Welcome to the new normal. Even the best-case scenarios tell us that we’ll all be working from home and spending most of our free time indoors for quite a few months to come. It’s hardly surprising, then, that our home networks have started creaking under the strain of Netflix, Apple TV+, Zoom calls, and music and gaming services that are often all running at the same time. We’re also using many new types of devices as well, with smart speakers, lights and security cameras all demanding a slice of our Wi-Fi, alongside the more traditional Macs, iPads and iPhones.
Fortunately, there are some simple, quick fixes that can help to improve the speed and reliability of your home Wi-Fi, perhaps by connecting to different frequency bands or channels on your Wi-Fi network that are less susceptible to interference from other networks near your home. If that doesn’t work then you can often get an affordable upgrade from low-cost devices such as range extenders or PowerLine adaptors, which can boost your existing network so that it reaches an upstairs bedroom, or a makeshift home office out in your garden shed. If all else fails, then you might simply have to buy a fast, new router.
Whatever the problem, we’re here to provide the answers and get your home network running smoothly.
Work out what’s wrong
Are your neighbours causing your Wi-Fi problems?
There are many things that can cause your home Wi-Fi network to slow down, or become unreliable. Many electrical appliances, such as microwave ovens, cordless (DECT) telephones, and baby monitors generate electromagnetic signals that can interfere. Thick walls can block the signal travelling from room to room, and ceilings between floors can create a ‘deadspot’ in an upstairs room.
The biggest culprit, though, will probably be rival Wi-Fi networks running in the homes of nearby buildings, so it’s worth knowing a little bit about how Wi-Fi networks transmit their data so that you can pinpoint any interference.
Most conventional routers broadcast their Wi-Fi signal on two main frequency bands, at 2.4GHz and 5GHz. You can think of these two bands as being like two separate motorways for transmitting data (often referred to as your network ‘traffic’). Each band is also divided into a number of ‘channels’ – a bit like the different lanes on a motorway. If you check your Mac’s Wi-Fi menu, you’ll see a number of different networks belonging to your neighbours. They’re all broadcasting on those same two frequencies so it’s hardly surprising that all those competing networks can interfere with each other and slow things down.
The 2.4GHz band isn’t as fast as the 5GHz band, but it does tend to provide greater range and reliability, so if you want to improve the Wi-Fi signal in an upstairs bedroom, it might help to connect the devices in that bedroom to the 2.4GHz band by using the Wi-Fi Settings panel on each device. Other devices, such as an Apple TV box that might be in the same room as your broadband router, will be better off on 5GHz – especially if you’re trying to stream 4K video that needs a really fast connection.
HOW TO Quick and easy fixes >
1 Reposition your router ideally, your router should be located right in the centre of your home. That’s not always possible, but you can still make sure to lift the router up off the floor, and keep it away from obstacles that might block the signal.
2 Adjust the antennas you should remember to spread the antennas out as well (although some routers just hide their antennas inside). Each antenna transmits its own signal, so spreading these out ensures that the Wi-Fi signal reaches out in all directions.
3 Change Wi-Fi bands
Most routers can transmit on both 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency bands. The 5GHz band is faster, but 2.4GHz provides greater range and reliability, so that’s probably the best option for mobile devices that move around a lot.
4 Change channels The 2.4GHz band gets pretty congested, but it’s also divided into ‘channels’, so switching to a less busy channel may help. Your router’s manual will explain how, and apps like WiFi Explorer Lite can help you choose.
5 Wi-Fi extenders A range extender is an affordable fix for ‘deadspots’ that have poor Wi-Fi, with prices starting as low as £20. You place the extender about halfway between the main router and the affected room, and it acts as a relay to boost the Wi-Fi signal.
6 Wired connections A wired connection is always the best option for a desktop Mac, or a device such as an Apple TV that has an Ethernet port. If the device isn’t too far from your main router then a simple Ethernet cable will do the trick.
However, those microwave ovens and other devices – well, they tend to use 2.4GHz as well, which means that this band can get congested. As mentioned, though, the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands are also divided into channels, so it is possible to use apps such as WiFi Explore Lite (intuitibits.com) in order to monitor the networks and figure out which channels are the most congested. You can then experiment by switching channels to see which ones provide the best performance.
