Wireless web connections are wonderful. They allow us to get online whenever we want using whichever device we choose. The mere fact it’s possible to browse the web and check email without a wire tethering you to a router is impressive enough; that a single router can allow several devices to do so at once and to stream music and photos as well as browse the web is something we take for granted.
But often a single wirelessrouter is not enough. As we consume more and more media and do so on several devices, that once-adequate wireless network can begin to show the strain. If you’ve got lots of gadgetry that can potentially get online, consider whether they might be competing for a look-in.
You might have a very fast web connection, but that doesn’t automatically translate into speedy page updates when browsing the web on your laptop. Only the PC or laptop that is directly connected to the broadband router will be able to enjoy the maximum download speeds your internet service offers.
That 50Mbps web connection might be working well, but if you’re using outdated wireless hardware or are sharing your Wi-Fi with too many devices, you can expect BBC iPlayer to stutter along.
If you were checking your Facebook earlier from your iPhone, but later decided to jump on your laptop, both will probably be connected to your Wi-Fi, even though you’re only actively using one of the devices. If another family member is busy downloading apps or posting photos, the network could be seriously strained. Turn off the Wi-Fi on your smartphone to instantly free up some of the bandwidth (and preserve its battery power into the bargain).
Secure your wireless network
Ensure only trusted family members can use your bandwidth. You don’t want neighbours or passers-by piggybacking your Wi-Fi connection and slowing things down.
If your broadband connection is subject to a monthly limit, it’s especially important that you’re aware who’s using it and the amount of data being downloaded.
Old router: weak signal
When you first set up your wireless router, you probably did so with a clear idea of where in the home it would be used. However, if you then have a loft conversion or build a home office at the bottom of your garden, that coverage is significantly extended.
Using Wi-Fi devices in an increasingly ad-hoc fashion flags up the fact that coverage can be patchy. A single router may offer a reliable wireless connection for a laptop across the other side of the room, but the signal won’t necessarily carry through thick walls or up to the top floor in a townhouse.
Using two routers to increase wireless coverage
There are a couple of ways round this. You could buy a so-called access point, which is a basic device that pumps out the Wi-Fi signal at a remote point, or you could take advantage of that router which came free with your broadband package and either use it as an 'dumb' access point (not using its modem or routing capabilities) or reinstate it as the main router and use your replacement router as the access point.
With two routers on your network, you'll also have additional Ethernet ports for wired devices which could be handy if you need to connect, say, home entertainment kit which doesn't have Wi-Fi.
Importantly, you need to ensure that the second router is put into 'bridged' mode. There may be an explicit setting, or it may be a case of disabling the router's DHCP server so that the second router doesn’t try to assign IP addresses - this is the job of the main router. The second router needs to be connected via a LAN port to the original router and to be set to have an IP address which matches the subnet range of the main router. This means the first three sets of numbers need to match, for example 192.168.1.x.
If you can't physically run a long Ethernet cable, powerline networking adapters are an alternative. We'll get to these shortly.
If you have an office at the end of the garden, you might want to take a look at the USB antennas that Solwise sells, which include a lengthy weatherproof USB cable with the necessary antenna to extend your home Wi-Fi beyond its boundaries.
Next page: improve your existing hardware, router buying guide and powerline networking (HomePlug)
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.