Supercharge your Wi-Fi

The growth of home networking in the past five years has been phenomenal. In 2001, it was rare to find anyone, bar those who ran a business at home and a few committed enthusiasts, who would have any kind of network installed at home. Now, the vast majority of PC Pro readers are in that category. The reasons don’t just come down to falling PC prices and increasing numbers of multi-PC homes, but to the ubiquity of ADSL and 802.11g wireless kit. By getting rid of the need for unsightly cables and providing protocols and services that were relatively easy to set up, even for the layman, Wi-Fi made the talk of wireless networking a reality. We can browse the web, check email, do business and play games from every room in the house.

Supercharge your Wi-Fi

Yet 802.11g is just the beginning. As you can see in this month’s Labs, a new generation of wireless networking is finally coming of age. Technologies such as MIMO are dramatically improving both the speeds and reach of the home network. We can access the internet from more places inside and outside the house, and swap huge files between computers in seconds, not minutes. But why limit yourself to the same old boring applications? Using a next-generation wireless home network solely for web browsing and email is a waste when this enhanced technology enables a whole new range of exciting, practical and innovative uses. With MIMO, Draft-N and eventually fully fledged 802.11n, concepts and technologies like wireless Voice-over-IP, the home hub, high-definition streaming media and NAS (network assisted storage) really come into their own. You could be doing so much more.

And that’s what this feature is about: helping you to understand the benefits of wireless networking in the home, so you can make the most of whatever you’re using now, then – when you’re ready to make that investment in next-generation technology – reap all of the possible rewards. We’ll look at extending the reach of your home network, setting up a NAS as a home media server so you can have music or video in every room, enjoying the low-cost/no-cost flexibility of wireless VoIP, and much more. This needn’t be expensive and it’s much easier than you might expect.

Extending the home network

For all its benefits, 802.11g never quite lived up to its billing in one crucial area: reach. Many of us had dreams of web surfing from the back garden or converting the loft into a home office, only to be hit by the cruel reality of slow speeds and painfully intermittent connections. In truth, 802.11g works brilliantly in the same room, effectively in adjacent rooms and unpredictably just about everywhere else. Whether you’re listening to streamed music, connecting to the office or making a last-minute bid on Ebay, that’s hardly a good thing. Of course, altering the position of the router or your antenna may help, as will scanning the area for objects that might interfere with the signal – even a rack of CDs can cause problems. However, to maximise reach, some small investment may be required.

The simplest solution is a replacement antenna. Most routers ship with a low-gain 2 or 3dBi antenna, and by replacing that with a 5dBi omnidirectional antenna you can get up to an 80% boost in coverage and performance at distance. First, check to see whether the existing antenna (or antennae) can be removed. Most screw into an RP-SMA or RP-TNC connector, but if your router has an internal antenna you’re out of luck. The safest replacement is the manufacturer’s own booster (expect to pay £6 to £15), but if you can pinpoint the connector used by your router – a Google search should help – third-party antennae are available from the likes of for under £10.

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