Wireless networking can be more temperamental than the average British summer. A number of factors can reduce your wireless network's speed, which impedes streaming, online gaming, download times and web browsing.
But unlike the weather, there's more that you can do than merely moan about your network performance – in fact, there are many ways you can look at improving it. Here are ten suggestions for how you can get a faster wireless network, from tweaking your existing setup to looking at hardware upgrades.
A better router
It sounds obvious that a more up-to-date router will be faster, but you may be unaware of how old and over-the-hill your existing networking kit is. A really old ISP-supplied router might be stuck on the ancient and painfully slow 802.11g standard, with a single antenna, and not enough processing capability to handle multiple devices at once.
All ISPs provide you with a router or modem when you sign up, usually with wireless capability. They're never usually that great, and replacing it with a new model could provide a significant boost to speeds.
A quick look at the TechRadar Pro reviews of wireless routers will give you some idea of what the latest models are capable of.
Of course, this means reaching for your wallet. If all you want is better speeds for streaming YouTube videos or browsing, you certainly don't need the most expensive and feature-packed wire-less router you can find.
But you might not need to spend anything. If your ISP supplied your router, give them a call and see if they'll upgrade it for free. You might just be in luck.
Upgrade to 802.11ac
If you want the fastest possible download speeds and the lowest latency when playing online games, a new router that supports 802.11ac, the latest wireless networking standard, is probably the best upgrade you can implement.
802.11ac means speeds roughly between two and five times faster than 802.11n. It significantly increases the amount of data that can be squeezed into each channel to 433Mbit/sec, with most routers capable of three streams, theoretically for total speeds up to 1300 Mbit/sec.
It also introduces Beamforming, a technology that calculates the rough position of connected computers and increases power in that direction, which can improve connectivity.
A major caveat though is that to see these speeds, your computer, smartphone or tablet will also need to support 802.11ac. The majority of the newest gadgets do, but if you have an older laptop, you'll need to buy a wireless dongle that supports 802.11ac, which you can just plug into a USB port.
802.11ac routers can be quite expensive, and the dongle is an additional cost on top. The cheaper routers retail for around £80 new (around $125, AU$160), but a second-hand router can be a lot less, and still offer a huge performance leap over older technology.
Adopt Powerline Ethernet
Why rely on wireless alone? If you're stretching a wireless signal from one end of the house to another, speeds are guaranteed to suffer. Powerline Ethernet means network data travels between computers over the electricity circuit in your home, offering potentially faster speeds than even the best wireless technology – and this complements, rather than replaces, your wireless network.
Modern Powerline Ethernet adaptors offer close to 1Gbit/sec speeds (500Mbit/sec each way). You'll see excellent latency times, and streaming video from a NAS will be beautifully quick.
But as with wireless, extra-long distances can affect performance, while the wiring in your home and interference from other devices can also reduce speeds.
Powerline Ethernet adaptors are a fixed, wired networking technology, which is great for stretching them to a desktop PC in the office, but no use for a tablet. Some products now solve this problem with built-in wireless capability at one end of the Powerline adaptors, offering a neat way to extend wireless coverage at the same time.
Use a bridge
A bridge is a repeater that extends the range of your wireless network. It copies all the settings, uses the same network name and password and dishes out IP addresses to clients from the same DHCP server.
For devices connecting to your wireless network, the bridge will be effectively invisible – all they will see is a single SSID. And you can use multiple bridges to extend the wireless network further. They're used extensively in hotels, large campuses or anywhere offering a single wireless network to users over a large area, and they work just as well in homes.
You can have both wired or wireless bridges. A wired bridge will be faster but is yet another device to rely on your wireless network. Consider combining a bridge with Powerline Ethernet (discussed in the last slide) to bring a solid wireless connection to another room.
Reposition your router
An obvious sounding adjustment you can make is to move your wireless router. Radio waves travel in a straight line from router to client device, and can be picked up from anywhere in a rough circle emanating from the router.
