Is your home wifi constantly shutting down or disconnecting from your device? Does everything shit out when more than one person tries to stream? Do you have to stay huddled together right next to your router to share the connection? To be honest, I have no clue what's wrong with your wifi. All wifi networks are created differently—and definitely not fairly. But don't worry. There are easy ways to fix crappy networks, if you're open to some trial and error.
Home wifi normally suffers from two kinds of threats, and no, they're not teenage data succubi and hard core gamers. It could boil down to hardware problems, like your router consistently turning off, which is pretty rare. Far more common is an environmental issue. Where you place your router, how far its coverage spreads, and even the build of your home can have drastic effects on wifi. There are a million and one solutions out there—from unplugging and replugging your router to buying a range extender or mesh network—but first things first: You need to pinpoint the issue.
So, how do you pinpoint the issue?
Most routers—excluding many of the rental routers you get from Internet or cable companies—have a phone app that makes it simple to update the firmware, change your settings, and more. Just downloading that app can give you a wealth of relevant information. There are also a bunch of free apps out there, like Heat Map and Speed Test, that help you see how your internet is performing. All will allow you to test your wifi speeds quickly and from different areas of your home, so you can pinpoint dead spots or see how your wifi works under stress.
Just having access to information about download speeds and coverage can make a huge difference in how you understand your connection. For starters, knowing what your connection looks like on a good day will tell you if you truly need an internet upgrade or just a fix so you have fewer bad days. Monitoring when your internet itself is not up to snuff can help you better complain to your service provider, forcing them to offer actual solutions. And finding dead zones in your house can show you where to spread your coverage by using wifi accessories—or simply moving your router.
What if your home internet connection is good, but your router keeps giving out?
If you have a hardware issue with your router—not the actual internet itself—you'll most likely see the globe (or similar symbol) on your router turn red or yellow, or the message "limited or no connectivity" pop up even when your wifi is showing that it is connected.
A lot of different things could cause your router to crap out on you, but there are a few simple solutions. One is to make sure your wifi has the latest firmware. Whether you're using the router provided to you from the internet or cable company or you own one, the software on it gets updates pretty regularly, a fact that many people overlook. Every router is different, but all should be easy to update after a few minutes on the router manufacturer's website, or on the phone with the manufacturer. Going back to the phone app, a vast majority of routers have an app where you can easily do updates with the press of a button.
Another key factor to keep in mind is that using the router provided to you by the internet or cable company isn't always the right move. Oftentimes you can buy far better routers for far less money than you'll end up paying by the end of the rental period. Some companies even give customers a new and improved router as their “internet” upgrade, meaning your internet connection was always good, but the router itself couldn't transmit all of the data.
As a final note, if you are investing in a new router, make sure it has 5 GHz capabilities (rather than just 2.4 GHz) and a 802.11ac system. Don't worry about what those numbers mean too much—most routers will have them—it just assures you that you have the latest tech. These three fit the bill:
What if your internet works great near the router, but sucks everywhere else?
This is actually a great problem to have—i.e. an environmental problem—because it's usually easier to fix. If coverage is your problem, you just need to check your router's location. The more wires and appliances that get in the way, the worse the coverage can be. This problem can be solved by simply moving your router (and using apps to test the new location), creating a guest wifi, or investing in extenders or a mesh network.
What's guest wifi?
Most routers give you the ability to create a second, less powerful wifi network with a custom password for any house guests you might have. This helps keep your main wifi safe and clear for your own personal use.
What are range extenders and mesh networks?
An extender is a simple wall plug-in that creates new, mini-wifi networks that mimic your main network to pump signal into a different part of your home. Sometimes, your devices will pair seamlessly with all of these new networks. Sometimes. But oftentimes, extenders break down, and then your devices get confused as to whether they should connect to your main router wifi or the new extender wifi. All that being said, more extenders might mean weaker wifi in general, since the network is being siphoned between all these access points.
Mesh networks, however, are comprised of a team of routers that work together to pump out one strong, unified network. Normally, only one of the routers needs to be connected to the main internet line or a bridge (like the router your internet company provided) to cover a large space.
Now, this isn't to say a mesh network is inherently good and extenders are inherently bad; they do similar things but are for different situations.
Should you get extenders?
Maybe. Range extenders should only be used if your wifi is already pretty great, but you have a large area to cover that it can't quite manage. A good extender can help push already-strong wifi further, with easy monitoring through an app. Try to buy from a name brand. For instance, I’ve had very good luck with Linksys, D-Link, and Netgear:
Should you get a mesh network?
Personally, I think a mesh network is one of the simplest and best solutions for most people's homes. On a surface level, a mesh network may seem very similar to extenders: You place devices in your home to get a better wifi spread. But a mesh network creates one wifi network with a large area of coverage, so you never have to worry about disconnecting and reconnecting, like you would from extender to extender. Plus, mesh networks are made with router-grade tech, so the signals are much stronger than extenders.
You could also buy multiple routers instead of a mesh network, but a huge pro to having a mesh network is that it comes ready-to-use out of the box.
The most consumer-friendly mesh network I’ve come across so far is the Google Wifi system. Essentially, it can replace your router and speak among three units. The app lets you run tests and see exactly where there are connection issues, with intuitive tips on how to fix them.
Now, a mesh network may be overkill for your little apartment, considering that its widespread coverage is more suited for a big house with multiple floors, but I still recommend using Google Wifi as a router, just because of its simple maintenance and the headache it saves you.
Don't stress, just run the tests.
At the end of the day, wifi can feel daunting, but you have all the tools you need. Run the tests and figure out the best and most affordable solution for you to make your online life much smoother. And if you don't want to do that, just unplug everything and go off the grid.
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