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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.

'Do-it-yourself Wi-Fi antenna boosters are totally bogus.' 
We'd seen claims on the Internet that a simple antenna enhancement could boost Wi-Fi signal strength. Was it for real? We decided to check. First, we took a Linksys EA6900 router with three external antennas and measured the throughput (using the WiFiPerf utility) at different locations around our offices. We then printed out templates for 6-inch parabolic signal reflectors from and constructed the reflectors using paper, tape, cardboard, and tinfoil.

At about 20 feet away from the router, the tests showed roughly a 12 percent throughput improvement when we used the reflectors. Moving about 70 feet away, the performance benefit increased to 43 percent. Doubling the distance reduced the throughput both with and without the reflectors, but still they helped the router deliver 46 percent higher throughput speeds overall. The antenna boosters really did offer a boost to our network's performance.

'Microwave ovens can interfere with your Wi-Fi network.'
This one is no myth. A microwave oven can emit a tremendous amount of energy while heating up your leftover Chinese takeout. The problem is particularly bad on the 2.4GHz frequency band—a reason to avoid using that frequency if you can. As you can see from this image captured with MetaGeek's $599 Wi-Spy DBx Pro spectrum analyzer, interference from an operating microwave stomped all over our 2.4GHz network, reducing network throughput from just over 100 mbps to about 3 mbps.

We saw much less interference on the 5GHz frequency band. To change the frequency that an AirPort Extreme uses, for example, launch AirPort Utility, select your router, and click Edit. Select the Wireless tab and click Wireless Options. In the next window, check the box titled 5GHz network name.  Click Save and then click Update. This will create a unique network name that you can connect to in order to ensure that you're always on the 5GHz band.

'My roommate is hogging all our bandwidth by downloading Torrents, and there's nothing I can do.' 
Well, either you could tell your roommate to be more considerate of the rest of the household or you could switch to a router that supports Quality of Service (QoS). Apple's $179 AirPort Extreme (3.5 of 5 rating) and $299 Time Capsule (4 of 5 rating) are great routers, but this is one feature they lack.

With QoS, a router can prioritize traffic traveling over the network so that applications that are sensitive to lag—online games and VoIP, for example—are given higher priority than applications that aren't, such as large file downloads. A growing trend in wireless routers is to also provide downstream QoS, which enables the router to differentiate between, say, file downloads and video streams, so that the latter gets higher priority and you can enjoy a better experience. Both the $170 Asus RT-N66U router (4.5 of 5 rating) and Netgear's $200 Nighthawk router (4.5 of 5 rating) offer this feature.


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