5 Tips for Pain-Free Wireless Home Networking

Like the popular new restaurant that suddenly can't turn out a decent meal, home networking is a victim of its own success

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 flavors 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 works 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.

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Bill Snyder

CIO (US)
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