Mending the wireless
Much of this month’s column was inspired by an email from reader Dave Handbury, who writes: “The only telephone socket in my rented house is in an upstairs bedroom, and so that’s where I have my ADSL wireless modem. But the signal in the room that I use as an office downstairs is very ropey, and with my Dell laptop the network connection keeps cutting in and out. What can I do to improve things?” Well Dave, this is one of those questions that hasn’t got a single answer, as there are many and various steps you could take. That’s why I thought it would make a good basis for a column, and I’ll start it off with a few zero-cost ideas to see whether they might help.
First, your Dell laptop probably has a small hatch on the bottom that conceals its wireless card, so open this hatch with a small Phillips screwdriver and check that the aerials are properly connected. I’ve come across several machines recently where they’d become dislodged, resulting in ropey wireless performance. The connectors used on laptop wireless cards are known as U.FL, and they’re of a horrid design that needs a lot of pressure to get their two parts to mate properly – get the angle slightly wrong and it’s easy to damage them. In fact, the manufacturer of these U.FL parts, a Japanese company called Hirose, specifies that a special tool should be used, but I don’t know of anyone who uses or even owns one. The trouble is that these connectors are so tiny and so precisely engineered that even the slightest deformation can cause poor or erratic performance, so if your cable has come loose please reconnect it carefully, and if it looks properly attached then don’t mess with it unnecessarily.
If the aerials are firmly attached, the next thing to do is see if you can get a stronger radio signal between modem and laptop. You probably don’t have a lot of scope for moving the laptop within your office – it needs to sit on your desk in a comfortable typing position – but you almost certainly do have scope to re-position the wireless modem. Is it up against a wall? If so, try moving it a couple of feet away as walls can attenuate the signal, especially ones made of high-density blocks or embedded metal (which is typical of walls made of pre-cast concrete). Since metal stops wireless signals so effectively, try to ensure you keep the modem away from large metallic objects and electronic kit: you might not keep metal filing cabinets in a bedroom, but have you placed the modem next to the portable TV? And incidentally, if you have a large fish tank anywhere in the path between modem and laptop that will certainly sap the signal too, as water is a very effective absorber at 2.4GHz.
If your wireless modem has movable aerials, as many do, try moving those. If it has a single antenna, try moving that around to point in various directions, and if it has more than one, try pointing them all in the same direction and then in different directions. Whatever you’ve read in the user manual or tech-support website, I find that in the real world there appear to be no hard and fast rules about what works best – experiment and find what’s best for your own environment.
If none of these free measures works you’re going to have to spend some money on a solution, and here are a few things you can try, starting with the easiest, which is to replace your existing wireless modem. If it’s an old model it might support only the 802.11g or perhaps even 802.11b standards, whereas newer versions such as draft-n and hybrids of 802.11g (called G+ and other names) will offer significantly increased wireless range. As a general rule of thumb, look for buzzwords such as MIMO (multiple in, multiple out) on the box and for devices that have more than one antenna, although this isn’t always obvious as some manufacturers use internal ones. The problem, though, is that while changing your wireless modem is the easiest step you can take, it’s also one of the more expensive ones, and worse still it isn’t guaranteed to make a difference. If you can find a friendly shop that will let you return the equipment if it doesn’t make any difference, then you should jump at the offer.