You should get better speeds around your home if the router is placed in a more central location.
Often, a modem or router will be gathering dust on the floor, right next to a telephone or cable point on an external facing wall, which is great for wireless speeds in the front garden, but not so good for upstairs back rooms. However, note that long telephone cables for DSL connections will degrade the signal.
Change the network channel
Buried in your router's built-in configuration software will be a set of options to configure your wireless network. Adjusting one of these settings, the wireless channel, can make a noticeable difference to your speeds. They're labelled between 0 and 13 and represent small differences in the exact wireless frequency your router uses.
You'll need to know the login details for your router's software, which are probably on a sticker underneath it. Every router is different, so we can't tell you exactly where to find the wireless channel setting, but it's often under an Advanced header in the Wireless menu.
In a built-up urban area, there are likely to be dozens of wireless networks in range of your computer, and the majority of these will be competing for space in the 2.4GHz radio spectrum.
The best thing to do is try a bit of trial and error, but you can check the congestion of any given channel by analysing the nearby wireless networks. A nifty piece of Windows software called InSSIDer (from Metageek) can be used for this, while on a Mac an app called Netspot will do the same thing.
It's worth looking at these settings anyway. If the option is set to automatically choose a channel, the router can change this while it is on sometimes, causing havoc for some devices that are currently connected. Changing to a fixed channel may help with stability.
Image Credit: Micjeyjaeer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Switch to 5GHz
All 802.11n routers can operate at 2.4GHz, but most models now offer 5GHz as well. 5GHz is much faster than 2.4GHz, but you lose some range with it, with a sharp cut-off point beyond around 10 metres.
It's worth checking if switching your wireless network to 5GHz improves speeds. Once again, log in to your router's software and have a poke around the wireless settings.
It's important to note that many routers can output a network at 2.4GHz or 5GHz, but not both at once, although there are some exceptions. More often than not, routers can have two wireless networks, one at 2.4GHz, one at 5GHz, with two separate network names.
And as with 802.11ac, your computer needs to support the higher frequency, which is not entirely guaranteed.
Implement a QoS policy
If you have a lot of wireless devices, in a family home for example with multiple laptops, tablets and smartphones, when everyone is using the internet, things can get congested. A large file download can make it difficult for another user to stream video reliably, off iPlayer for example.
Instead of having a huge argument, you can avoid the potential need for counselling in later life by managing your bandwidth through a router's QoS (quality of service) function.
This can be a bit tricky to get right. It lets you prioritise certain applications on the network, and ensure they'll never be completely starved of bandwidth if another computer is using the connection.
You'll need to know your way around your router's software for this. First you need to switch each computer or device that will be included in the QoS list to a static (fixed) IP address. This will be in one of the Advanced Networking menus.
The exact way the QoS page is designed will vary greatly from router to router – but you should be able to create a list of the devices you wish to include, with the most important ones at the top, which are always reserved spare bandwidth when they use the connection, and other, less important devices, towards the bottom.
Likewise with applications, the priority goes to the port number and data type. Most QoS pages have presets for popular applications, but you might need to find out what port a certain game or application uses.
Limit file sharing programs
File-sharing applications (particularly torrents) rely on both downloading and uploading to share files. If a computer is sharing and uploading torrents at full speed it is probably gobbling up all the available bandwidth. This will make it impossible to request web pages or do much else.
If you or another user does run one of these programs, then set the upload bandwidth to 1KB/sec, create an application rule for it in your router's QoS settings, and whenever possible, shut the application down rather than let it run in the background.
Move devices off wireless where you can
Not every device in your home needs to run off wireless. The fewer devices that compete for wireless bandwidth, the better. For example you might have a games console and a TV streaming gadget like an Apple TV in the living room.
A long cable or a Powerline Ethernet adaptor and a network switch will mean both are guaranteed good network speeds and no longer compete for the same precious wireless bandwidth as the tablet, laptop or smartphone.