Improving current hardware
Before investing in a replacement or additional router, it’s worth seeing whether moving your existing router helps. Relocating your router often means devices stand a better chance of connecting to it.
Routers aren’t the most attractive of products, so it’s understandable that they’re often pushed somewhere out of sight, but if yours is tucked away in a corner and surrounded by lots of electrical cables, it’s going to struggle.
Place your router at waist height or even eye level on a bookshelf or other convenient spot and make sure any antennae are upright. Those with more than one antenna are designed to have them splayed apart – the angle between them will strengthen the wireless signal.
Some of the latest models have no visible antennas. They’re hidden within the router. If yours has has detachable antennas, you can swapping them for ‘high gain’ versions that are more efficient at transmitting and receiving wireless signals. These cost from £10 upwards.
Periodic firmware updates bring speed improvements too, so keeping your router up to date is worthwhile.
Another reason to move your router is to get it away from anything that may interfere with it. A mobile phone charger, a cordless landline telephone, microwaves and security systems can all adversely affect performance.
Turn your laptop into a wireless hotspot with Connectify
If you find your laptop can obtain a strong signal from your router but other wireless devices, such as smartphones and tablets can’t, you can use a software utility called Connectify (www.connectify.me) to boost that signal.
Essentially, it turns your laptop into a Wi-Fi hotspot to which other Wi-Fi devices can connect. As long as your laptop is on and Connectify is running, your other Wi-Fi devices near the laptop will have a strong connection to the internet and other devices on your network.
Choose a new router
Current Wi-Fi routers are known as ‘Wireless N’ products and some operate on two frequencies, 2.4GHz and 5GHz. This is known as dual-band and increases the options for finding clear air to broadcast across and allows you to route some types of device or content across one frequency and others across the other.
If you have an old 802.11g router, you'll find considerably better wireless coverage and transfer speeds by upgrading to an 802.11n router.
The very latest routers support the 802.11ac standard. These promise up to three times better performance than 11n routers, plus 'whole home' coverage. Until we've had a chance to test these, we'll reserve any judgement, but they are likely to be a good choice if prices aren't too high.
Bear in mind that some devices, such as internet radios, smartphones and Wi-Fi printers may not support 802.11n at all, let alone 802.11ac. Virtually all routers are backwards compatible with older standards, but there are still catches to watch out for.
One concerns dual-band 802.11n routers. For these to be able to connect to older 2.4GHz devices at the same time as those which work on 5GHz, they must operate on both 2.4GHz and 5GHz radios simultaneously. Many force you to choose one frequency or the other, but PC Advisor’s Best Buy Cisco E4200 can use both 2.4GHz and 5GHz at the same time and costs around £100.
Wireless N can theoretically deliver transfer rates of up to 300Mbps (the Cisco at the top of our chart claims 450Mbps). Real-world speeds are much lower than these, but transfer rates of a decent 75Mbps or so are achievable. This compares with the maximum of 54Mbps that 802.11g offers.
For devices without Wi-Fi, or if you'd prefer a quicker, more reliable connection, it’s worth investigating powerline network adapters (also known as HomePlugs).
These use your home's mains wiring as a ready-made alternative to installing Ethernet network cables in your walls - or having them in plain sight, running awkwardly through doorways to other rooms.
Wherever you have a mains socket, you can use a powerline network adaptor. They're ideal when you need a fast connection for streaming TV shows from a NAS drive to an Xbox or PlayStation for watching on your big-screen TV, for example.
Some cheaper HomePlug kits offer only 85Mbps bandwidth (with actual speeds being considerably slower). We'd recommend HomePlug AV (200Mbps) as the minimum.
For more on HomePlugs, see our powerline networking adapters buying advice and our group test: what's the best powerline networking adapter? As well as basic adaptors with a single Ethernet port on each, some have multiple ports or even Wi-Fi intergrated in one adaptor so you can use them to extend Wi-Fi coverage to remote areas (such as that garden office) with a minimum of hassle.