Unleash Your Home Wi-Fi Net

A few tweaks could boost performance big-time

Does your wireless home network need more oomph? Maybe you hoped the signal would extend beyond your living room so you could check your e-mail or surf the Web from a chair on the patio or your office over the garage.

The dirty little secret of wireless networks is that they work best when all of the antennas are within line of sight of the base station. But many homes have concrete block or plaster-and-metal-lath walls that can obstruct the signal. And because Wi-Fi shares the airwaves with other appliances in your home, such as cordless phones and microwave ovens, interference can cause the signal to fade. The result? You're probably going to have places where you get a slow or unreliable connection, or where you get no connection at all.

If you want to minimize those dead spots, here are some tips:

-- Move your base station. If you've stuck the base station, also known as a wireless router or access point, under a desk or in a cubby hole, move it out into the open. Make sure the base station is 10 feet away from other wireless devices, such as cordless phones or baby monitors. For the best range, it should have an unobstructed view through a door or window.

Ideally, it should be at least six feet off the ground--on top of a bookcase, for example, instead of inside it. Try mounting it on a ceiling beam or next to your smoke detector.

-- Change channels. Just like your cordless phone, you can change the channel your network broadcasts over for better reception. The configuration software makes it easy to choose a new one; be sure to change it for every device connected to the network. Experts say that channels 1, 6, and 11 are the best because they don't overlap with other ones. But nearby microwave ovens may cause interference on channel 11.

-- Get a booster. If you're still having problems, Linksys, the leading maker of networking gear, sells a $100 booster that attaches to the top of its most popular wireless models. Depending on the configuration of your house, you can expect an increase in range and performance of 20% to 200%, Linksys says.

The last resort, perhaps the only one for distant or hard-to-reach rooms, is to add a wired network to your wireless one. You don't have to string new cables. Your house is already wired--for electricity--and a little-known technology called Powerline lets your network signals piggyback on that.

To use it, you plug a cable from your router into a Powerline adapter and plug the adapter into a wall outlet. That transmits the data throughout your house. To tap into the network from another room, plug an identical Powerline adapter--they cost about $100 each--into an outlet and hook it up to your computer.

If you want a wireless connection in that room, however, you'll have to buy your Powerline gear from a Siemens (SI ) subsidiary called Efficient Networks. Its unique twist: a $100 wireless access point that plugs into a Powerline network to put a wireless signal into rooms your base station can't. Other makers, such as Linksys and Netgear, will introduce similar products this spring.

With that, you can have a strong wireless signal anywhere you want it--and the work-anywhere convenience you wanted when you set up the network in the first place.

By Larry Armstrong

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