Wifi is one of the most important developments in the evolution of the internet—no one wants to be chained to a desktop—but it’s also one of the most frustrating. If you’re plagued by slow speeds, bad reception, and other wifi issues, here are 10 ways you can power up the wifi in your home.
This story ran in August of 2012, with original reporting by Whitson Gordon. It was updated in August of 2017 with additional reporting by Patrick Austin, and updated in August of 2018 with additional reporting by David Murphy.
#1. Switch to an 802.11ac router
If you’re still using an older 802.11g or 802.11n router—“Wireless G” or “Wireless N,” as they’re commonly known—it’s time to upgrade to something new. One of the best ways to make sure your network is as fast and reliable as possible is to use up-to-date hardware. Buying a new router might be confusing, given all the different wireless classifications, prices, and features. So, here’s a quick overview of the basics:
If you’re buying a newer router, you have no reason to not go 802.11ac. Odds are good you have a Wireless AC device if you’ve purchased a new smartphone, tablet, or laptop at some point over the past few years.
Even if you don’t have a Wireless AC device, think about how likely you are to upgrade your router again at any point over the next few years. If the answer is “zero,” then get the best 802.11ac router you can get right now. Your future devices will thank you, and you’ll probably see some kind of improvement in speed and range compared to a much-older 802.11n router. Or, if you’re really old-school, a 802.11g router. (Ew.)
By purchasing a new router, you’ll likely have a longer lifeline of support (firmware updates) to help prevent against exploits and other unpleasant issues. Your old 802.11n router probably isn’t being updated by its manufacturer anymore, and that’s not good.
An 802.11ac router might not give you more range than a 802.11n router, depending on how badass your previous router was, but it will give you stronger performance for 802.11ac devices farther out. Where you were once hobbling by at 10 Mbps, you might find that you’re able to download files at 40 or 50 Mbps (for example). More on that in a bit.
802.11ac routers that can do all kinds of crazy things nowadays. You can pick up a tri-band router that automatically manages how devices connect, to give each the best chance at great speeds. You can ride at the front of the technological wave and pick up 4x4, 802.11ad, or MU-MIMO routers that zero devices you own can take full advantage of just yet. You can buy routers that integrate with IFTTT and flip your lights on and off as you bounce on and off your network. Et cetera.
For most people looking to cover a reasonably sized home or apartment, a strong AC1200 or AC1750 router is probably sufficient—definitely the latter if you own newer MacBook Pros, for example, which support AC1750's full speeds.
That’s a lot. And in case you’re still on the fence, let’s examine just how much faster 802.11ac really is. I ran some quick benchmarks on a brand-new MacBook Pro (15" Touch Bar) with 3x3 connectivity—wireless AC1750 speeds. I connected it to an Amplifi HD router (just the base station), an AC1750-class router that supports 802.11ac speeds of up to 1300 Mbps. I also connected a desktop PC to the router via Gigabit Ethernet, or 1000 Mbps.
I placed the router in my room, located in the corner of my house, and dragged my laptop out to the kitchen a few rooms away. This is roughly at the halfway point of the router’s range, based on lots of other testing I did when I was the networking expert at Wirecutter.
When I connected to the router’s 5GHz network—to get those sweet 802.11ac speeds—and ran a quick benchmark using LAN Speed Test, here were my speeds:
Not bad. Just for the heck of it, here are the speeds tested from the same location but using my house’s 802.11n network, which has an access point directly over where my laptop was sitting:
And here are the speeds I saw when I switched to using the router’s 2.4GHz network—no 802.11ac, but a good simulation of the speeds a 802.11n user would encounter on a wifi network set up with a typical 20MHz channel width.
In other words, my 802.11ac connection was faster at its halfway point than an 802.11n connection from mere feet away, and using 5GHz 802.11ac gave me around double the speeds of my router’s 2.4GHz connection—802.11n speeds.
So, yes, if you have Wireless AC devices, you should pair them with a 802.11ac router. Having faster speeds as you approach the limits of your router’s range is a good thing.
#2. Buy a wifi adapter for your older laptop
If you have a laptop you just can’t part with, or you don’t have the funds to plunk down for a brand-new alternative (that has 802.11ac), you can always buy an 802.11ac adapter that plugs into your laptop’s USB port. Although they look dorky, add a bit of bulk to your system, and can sometimes act up in your OS, they’re an easy way to get faster wifi speeds when paired with a 802.11ac router that has similar capabilities. (In other words, don’t cheap out and buy a crappy AC600 adapter; get AC1200 at minimum.)
#3. Consider a wifi mesh system
If you’re having trouble getting a strong wifi signal across your home, you have a few options: Add in more access points, extend your primary router’s signal, string Ethernet cables around your house and go wired as much as possible, et cetera.
You can also pick up a wireless mesh network system, which is an almost foolproof way to extend your coverage. They’re usually easy to set up and manage via a smartphone app—thank god. And while they might trade away some speed, especially if you’re connecting to an access point that is itself connected to your primary “hub” via the same wireless radio, for example, they make up it for in simplicity and range. The best mesh systems have a dedicated backhaul that their access points use to talk to one another, ensuring you get the best speeds possible for your faraway devices.