Of course, it’s quite possible that the interference is simply coming from a big, thick brick wall – in which case the best solution might simply be to buy a more powerful router, or a range extender. But when it comes to diagnosing network problems, it’s always worth taking a quick look at your network neighbourhood first to see if there’s any obvious congestion problems that you can resolve without spending any money.
Identify network interference
> When you look at the Wi-Fi Settings on your Mac or iOS devices you can see the names of all the networks in the area around your home. Unfortunately, the Wi-Fi Settings panel doesn’t provide much info beyond the names of those networks, so it’s worth using an additional app that can delve deeper into all those networks. There are lots of network monitoring apps available for both Macs and iOS devices, and many of these are free to download. However, the free apps tend to bombard you with ads and in-app purchases, so it’s worth spending just £1.99 on a straightforward app such as WiFi Explorer Lite.
WiFi Explorer Lite can be a little daunting at first, as it shows a lot of information about all the networks around you. Fortunately, it has a useful filter option that enables you to focus on key bits of information, such as your network’s signal strength, and the frequencies and channels that your router is using.
To start with, try hiding the graph section of WiFi Explorer Lite, as it can be a bit confusing for new users. Then use the app’s filters to just focus on the 2.4GHz frequency band and the channels within that band. In this example, the network is using Channel 6, and has a signal strength of 80%, which could certainly be improved. We can see that Channel 6 is really crowded, though – with a dozen nearby networks using that channel – so switching to the less busy Channel 8 would probably improve the performance here.
Manage your network
Take back control – by monitoring and managing your home
Having problems with your Wi-Fi network? Unreliable online calls, or stuttering video – then it’s worth taking a look at the devices and services that are using your network. The first place to start is with your broadband connection. Bear in mind that even basic video streaming on Netflix requires a speed of 3Mbps, going up to a whopping 25Mbps for 4K video.
A family of four who are working from home, home-schooling the kids, and then bingeing on Netflix, Fortnite and YouTube are going to need all the broadband they can get. Some landline broadband providers can only offer 10Mbps, but you can get 100Mbps (or more) fibre broadband that will easily handle all your digital desires. Unfortunately, this is a bit of a postcode lottery so you’ll need to enter your details into a broadband checker site to see what you can get.
Prioritise and throttle
Whatever speed your connection is, there are other steps you can take. Many routers now include apps that can show all your connected devices, and can even monitor their daily internet usage. Some apps also allow you to prioritise services such as video or gaming, or to ‘throttle’ individual devices so that they can’t hog all the bandwidth. Apple devices also have a special feature called ‘content caching’ that speeds up tasks such as downloading and installing iOS or macOS updates. So check out our quick guide (opposite) to manage your home network and your bandwidth-hungry devices.
Powerline networking explained
>If you’ve just got one room where the Wi-Fi is a bit unreliable, you can use a pair of inexpensive PowerLine adaptors to magically send your internet connection over your existing electrical wiring.
One adaptor is plugged into a power socket close to your router, and connected to the router with an Ethernet cable. Another adaptor is plugged into a power socket in the room with the weak Wi-Fi, and the two adaptors can then connect together over the mains wiring. Then you just plug your Mac or other devices into an Ethernet port on the PowerLine adaptor and you’ve got a fast, reliable internet connection in no time at all.
Netgear PL1000 >£44.99 >netgear.co.uk
>This two-pack is one of the cheapest PowerLine kits around, providing two PowerLine adaptors with a single Gigabit Ethernet port to connect one Mac or other device. It’s pretty basic but it works well.
TP-Link TLWPA4220 >£74.99 >tp-link.com/uk
> If you have more than one room that needs a bit of a boost, this three-piece kit from TP-Link will give you PowerLine connectivity in two rooms. You also get two Ethernet ports in each room to provide multiple connections.
Devolo Magic 2 LAN Triple Starter Kit >£139.99 >devolo.co.uk
>Devolo’s top kit boasts three Ethernet ports for a Mac, Apple TV, and games console. The adapters include a passthrough connector that allows you to continue using your power socket.
HOW TO Manage network devices
1 Network know-how
Most routers provide an app that allows you to adjust various settings. The features in these apps can vary quite a lot, but they generally start by giving you an overview of all the devices that are currently connected to your network.
2 Take back control
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