If it wasn't for the convenience of surfing the web in front of the TV while sat in your underpants, the disconnections, poor transfer rates and security issues associated with wireless networking wouldn't make it worth the headache. Only a few years ago, some laptops running Vista point blank refused to connect to Wi-Fi, belching 'unidentified network' errors like fizzy pop-loving children.
Macs aren't much better -- the latest MacBook Airs might wake up in an instant, but evidently they're still half asleep as they often forget to reconnect. The fact that there are more domestic wireless hotspots than ever these days does little to help. Luckily, tweaking your router's Wi-Fi channel can do wonders to improve the stability, latency and speed of your connection. With a few tests you can also check afterwards if what you've done has made any difference.
Routers broadcast wireless signals on a range of different frequencies. Most models go up to 11 but some stretch to 13. The most common reason for frustrating disconnections and inconsistent download speeds is when your router and, say, a neighbour's router are broadcasting either on the same channel or on adjacent channels. To change your channel you need to log into your router. To do this you need to find out what the gateway IP address is of your router -- every router has a specific address. We're going to use a Netgear router for our example.
Warning: While doing this test, there's a slim chance of hitting a 'dud' channel, in other words, one that picks up so much interference that you won't be able to return to your gateway screen. As a backup, we recommend having a laptop and an Ethernet cable on standby should this unlikely occurrence happen.
In addition, move your router away from any shiny metal objects that emit radio waves -- microwaves, for example, will play havoc with your Wi-Fi signal, as will baby monitors and (believe it or not) Christmas lights. As for what the 'best' channel is, technically, one, six and 11 should yield the best results because they are the only ones far apart enough from each other not to suffer from excessive lapping of other channels. The only way to find out for sure is to try them all. Here's how.
1. Log into your router
Open your browser of choice (Firefox is the best for this task) and enter http://192.168.0.1 into your address bar and press enter (not search).
The default access for a Netgear router is 'admin' for the username and 'password' for the password. If they don't work, have a look on the router for a sticker with the correct details. If you've changed the password and forgotten it, you're best off calling your ISP for assistance on how to log into the router. Once you're in, click on 'Wireless Settings' on the left hand side. You'll then be presented with this screen:
Change the channel to 01, scroll down and click 'Apply Changes'.
2. Run a test download
Have a notepad and pen handy as you might want to record a few results. We're going to download a test file from nvidia.com. Doing so will give us a transfer rate -- that's the number you need to write down on your pad next to the channel number to keep a record of which channel performs the best. Head over to this page, hit search and then download.
A good transfer rate would be roughly the speed of your internet divided by 10. For example, if you have a 10Mb connection, you're going to be looking at an ideal transfer rate of around 1Mbps. It may dip just below around the 900kbps mark, or it might peek just above at around 1.1 or 1.2Mbps.
3. Change channel and repeat if necessary
If you're getting a good transfer rate then congrats -- you've hit the jackpot first time. If your speed is poor, head back to your router gateway, change the channel to 02 and repeat the download test, noting down the transfer rate each time. Keep going until you get the best results. You might need a coffee and a DVD to help you pass the time.
4. Use the CMD command to check your latency
As well as conducting a test download, you can run what's known as a continuous ping to monitor stability and latency (the amount of time it takes to send a packet of data between your computer and a specified destination). On a PC, click on your start button, click on 'Run', type 'CMD' into the box and press enter. In the black box, type: 'ping -t bbc.co.uk' and press enter. You'll now get a never ending list of ping requests.
The info you need to look at is 'time=something ms' and the lower the number the better. A good ping is generally regarded as less than 20ms, although anything under 30ms is generally acceptable. Hold Ctrl and press c to stop the ping test. On a Mac, simply open the Network Utility (found in Applications > Utilities), click on Ping, type in www.bbc.co.uk, change the radio button to 'Send an unlimited number of pings' and click Ping.
If you're getting ms figures into the hundreds, you're either on a wireless signal chock-full of interference, you have a non-Wi-Fi related issue with your connection or somebody else is performing a bandwidth-intensive task on your network. To rule out the latter two issues, kick anyone else in the house off the internet and repeat the download test with an ethernet cable attached.