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How to speed up your Wi-Fi for free

Wireless networks have given us the freedom to get online from anywhere in your homes, but with it has come a whole load of new headaches

If you’re suffering from intermittent or everyday slow wireless, then our guide on how to speed up your Wi-Fi will come in handy. We’ll show you the best settings to adjust, and how to properly set up your router to get the best out it.

Before we get into the details of your wireless router, it’s important to distinguish between problems with wireless and general internet problems. We find that it’s best to start testing using a computer plugged into one of your router’s Ethernet ports, to first eliminate internet problems. Our guide on how to speed up your internet has a step-by-step guide on how to do this.

Test your internal network, not the internet, to speed up your Wi-Fi

We’ve seen many tests online that get you to test your internet connection’s speed using the likes of SpeedTest.net. All this does is tell you if your internet connection is working correctly and if your wireless router can deliver the full speed of your broadband connection. However, most modern Wi-Fi networks are capable of running at faster speeds than this.

If you can, then, it’s better to test the internal speed of your wireless router. We use the free TamoSoft Throughput Test (Mac and PC). Install this on two computers: one plugged into your router via Gigabit Ethernet (the server), and the other a laptop. Where possible, use the most modern laptop that you can do, as this will have the fastest wireless card.

If you don’t have two devices to hand, then replace these instructions with running SpeedTest instead, noting down that you’re only testing if you can get the maximum throughput your internet connection provides.

Run the server component on your wired computer and note down its IP address (the server software will list the IP address that it’s working on).

Tamosoft Throughput Server

Next, on your laptop run the client software and move into the same room as your router. In the software, type in the IP address that you noted down before and select the ‘TCP Only’ box and then click Connect. Leave the software to run for 30 seconds and then note down the Average upload and download speeds.

If your router has two or more networks (typically, one 2.4GHz network and one or more 5GHz networks), then you should test all available.

Don’t worry too much about the speeds that you’re getting here, as these will vary between routers and laptops. What’s important is that these are the baseline figures that we’ll try and improve on. That said, if you get very slow figures (less than 100Mbps) or the connection is sporadic (Tamosoft has high spikes and low lows), then there could be an initial issue.

Next, move to different areas in your home, where you commonly use devices, and take some tests there, noting down the average speed figures. It’s a good idea to move to the back of your house or the bedroom furthest away from your router. If you’ve got a mesh system, the same rules apply: move to different areas of your home and note down the figures you’ve got.

What we’re looking for are areas where speeds drop off massively (a fall of more than 50% from the baseline) or where connections can’t be made. If you have these issues, then we can try to help you improve things; if your wireless is relatively stable, but you get the occasional, intermittent problem or just want to the maximum speeds, our steps will also help.

Move your router

First thing first, you need to look at where your router is positioned. As wireless uses radio to communicate, it’s highly susceptible to interference, which can be caused by where your router is placed. The build of your home can make a huge difference, too: we’ve had problems in a Victorian house with very thick brick walls.

First, if your router is in a cupboard, take it out. Routers don’t like being tucked away, so try and find somewhere that you can have it exposed. Next, if your router is on a metal shelf, take it off and reposition it. Likewise, if your router is attached to a solid brick wall, try moving it, even temporarily.

Netgear RBK850 next to an RBK50

Avoid putting your router in a cupboard if you can

If you’ve got a wireless mesh system, then you should also think about where you have placed the satellites, as well as the primary router. The same rules for positioning routers also applied to satellites: not cupboards or metal shelves, please. However, you also need to think about the best location for them.

Satellites typically communicate with a router using a wireless link. If you place your satellite too far away from the router, you’ll get slow speeds even if your phone or laptop is showing you that it’s got a full signal. In most cases, you want to place your satellite about half-way between the router and where you want a strong signal. For large houses, additional satellites can be placed half-way between another satellite and the problem area.

If you can’t get a good connection, most mesh systems support an Ethernet backhaul, which simply means you can connect them via a long cable to your router. Don’t use Powerline networking for this job; only use a dedicated Ethernet cable if you can run one without it getting in the way. For example, we’ve got an outside office with a Netgear Orbi satellite in it, connected via an Ethernet cable that runs through the garden, under the kitchen and into the primary router.

Once you’ve tried repositioning the router, rerun your network tests to see if you’ve got a better connection and if things have improved.

How to choose the right Wi-Fi channel to speed up your Wi-Fi

The problem with 2.4GHz networks is that there are a lot of them and that they can easily be interfered with by other devices, including baby monitors and even the microwave being turned on. The latter’s a good thing to watch out for if you only have the odd problem with wireless dropping out.

As well as interference, each 2.4GHz network runs on a set channel, which is a 20MHz slice of the available spectrum. For example, channel one for 2.4GHz networks uses the 20MHz slice between 2,412MHz and 2,432MHz. Unfortunately, most of the 2.4GHz channels overlap, causing interference: channel two uses 2,417MHz to 2,437MHz, for example.

The illustration below shows you how to try and avoid overlapping wireless channels, with those the same colour not overlapping. The idea is that you try and find the busiest channels around you, and then you switch to one that doesn’t overlap. For example, if there are a lot of neighbour networks on channel one, then you can change to channel six or if that doesn’t work very well in your home, channel 11.

Wireless Channel overlap

Make sure that you pick a 2.4GHz network that doesn’t overlap with those of your neighbours

It’s not that easy to do always, as many people around you won’t follow the same rules, using channel 2, for example. The best you can do is find out what neighbouring networks are doing and move your 2.4GHz as far away from them as possible.

Another problem is that 2.4GHz networks can use two channels (often called 40Mhz node, or activated by selecting the highest speed mode in your router’s settings). The idea is that using two channels increases bandwidth, but it also increases overlap. Generally speaking, 2.4GHz networks should only be run on single-channel mode unless you have few neighbouring networks.

