Improving Home Wireless Networking Signal Strength and Performance
I recently moved my office down to the basement. It’s a nice space and everything, but it’s in the back of the house and the wireless access point is attached to the cable modem up in the front of the house.
Now, I after the cluster-screw up I had with Windows random wireless network disconnects in the past, I figured I knew a thing or two about home office wireless networking. I was thinking about getting a repeater, or seeing if a longer Ethernet cable might allow me to position the wireless router somewhere else, and so on.
But, when I got to the basement I got a signal. Not a great signal, but good enough to work with. The little wireless network status icon in the system tray fluctuated between low and very low signal strength and the bandwidth sat in the 20 to 36 Mbps range, but since Internet access is my primary concern, those numbers were not a problem since that still is faster than my cable modem based Internet connection runs anyway.
Then, I hosed up my wireless Internet connection and I figured I would move the wireless USB adapter to a better spot while I was at it. The idiot system that Windows XP is required me to insert the CD so it could install the drivers despite the exact same thing being installed two seconds ago in a different USB slot! Arrrgggghh!
I didn’t have the CD handy, but I had my old wireless USB adapter that I replaced while troubleshooting the Microsoft browser caused wireless network connection drops that I was getting before. I plugged it in (and for some reason didn’t need that CD, whatever) and it worked, but the signal was stronger.
So, I started to wonder, was the D-Link wireless adapter more powerful than the Belkin USB wireless adapter that I moved to?
To find out I tried moving them both around and looking at the system tray icon. That was an exercise in lameness. So I found a utility called Netstumbler but it was all cranky about working and rebooting and whatever, so I found Net Survey at the same time and installed it. Both utilities are actually designed to scan the airwaves and see how many wireless networks are around and which channel would be best for your wireless network. My neighbors don’t live that close, so it’s a blank slate.
But, they also show the signal strength of each wireless signal, including yours. So, I used it to play around with the adapters and the locations and found out some very bizarre things.
First, it matters which way the USB adapter faces! That’s odd considering you are just supposed to plug it into the USB slot. I use the connecting wire because the adapters are too big to allow me to fill up all the USB slots that are in a row on my computer. Turns out that if the “Belkin” on the front of the adapter points in the direction of the wireless access point I get a signal that is 40% instead of something in the low 20% range if it points in another direction.
Second, despite the fact that the wireless router is on the level above me, higher is not better for signal strength. In my case, the adapter sitting on my desk near the back wall (which is also the outside wall for the basement) provides a better signal than running the thing up higher.
I have no idea why the height thing works the way it does, but I’m betting it likes to be back by the wall because that means there is zero signal coming from behind it since that wall is underground and I’m guessing wireless interfering signal earth penetration is fairly low. I guess that might explain the higher anomaly as well. However, there is a maximum lowness that works. Any lower and the signal starts to fade.
So, if you are trying to get better performance out of a wireless network, don’t just assume that you need to tweak configuration settings or buy a better, or more expensive, router or wireless network adapter. Instead, download Netstumbler or Net Surveyor and then move your adapter around and watch the signal. You might be surprised where the best spot is for your network adapter to be.