Five simple ways to speed up your home network
Maybe you're tired of paying the cable company and want to get your movies and other entertainment from the Web. Naturally you'll want to watch those shows on your TV with the aid of an Apple TV, Roku box or similar device. More and more people are doing that, and if you want to join the crowd, you've got to be sure your home Internet network is up to the challenge.
Connected TVs are an utter drag without a fast network. Squeezing the most out performance out of your network is called optimizing, and it isn't very hard, and it doesn't have to be all that expensive.
But first, let me warn you about one thing: Your wireless network simply can't run any faster than your Internet connection. If you have reason to think your network isn't running as fast as it used to (or as fast as it should, given your hardware) go to Speedtest.net and check your download and upload speeds and compare them to what your provider says you're getting. Obviously you want to check the speed on a wired connection first to rule out (or identify) your ISP as the culprit.
Here are five ways to make your home network so good you'll be able to say farewell to your cable company.
Move the router
Let's start with the very simplest technique to optimize your wireless network. I know this sounds simpleminded, but trust me: Think about moving your router to a more central location, or to a room that doesn't have thick walls or a lot of other equipment that might cause interference. The router broadcasts a signal that spreads in a sphere, so if it's centered on the back of the house, or in the basement, the signal might not make it to all the rooms where you'd like to connect a device to the Internet.
Your cordless phone
Cordless phones can cause interference since some of them broadcast on the same channel that your router does. If you think it's an issue for you, try changing channels on the phone and see if that cleans up your connection.
Buy and install an extender
Let's say your biggest issue is extending the range of your network, and moving the router is simply not practical. One way to go is to buy a range extender. There are a number on the market for under $100. However, you'll pay a performance penalty since extenders degrade the strength of the signal. That might not matter if you're just surfing the Web, but if you're a serious online gamer, they're not. Nor are they a good way to hook up the new generation of televisions and boxes that stream movies and video into your TV.
If you want to stream video over your home network, here's a better alternative to wireless: Take advantage of the wiring in your home. You do that by buying a product that complies with standards set by the Homeplug Powerline Alliance. There are more than 120 companies that sell Powerline gear, but in general, they all work about the same way.
Rather than broadcast a Wi-Fi signal, Powerline products move the signal over existing wiring in your home or office. Generally, what you'll do is connect one Powerline adapter to your broadband modem or router, and then connect it to a wall socket (not a surge protector or power strip). Plug a second adapter into a socket in the room where the device you want to connect to the Internet is located, and connect the device to the adapter with an Ethernet cable. That's it. You're done. And you've probably spent about $125 for the networking gear. Be sure that any adapter kit you buy comes with at least two adapters, the minimum for creating a network.
Older wiring can be a concern. Some homes have older wiring that simply won't support Powerline networking because it isn't "clean" enough. That is, there's interference on the line. Protect yourself by being sure you can return the networking kit if it doesn't work in your home.
Just because you're using Powerline technology in one room, doesn't mean you can't use Wi-Fi in another. Combining the two technologies could give you a fast network over a large area without too much hassle.
Change your network hardware
If you want to speed up your existing Wi-Fi network and you've tried moving the router around without much improvement it might be time to upgrade your networking hardware. The slowest part of your network will set the pace for the rest of it.
Wi-Fi standards have changed and speed up over the years. The really old ones, like 802.11a and 802.11b are hopeless antiquated. The latest standard, 802.11n is where where you want to be.
If your laptop is fairly new, it most likely has 802.11n built in. If that's the case, check your router and extenders if you're using them. It's cheaper and easier to upgrade a router (in this case, upgrade really means replace) than to upgrade the networking hardware inside your laptop.
I've installed many routers over the years, and I've had to make many calls to company help centers. Some routers, like Cisco's Valet home router, are surprisingly easy to set up. Though they may lack some advanced features, they are just fine for most home networks.
[San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. He welcomes your comments and suggestions. Follow Bill Snyder on Twitter @BSnyderSF.]