Improving Your Home Network

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Correction Appended

NETGEAR is best known as a company that makes the routers that direct Wi-Fi traffic on home computer networks, but its fastest growing product isn't a router. It's a device called a network extender, which is meant to improve -- and extend -- a home's balky Wi-Fi signal.

That surprising fact about Netgear should tell you all you need to know about the state of home networking. Unstable connections force users to start their routers every few weeks. Thick walls dull Wi-Fi signals. Poorly located routers mean a Wi-Fi signal can't reach an entire house. And slow connection speeds can make any sort of downloading or streaming a drag.

In short, setting up the ideal home network is often easier said than done. There are ways, however, to make it less aggravating and more reliable. You just need to be willing to experiment.

To start, consider where your router is. Hiding it under the kitchen sink may be good for aesthetics, but it won't make for the best possible wireless connection.

To maximize coverage, your router must be out in the open. Router manufacturers say that, ideally, it should be in the center of the house.

That may not be easy, if the coaxial or telephone cable that carries the Internet signal into your house is in a corner or -- most likely -- the side of the house closest to the street. Like it or not, that's where you'll have to connect your router.

Most modern routers operate in two bands, 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz, and you can choose the band you want. The 2.4Ghz signal travels farther but is susceptible to interference from common household appliances, like microwave ovens, wireless landline phones and vacuum cleaners. (That's another reason not to keep your router in your kitchen.)

You should also consider upgrading your router, which typically costs $100 or less. The most popular Wi-Fi standard is called 802.11n. If you are using an older router, with an 802.11b or g technology, get an 802.11n router.

To experience improved range and speed, your devices must be able to receive the same standard used by the router. Otherwise, it will drop back to the slower standard. But unless you are still using an early iPhone or a pretty old computer, that shouldn't be a problem.

Even if you have an 802.11n router, you might consider getting a new one if your signal is disappointing.

The industry is now introducing 802.11ac, a new standard that promises greater range and faster connection speeds. But only a handful of devices, including Apple's latest iMacs and MacBook Air, actually support it. You can also buy an 802.11ac adapter for about $90. If you choose not to, buying an 802.11ac router now may not be much help.

The newest routers do, however, often include updated technologies that can improve coverage and speed, no matter what standard you use.

Some carriers, like AT&T, will provide consumers with a combination modem and router. And if you don't like that router, you can still use your own and plug it into the combination unit. Your devices will show both routers but use the one you prefer. You can also go to the router's Web site setup page and disable the combination router's signal.

Many dropped wireless connections can be solved by ensuring that your router is using the latest software, or firmware. Most manufacturers' Web site setup screens will automatically check to confirm that the latest version is installed and prompt you to download it.

Unfortunately, the download process can be clunky. First, you need to know how to get to the setup screen, which few people do. (To get to Belkin's setup Web page, for example, type in 192.168.2.1. For a Netgear router, type "routerlogin.net." If you've misplaced your router's manual, to find the proper I.P. sign-in address, do a Web search for the router and its sign-in. Once there, you often have to download the software and manually install it, which can also be a challenge.

The manufacturers' setup screens may not always be accurate when identifying the latest firmware. To be sure you're downloading the latest firmware, go to the manufacturer's actual support Web site and find firmware upgrades from there, said Tim Higgins, managing editor of smallnetbuilder.com, a Web site that helps consumers create home networks.

You should also consider a range extender like the ones sold by Netgear. They increase the range of the router's wireless signal but they don't increase the network's speed. In fact, many range extenders immediately reduce the available speed they can transmit by 50 percent. Which means that if you place the range extender far from the router, where the signal is already weak and slow, the speed transmitted by the extender will be even slower. Range extenders cost $50 to $100.

"Placing the range extender properly is a big challenge," said Chris Bainer, senior product marketing manager for Linksys. A range extender needs to be placed in the home's sweet spot: place it too close to the router, and the speed it picks up will be good but the extended range will be reduced. Place it too close to the home's dead spots, and the speed will be slow.

Because of a range extender's limitations and the trial-and-error process needed to place it correctly, many in the networking industry say they believe that extenders are a product whose time has gone.

So what should you do? For the most reliable signal, Wi-Fi is not the solution. It's the problem. Instead, a wired connection is the answer, said David Henry, the vice president of product management at Netgear.

The best way to create a home network is to place Ethernet, also known as Cat 5, cable throughout the house, and connect each device directly into it. But unless you have put these cables in your walls when building a new home, that's impractical. Some laptops require Cat 5 adapters. And no one wants to tack unsightly wires along their baseboards.

For those without cables in their walls, a hard-wired connection can be sent throughout the house using one of two technologies: MoCA and Powerline.

MoCA, or Multimedia over Coax Alliance, uses a home's coaxial, or cable TV, cables to carry a network signal. Powerline technology sends a network signal through a home's electrical wiring.

To use Powerline, one Powerline module is plugged into an electrical outlet next to a router, and the two are connected with an Ethernet cable. The other Powerline unit is plugged into the wall near the device that is to receive the network signal. That device is then connected to the Powerline unit also with an Ethernet cable.

"Ethernet cable and Powerline modules are a lot more reliable than Wi-Fi," said Dong Ngo, who reviews routers at the technology site CNET.

MoCA and Powerline can also be used to create a long-distance Wi-Fi network at the far end of a home. Instead of connecting a device at the distant point to the Powerline module, you connect a second wireless router to the far Powerline module.

This second router is used as an "access point," which picks up the network signal emanating from the distant cable and then transmitting it via Wi-Fi.

Check the router's box to see if it can be made into an access point. Instructions on how to convert a router into a remote access point can be found at the smallnetbuilder Web site.

And one more word of advice: The advertised speed of your home networking equipment is theoretical and makes for compelling marketing copy. Like the 180 miles per hour designation on your car's speedometer, it is a number that looks good, but one you will never achieve. Taking the theoretical closer to reality depends on how clever you are about setting up the network.

Correction: October 3, 2013, Thursday

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the bands that most modern routers operate in. They are 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz, not 2.4Mhz and 5Mhz.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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