It’s easy to blame your router for internet slowdowns, dead spots, and dropouts. However, your problem may be less about which model you own and more about factors such as where you put it.
Wi-Fi hassles may only become more noticeable and annoying as more people stream video to multiple TVs, and add web-connected devices such as thermostats and security cameras. According to the Gartner technology consulting firm, nearly 20 billion internet-connected devices will be online globally by 2020—nearly 2.5 times more units than in 2017.
Here are simple steps from Consumer Reports for helping your Wi-Fi work the way you want it to—and how to know when it really is time for a new router:
Location is everything
“Placement of a router or access point is key,” says Kevin Robinson, vice president of marketing at the nonprofit Wi-Fi Alliance. The distance between your router and your devices directly affects your signal strength. So placing your router in the center of your house will maximize its effectiveness.
But this isn’t always easy to accomplish. If the data connection running into your home is in some corner bedroom, you may need to run ethernet cable from that spot to a more central location. Some internet service providers can do this for you, and another option is to invest in powerline adapters—these use your home’s existing electrical wiring like a network cable to transfer data to a centrally placed router. Many units simply plug into wall outlets and cost $100 or less for a pair.
Another option is to create a multiple access point system, such as the mesh networks that have come on the market in the past couple of years. The systems use multiple units to talk to each other and expand your network coverage area. But location matters with these multi-unit systems, too.
You need a good connection between the main and satellite units. So you shouldn’t put the second unit in the middle of a room that gets poor Wi-Fi coverage, even if that’s the problem you’re trying to solve. “It should be somewhere between where the coverage problem is and where the other base station is,” Robinson says.
Play with the antennas
You may find as many as eight antennas on some routers and—surprise—they’re not there just to make the device look impressive. Positioning and angling the antennas can really make a difference.
Think of the old-school, rabbit-ear TV antenna technique. If shifting the first antenna doesn’t improve the Wi-Fi, move on to the second, then the third. You can use an app, such as the free Dr. Wifi on iOS or the Signal Strength app on Android, which offer real-time speed testing and monitoring of latency through a smartphone, to see whether you’re making progress. (In addition to Wi-Fi speeds, it can measure your LTE cellular signal, too.) Of course, enlisting an assistant will save you the trouble of running back-and-forth fiddling with your antennas and checking the signal speed elsewhere in the house.
And just because you don’t see antennas on your router doesn’t mean they’re not there—they’re inside. To redirect them, rotate the router. This may seem too easy to make a difference, but it really can.
Though the Wi-Fi signals that power our devices may be invisible, most impediments to those signals are in plain view.
Floors, walls, and doors—anything standing between your router and your device—can slow the signal down. The effect is cumulative: The more obstructions, the bigger the problem.
As a rule of thumb, if you can see your router from where your device is, you’ll probably have a good connection. If the router is inside a drawer, move it. If the router sits in a room with a closed, thick wooden door, open the door. That’s one less barrier to slow down the signal.
The building materials matter, too, which is why old homes with stone walls can present more Wi-Fi problems than newer homes.
“The construction of the walls and how dense those walls are all factor into the propagation of the signal,” Robinson says. “For example, drywall impedes the signal less than concrete or cinder block.”
Water, believe it or not, can also block Wi-Fi signals—avoid placing an access point behind a fish tank, Robinson advises.
Additionally, keep in mind that Wi-Fi involves a two-way conversation between a gadget such as laptop and the router. And that means where you keep your connected devices makes a difference, too. If you keep a streaming media device or a printer hidden away, that may contribute to it having poor connectivity. It might even help to move the device just a few inches back, forward, or to the side.
If you’ve tried all those approaches and you still have a poor signal, you may need a more technical solution—especially if your router is several years old.
Wi-Fi technology advances steadily, with each new generation providing better capabilities. For instance, this year a new Wi-Fi standard called 802.11ax is beginning to roll out, and the first routers to comply with it will soon start appearing at retailers.
“The new standard brings even higher speeds, especially in situations where lots of users are online at the same time,” says Rich Fisco, who leads router testing at Consumer Reports. However, devices such as laptops and tablets can’t take advantage of those capabilities yet. So, he says, “There’s no need to worry about it for a couple of years.”
The current standard is called 802.11ac. If your router predates that standard and is giving you trouble, it could be time for an upgrade. (We list suggestions below.)
That’s particularly true if you have an old single-band router. Those routers connect to your devices using a 2.4-gigahertz signal—the same frequency kicked off by devices such as baby monitors, old cordless phones, Bluetooth speakers, and even microwaves. Newer dual-band routers let you avoid interference by operating instead in the 5-GHz frequency band.
If you purchased a router with the 802.11ac standard in the past year or two, there’s no need to pick up a new router. But it could help to make sure your firmware is up-to-date. That could help performance, and it’s also important in order to get security updates.
Updating a router is an unfamiliar task for many. If your router comes with a companion app, you can probably check for updates from there.
For everyone else, instructions on how to update routers vary by brand, but for most models, you need to log in through a browser on your computer, using the router’s IP address. Here are links on how to update widely used routers: Apple, Asus, D-Link, Linksys, and Netgear.
You may also be able to get security notices via email from your router’s manufacturer. To learn how, go to the company website—you’ll probably have to register the device.