Creative Tech Support.

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