Wi-Fi signals vary according to a variety of factors. These include noise from other wireless devices points, your distance from the Wi-Fi access point, and even the age of your walls. Finding the strongest signal may quickly become complicated, but there are wireless tools -- called “analyzers” or “heat mappers” -- to help you narrow down your search.
Every modern operating system includes a wireless signal strength indicator. In lieu of anything else, this indicator ranks your current position on a scale from one to five. Five bars means the signal is strong, and one bar means the signal is almost too weak to pick up. Walking around your building and watching this indicator is the simplest means to find the strongest signal. The strongest signal, however, does not always indicate the best connection.
Test the Speed
Whenever you think you’ve found a location with strong signal, run a speed test. The speed test shows you how usable that signal is. Devices such as microwave ovens, fluorescent lights and wireless phones can corrupt a strong signal, rendering it less usable. Since you’ll likely find multiple areas with strong signal, make sure to run an online speed test before attempting to connect to ensure you’re getting maximum throughput. Numerous online speed tests are available from sources such as Speakeasy, Ookla and AT&T (see Resources 2-4 for links).
Getting a Fuller Picture
Wi-Fi analyzers create a better picture, often literally, of where Wi-Fi signal is the strongest. You’ll want to use analyzers, or stumblers, to look at all wireless devices detectable by your wireless card. An analyzer can detect which devices are using the same wireless channel as your access point, in which case these would cause greater interference. When combined with a floor maps, analyzers make a color-coded, graduated map of where the best overall signals are found. These are often referred to as “heat maps.” Analyzers available at no charge include InSSIDer, Netstumbler and Kismet, the first of which is a native Windows application, and the latter two of which were designed for Linux and now support MacOS as well (Kismet additionally works on limited Windows systems). There are also analyzers available for smartphones. (See Resources for links.)
Strategies for Better Signal
Now that you have a clear image of your wireless environment, you may find that your signal is still not strong as you'd like it to be. To fix a weak signal, you can start by switching your wireless connection to a channel on which fewer other wireless devices are transmitting. Move the access point if it's located close to a microwave, fluorescent light, or other interference-generating device. Certain wireless routers allow you to increase the transmission power, which, if appropriately modified, can increase range and signal quality. In this case, changing the settings of the certain firmware types, particularly third-party solutions, allows you to increase the power to as much as 100mw on a 2.2dbm antenna in the U.S. (Many routers are otherwise commonly set to 50 or even 30mw.) The process for this varies by product, and should be researched accordingly before beginning any modifications.
- Photo Credit Goodshoot/Goodshoot/Getty Images