Routers may be ugly, but that doesn’t mean you should hide them behind the TV cabinet. If you want the best signal, you’ll need it out in the open, free of any walls and obstructions. If your router’s optimal location is a space without a table or flat surface, check to see if you can wall mount it either using its pre-installed mounting holes or a third-party mounting bracket. Point the antennas perpendicularly (if you can), and elevate the router if you can (one reader found that his attic was the perfect spot). Lastly, make sure it’s in the center of your house, so you have the best coverage possible throughout your home.
How much does this matter? A lot. Using the same wireless test setup as before, here’s what my 802.11ac speeds looked like when I put my router into a home entertainment center cabinet and shut the door:
Yuck. I’ve just lost all the advantages of 802.11ac by foolishly trying to hide my router in my room. And, no, opening the door to the entertainment center didn’t help:
And here’s what happened when I took the router out of the entertainment center (which sits on the floor of my room) and placed it on top—a difference of less than a foot, but without IKEA-wood walls or a door blocking the way:
All better! Speeds (and sanity) restored.
#5. Place your router in a central location
It almost goes without saying, but you want to make sure you’re placing a wifi router in as central a location in your house or apartment as possible. A router’s signal extends out from its antennas. Place it in the corner of your house, like I did in my testing example, and you’re only shortchanging yourself.
You might feel like you’re limited because the cable (or fiber!) modem you’ve purchased (or foolishly rented) from your ISP is stuck in a particular spot of your house or apartment. That might be true, but you can always string Ethernet cables through your house to ensure that your primary wifi router is right in the center. You might even be able to use a powerline networking adapter to get a connection from your cable modem to your router sans cables, but it can be a lot fussier than tried-and-true Ethernet cables.
And just look how much fun this is!
If you don’t want to (or can’t) get behind your walls, you can always just run Ethernet cable along the ground or ceiling. Secure it to the wall with some handy cable clips to keep it out of the way.
#6. Use a less-crowded wireless channel
If you have neighbors, their routers and access points may be interfering with yours and causing the signal to degrade. Wireless routers can operate on a number of different channels, and you want yours on a channel with as little interference as possible. Though your router can probably pick the best channel for you, you want to make sure that it’s evaluating the situation correctly. Use a tool like Network Analyzer Lite or WiFi Analyzer to see where your wifi network falls in relation to everybody else’s, and switch channels manually if your router picked poorly.
Also, don’t be a jerk and use 40MHz-wide wifi networks on 2.4GHz if there are other wireless networks nearby. Your router shouldn’t do this if it obeys wireless coexistence mechanisms, but it might not. (And if you’re setting up a wifi network in a wifi-free location, feel free to force your router to run 40MHz channels if it isn’t already—and you have the option to do so.)
#7. Thwart hackers by using the right wireless security
We’ve covered this before, but proper wifi security is always worth a good reminder. Here are the basics you need to know:
Keep your router’s firmware up to date
Use WPA2 encryption for your wifi networks’ passwords
Change your router’s default login and password (no more “admin”/”admin” or “admin”/”password”)
Turn off WPS unless you can configure your router to only use a push-button method (physically hitting buttons on devices you want to connect via WPS)
Disable any “remote management” services your router offers
#8. Increase your wifi range with DIY tricks
If your router still won’t reach far enough, you can extend its range with simple DIY tricks. Our favorite is the Windsurfer tin foil hack, though you can also use an old beer can or a cooking strainer to extend your router’s range. The results won’t necessarily be mind blowing, but you should be able to eke a bit more distance out of your WiFi network with minimal effort. (Yes, it can work.)
You can spend a little money to boost your network range without breaking the bank. Nearly all routers and PC network cards, usually those with adjustable antennae, use twist-off antennae with RP-SMA connectors. You can buy RP-SMA antenna extension cables, or even a directional antenna to boost your WiFi’s performance.
#9. Boost your router’s signal with third-party firmware
Another great way to extend your range is to hack your router and install third-party firmware like DD-WRT or OpenWrt. Not only will you get a ton of great security features and other enhancements to play with, but you might be able to boost your router’s transmitting power (if it doesn’t let you via its default firmware). This can be dangerous for your router, but most routers can handle an increase up to 70 mW without causing any issues, and you’ll (hopefully) get a little performance boost in the process.
#10. Turn an old router into a new, dumb access point
Great routers come with some kind of setting that allows you to quickly transform them into access points: disabling the hardware firewall and DHCP feature so you can use them as simple signal blasters in your home or apartment. Otherwise, you’ll have to set this up manually, but it can be a great way to get more use out of older equipment, especially if you just need some kind of connection for a faraway spot that doesn’t have anything.
You might also be able to use DD-WRT or OpenWRT to transform your old wireless into a wifi extender—which connects to your primary router via a wireless connection, rather than wired. For the best speeds, however, you’ll want to string Ethernet cable between the two instead.