It has been about 10 years since the first widely-accepted Wi-Fi products hit the shelves. Since then we've seen a steady increase in the speed of wireless networking gear, from 11 Mbps with wireless "b", to 54 Mbps with wireless "g", and 100+ Mbps with wireless "n".
Plus there's been other improvements, including the antenna technology called multiple-in-multiple-out (MIMO) used in most wireless n gear to help extend the range.
If you're using an old Wi-Fi standard, like b or g, you might be noticing your wireless getting slower, video streams getting choppy, and connections dropping. It probably doesn't mean your equipment is malfunctioning or actually getting slower. It just means that your old gear can't keep up with the newer, higher demanding, applications.
You or others in the home or office might be downloading files or music more frequently, be an avid YouTube watcher, an online gamer, or a regular Skpe or VoIP talker. You might not have done as much with your network back years ago when you installed it.
The simple fact of adding more computers or users on the network can also show the age in your wireless infrastructure.
Though it might take some money and time, you can bring your Wi-Fi network back up to speed. We'll discuss a few different solutions. But before you lay down any more money, we'll check to see if there's anything wrong with your current set up.
Checking your current system
First, ensure your wireless router is placed as close as possible in the middle of your intended coverage area. This might help boost the signal in areas you need it. You might even need to move your Internet modem to get in the sweet spot.
Next, make sure interference from nearby Wi-Fi routers or other electronic devices aren't messing with your network. You can use NetSumbler to check the channels. Make sure you are on an open non-overlapping channel of 1, 6, or 11. Then if you experience intermittent problems, pay attention to devices that can interfere, such as kitchen microwaves, cordless phones, baby monitors, and other radio devices that use or leak onto the 2.4GHz band.
Upgrading to wireless "n"
After you've determined design and interference aren't negatively affecting your network and you simply require better performance, you should consider upgrading to wireless n. This emerging wireless standard supports higher data rates--over twice that of wireless g. Plus most routers and adapters are equipped with two or three antennas, sporting the new MIMO technology that helps extend coverage. You'll need to reserve about $50 to $100 for a router and $30 to $70 for each computer/adapter.
When browsing the shelves or online, keep your eye on the differences between the products. For example, lower-end gear might not support MIMO and only higher-price products are dual-band. Remember, you don't have to upgrade all your computers; wireless n and g are compatible. But you should replace the adapters in the computers you use the most.
If you live in an apartment complex, townhouse, or other place where you'll have many neighboring Wi-Fi networks, consider going with dual-band wireless n gear. You can still support older adapters that only use 2.4GHz while making use of the less-crowded 5GHz band.
Don't throw away your old gear
If you do replace your equipment with wireless n, don't throw anything away. You can keep your old adapters in case you decide to bring another computer online. Plus as you'll see, your router can still serve other purposes.
One way to make use of old routers is to use them as extra wireless access points. You can run the old router out with a cable to a specific area that needs coverage. This can help increase the overall range and/or performance of your network. Plus it can prevent wireless g clients from connecting to the new router, slowing down the network.
Just disable DHCP on the old router and connect the Ethernet cable between the LAN ports of the routers. Consider running the cable in the attic by drilling holes in the ceilings of closets or running it in the basement or crawl space. Then you can connect to the old router and be on the same network.
If you don't want to do a cable run, you may be able to turn your old router into a repeater by replacing its firmware (essentially its brains). See if your router supports the DD-WRT, Tomato, or seavssoft replacement firmwares. If you don't want to bother with third-party firmware, you can buy a repeater or range extender off of the shelf or online. Just keep in mind that users connecting to the repeater would have much lower data rates or network speeds.
Use your power or cables lines to extend coverage
If you don't want to run cables or sacrifice performance by using a repeater, you can still extend your coverage using your existing cable or electrical lines. Powerline adapters, such as those certified by HomePlug, plug right into regular electrical outlets to transmit and receive data via the building's power lines. Similar adapters also exist for your TV cable outlets and are certified by Multimedia over Coax Alliance (MoCA). Though using these two technologies is more expensive than buying a bundle of ethernet cable, they're much easier to install.
You'll need a basic adapter, which runs $40+ for powerline, to pump the network connection from the router into the electrical or cable system. Then you'll need one for each outlet where you want a network connection. Instead of having to use a separate access point or wireless router, you can buy an adapter with one built in for $70+.
Eric Geier is an author of many computing and networking books, including Home Networking All-in-One Desk Reference For Dummies (Wiley 2008) and 100 Things You Need to Know about Microsoft Windows Vista (Que 2007).