Supercharge your Wi-Fi
Antennae come in indoor and outdoor flavours, with omnidirectional and directional variants. Directional antennae provide the strongest boost (8 to 14dBi), but only within a narrow arc (usually 45 to 75 degrees). As a result, they’re better suited to setting up an access point for a specific area (say, the office or garden) than they are for replacing your router’s antenna. For 99% of home purposes, an indoor omnidirectional antenna is ideal. In our tests, a 5dBi booster attached to an 802.11g router was enough to get a just-usable 1Mb/sec connection working in an outbuilding where previously there had been none, and to get a working 35Mb/sec connection in a distant room where the existing speed was a miserly 11Mb/sec. The only possible drawback is that, as omnidirectional antennae provide coverage in a doughnut-shaped pattern, a booster won’t help much if you’re trying to extend coverage vertically from, for instance, a ground-floor room to an attic office.
Time for an upgrade
In which case, your next step may be a MIMO or Draft-N upgrade. MIMO splits one data stream into multiple lower-rate streams, transmitted by two or more antennae. Due to spatial and environmental factors, these signals will arrive at different times, creating virtual radio channels in which more than one stream of data can be fed through the same frequency and then recombined by the MIMO chipset at either end of the connection. However, this doesn’t just mean an increase in data throughput to 108Mb/sec and beyond; it also means that MIMO turns one of the weaknesses of Wi-Fi – its susceptibility to interference and reflections – into a strength, improving connection speeds at long range. While this couldn’t help in our outbuilding, the replacement of the existing 801.11g router with a Netgear RangeMax NEXT Draft-N setup was enough to boost speeds in the distant room to 36Mb/sec. Don’t ignore proprietary high-speed standards either. A similar swap for a Buffalo AirStation G54 High Power router and client bought us an improvement to 25Mb/sec.
If you’re unwilling to invest in a proprietary or as-yet-unfinished standard, and you need a stable connection in a specific area, consider using a wireless access point (in Bridge mode) or a specialist repeater to boost the signal. Basically, the access point or repeater relays data packets to and fro between router and client using a technology called WDS (Wireless Distribution System). Everything needs to be configured to run on the same wireless channel, and you need to be careful about possible IP address conflicts, but this is an effective way of getting your network where it’s needed.
There are, however, caveats. First, the process of relaying packets back and forth degrades the speed of the connection by approximately half. Remember, real connection speeds never match the nominal figures, so if you only reach a real data rate of 16Mb/sec on nearby clients you’re only going to hit 8Mb/sec using the repeater. Second, WDS can’t cope with dynamically assigned key security systems, so high-security WPA protection goes out of the window in favour of bog-standard WEP. Third, MIMO and proprietary high-speed standards won’t work, so your whole network will be limited to 802.11g speeds. Finally, while WDS is meant to be a standard, even the hardware manufacturers admit that their WDS kit won’t necessarily work with anyone else’s – and our experience bears this out. If you want a repeater or WDS access point to complement your router, buy one from the same manufacturer.