In most cases, routers have an auto mode that will change channels automatically based on interference, but these don’t always work that well, so doing the job manually can help.

With 5GHz networks, there are no overlap problems, and the slightly lower range also helps reduce interference from neighbours. For these reasons, it’s fine to have a 5GHz network that uses multiple channels to increase bandwidth. The important thing is to set the base channel to use the less congested one.

How to scan for channels

To find out what’s going on, you need to scan for competing networks around you. If you can, do this job in a few places around your home. If you’ve got a Mac, then you can use the free Wi-Fi scan tool. To do this, hold down the Option button and click the Wi-Fi symbol at the top-right of the screen, and select Open wireless diagnostics. Click the Window menu and select Scan.

This will open a new dialog box that will scan for nearby networks, and it will suggest the best wireless channel to use for both 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks. The 2.4GHz suggestion usually isn’t too bad, but the 5GHz one, in our experience, tends to list high-numbered channels (greater than 100), which aren’t available on all routers. Most routers will let you select from a choice of 36, 40, 44 and 48; higher-end routers or those that provide two different 5GHz networks will also give you channels higher than 100.

The best thing to do is scroll to the Channel column and click this to sort networks by channel. Using the Band column, take a look to see which network channels are most used around you. For example, in our case, Channel 11 was the most popular around us for 2.4GHz, while the 5GHz band was relatively free: we had only our network on channel 44, and then two higher 108 networks.

You can scan for the best network using your Mac

If you’ve got a PC, the free Wi-Fi Analyzer is an excellent tool to do a similar job and is available for free in the Microsoft Store on Windows 10. Run the software and select Analyze to view 2.4GHz networks, then choose View and select Network count. Using the graph, you can see how many networks are on each channel, so note down the most congested 2.4GHz channels. Click 5GHz to do the same job there.

WiFi Analyzer

This free tool will help you find the best wireless network

Changing your Wi-Fi channels

To change the wireless channel that you’re using, you need to connect to your router’s web-based management page. That’s even if you’ve got an app to configure your router with, as most apps don’t give you control over wireless channels. You can check your router’s manual for how to connect, but you can also find out how to connect to its management page with a simple trick.

On a Mac that’s wirelessly connected, press and hold Option, then click the wireless symbol and note down the Router address, which will be something like 192.168.0.1. If you have a PC, get a command terminal up and type ipconfig and hit enter. Note down the Gateway address.

Next, get up a web browser and type in the address that you noted down, and then enter your router’s username and password. Each router is slightly different, so you’ll have to have a bit of a hunt through the user interface; most routers will let you change the wireless channel in either the standard wireless settings or in the advanced wireless settings.

Now, given the advice that we gave you and the surrounding networks, change your wireless channels to a different one. For example, in our case, we changed our 2.4GHz network to use channel 1. There wasn’t much congestion on the 5GHz band, but it’s worth experimenting to see if a different channel improves speed, so we picked channel 40.

Change Wi-Fi Channel

Change your wireless channel using the data that you’ve gathered

Change advanced settings to speed up your Wi-Fi

Next, you can check if you have any advanced settings to change. The main one to look out for with 2.4GHz networks is channel bonding, which is the setting that tells your router to use multiple channels to improve speed. As we said earlier, unless you live somewhere with few wireless networks, this should be disabled. The setting is typically in the advanced wireless section of your router’s interface.

The option may be called channel width, giving you a choice of 20MHz or 40MHz, or it may be a speed setting. For the former, choose the 20MHz option; for the latter, choose the slowest speed setting. Note that modern routers will automatically disable channel bonding in congested areas, and may not give you the option to explicitly enable the setting.

Channel bonding 2.4GHz

Channel bonding settings should be adjusted to avoid interference

For 5GHz networks, you may find a similar setting, but it’s mostly fine to leave this to the highest setting: typically, 20MHz, 40MHz, 80MHz or, for some Wi-Fi 6 devices, 160MHz.

Next, look out for some other options that can improve a router’s speed and performance. Beamforming should be turned on where available, which lets a router direct its signal towards a device for the best performance, rather than spreading the signal around.

MU-MIMO (Multi-User Multiple Input Multiple Output) is smart, as it lets a router divide up the number of streams it has. Typically, a router’s full speed output is achieved using multiple lower-speed streams. For example, the Netgear Nighthawk AX8 has four 5GHz streams running at 1.2Gbps each, for a total of 4.8Gbps.

With MU-MIMO, a router can dedicate a stream to four different devices, or a high-speed device can use multiple streams for faster throughput. In all cases, it either means better speed for one device or better sharing for several devices. And, MU-MIMO is even better with new Wi-Fi 6 routers talking to Wi-Fi 6 devices.

Finally, if you’ve got a mesh system, look for a Fast Roaming or similar option. With this option, a wireless device is made to connect to the fastest and closest satellite to deliver the best connection; with the option off, wireless devices will hang on to the initial connection, even as the signal degrades and a closer satellite is available.

Change router advanced settings

Make sure that you’ve got the best settings turned on for your router

Test and test again

With your changes made, rerun your tests to see if you have improvements. You may need to go through multiple positioning and channel tests to get the best combination. And, as your neighbours change things around, you may find that you need to make changes in the future again.

If you’re still only seeing minor improvements, particularly at extremes, then you’re probably hitting the limits of what your router can achieve. In this case, you probably need a hardware upgrade, choosing a new router. Alternatively, you can add a wireless extender. However, we recommend using a wireless mesh system where possible, which will replace your router and give you satellites to boost performance around your house, delivering faster speeds than an extender can.

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