5 tips for a wicked wireless home network

Hair-pullingly bad experiences with wireless networking have led me to formulate Snyder’s First Law of Home Networking: No matter who sells you the router, you’ll have at least one excruciating session with tech support before you have an Internet connection.

Well, I’m surprised and happy to say that I’ve finally found an exception: Cisco’s new Valet home router, billed as “home wireless made easy” actually works as advertised. Be still my beating heart. (More about the Valet later.)

Like the popular new restaurant that suddenly can’t turn out a decent meal, home networking is a victim of its own success. The more devices we add to our networks, and the more demanding applications we want to run across them, the tougher it is to have a good experience.

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Movies and videos are certainly the worst offenders in this regard, but streaming music can slow down your network, or cause connections to drop so frequently you want to toss the device out the window.

Here are five tips that will help take the pain out of wireless networking.

1. Buy an “n” router

As you’ve probably noticed, routers come in a number of flavours that are identified by a letter following the ubiquitous 802.11 designation. The newest flavor is “n,” and there’s no reason to buy a “b” or “g” router that isn’t “n” compatible.

It is possible that you have an older PC that doesn’t support “n,” but that shouldn’t be a problem. Nearly all of the wireless standards are backwardly compatible, so buy “n” and be ready for your next computer, which will certainly support it. Be aware, though, that a network will run at the speed of its slowest component, so you won’t get all the benefits of the new standard.

“N” is faster than older standards – hitting speeds as fast as 300 Mbs, compared to about 54Mbps for “g” routers. A few months ago, I wrote about the broadband speed gotcha, the annoying difference between a download speed that vendors sell as “up to” a certain number and the slower, real-world performance. That’s also true in wireless networking. You won’t get 300 Mbs.

A box that’s been sitting on a store shelf for a while may say that the router supports “Draft n.” That’s a legacy of the long time it took for the IEEE to agree on a final standard, but it’s not something that will affect compatibility or performance.

2. Multiple antennas and multiple bands work best

Because we’re talking wireless networking here, there are a few complications. More expensive ‘n” routers use three or more antennas; cheaper ones use fewer. It’s not a drop dead requirement, but more antennas will give you better coverage and better performance.

You might not think that microwaves, baby monitors, cordless phones and routers don’t have much in common – but they do. All use the 2.4GHz radio band and can interfere with each other.

Dual-band routers operate in both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands. Some, called single-radio models make you choose one band or the other, while simultaneous or two-radio models support devices that connect in both bands at the same time.

Devices on the 5 GHz band won’t trip over the microwave, and that could help avoid annoying dropped connections. However, the 5 GHz signal is more likely to slow when it goes through a wall, so you’ve got a few possible tradeoffs here. I have a dual band router, and have never needed to switch to the 5 GHz mode, but if interference does seem to be a problem in your home, a dual-band router might be the solution.

3. Buy a Wi-Fi Extenders to boost the signal

It’s frustrating to have a really strong Wi-Fi signal in one room, only to have it fade away in another. The signal’s strength may be dropping because you’re using an older “b” or “g” router, or your home may simply be too big to cover easily.

Before you spend money trying to fix this, it’s not a bad idea to move the router and maybe one of your computers around and see where you get the best signal. I suggest this because your house may have old-style wiring or something in the walls that blocks the signal. If that’s the case, you may need to run Ethernet cable to connect a computer in the wireless dead zone.

Assuming the problem is simply the size of your home, buying a Wi-Fi range extender makes sense. Newer “n” compatible extenders cost $80 to $100; “g” compatible extenders are somewhat cheaper.

4. Use better connectivity software

Windows does only a so-so job of sniffing out available wireless networks and helping you repair a damaged connection. A third-party application called Network Magic (now owned by Cisco) is a lot better. I’ve been using it for years to add devices to my network, keep track of what devices, including intruders, are using it, and to install passwords and share files and printers securely.

It’s especially useful when your connection drops; simply push the “repair connection” button, and if the problem is relatively simple Network Magic will correct it and get you back online.

The software comes in a number of versions, but for most users Network Magic Essentials, priced at about $30, is all you need.

5. If you just need the basics, meet Cisco’s Valet

Cisco’s new Valet routers – the Valet and the Valet Plus – are designed for the home user who only needs fairly basic wireless connectivity and has little patience for tweaking settings.

I tested the Valet, listed at $99, and as I mentioned, was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to set up. All of the software is on a USB drive that guides you through the setup and handles the configuration. I was on the Internet in 10 or 15 minutes from the time I opened the box, and then added my iPhone to the new network in five more minutes.

That was it. The only call I made to tech support was for a problem I faked, just to see if Cisco’s support was any good. It was fine. I reached a tech pretty quickly, and he found the correct solution to my bogus problem right away.

The Valet’s signal was strong enough to cover my entire flat and I haven’t noticed any dropped connections. The built-in software offers a few extra options, like parental controls.

The Valet doesn’t offer the advanced features, such as support for a VPN or network attached storage devices, and has just two internal antennas. The $149 Valet Plus has three antennas, sports faster ports on the back, and has more range. Like its cheaper sibling, it’s not designed to manage complex networks.

But if you just want to build a basic wireless network, the Valet is the best entry-level router I’ve seen.

San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. He welcomes your comments and suggestions. Reach him at [email protected].

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