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Fact or fiction: What affects Wi-Fi speed?

James Galbraith, Michael Brown | Nov. 5, 2013
For all of the gains made in Wi-Fi technology, much confusion remains about wireless networks and the problems that can plague them.

Believe it or not, there was a time not long ago when surfing the Internet from your back porch required a very, very long ethernet cable. These days Wi-Fi seems to be everywhere, with inkjet printers, digital cameras, TVs, and even refrigerators connecting to home and office networks without the need for cables.

But for all of the gains made in Wi-Fi technology, much confusion remains about wireless networks and the problems that can plague them. To help clear up some of the confusion, we gathered a list of common beliefs about Wi-Fi speed and set about proving or disproving them using the tools available to us here in the Macworld lab.

'The farther away from the router you are, the worse your signal strength will be.'
The lower your signal strength, the lower the bandwidth you'll get over your network. To test whether signal strength dropped the farther away from the router we got, we took a new Apple Time Capsule, which uses 802.11ac wireless, and connected a MacBook Pro directly to its ethernet port to act as a server.

Next, we connected an 8012.11ac-equipped 2013 MacBook Air (with Wi-Fi updates applied) to the Time Capsule's closed network and ran AccessAgility's $5 WiFiPerf. As the name implies, the utility measures wireless performance over a network. I took the whole setup out in front of my quiet suburban home and ran the test at a number of set distances, ranging from 6 feet to 200 feet in direct line of sight with the Time Capsule.

At 6 feet away, the transfer rate from the client (MacBook Air) to the server (MacBook Pro connected to the Time Capsule via ethernet) was 547 megabits per second (mbps). At 26 feet away, that rate dropped by 17 percent to 456 mbps. At 54 feet, the throughput dipped under 400 mbps. Getting past 100 feet, the speed dropped precipitously to just 139 mbps—about a quarter of the throughput we saw from 6 feet away.  At 150 feet we got 25 mbps and at 200 unobstructed feet, we were able to eke out just 12 mbps.

'The more wireless networks there are around you, the worse your Wi-Fi performance will be.'
To test this theory, I brought that same outdoor suburban distance test indoors to a long hallway in our seven-story office building in San Francisco's South Park neighborhood. At my home, the MacBook detected 25 networks; at the office it saw 150.

At a distance of 6 feet from the Time Capsule, our average throughput was 489 mbps, 11 percent less than the suburban network speed. At 26 feet, the office speed dropped to 305 mbps, 33 percent less than the suburban test result from the same distance. At 54 feet, the indoor test was 44 percent slower than in my quiet neighborhood. And at 78 feet, the speeds in my office were down 51 percent from the speed I got in front of my house at the same distance.


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