16 September 2007

WiFi Wave Booster

If you live in a large house – or an apartment with thick walls, like mine in New York – then you may have faced a challenge in getting your wireless (WiFi) internet connection to work, or to work well. In my case, the wireless router is based several rooms and walls away from my computer. Although there is a courtyard in the back of our building, and the router and my computer are within sight of each other across this open space, it has not made much difference; a 6-foot USB cord that put my WiFi adapter nearer to the window should have resolved connection issues. It didn't and hasn't.

Despite copious tweaking of the antenna positioning on the router, and despite playing with the height and angle of the adapter, the connection would consistently drop and need to be reset, usually in the middle of a large download of some kind.

I have often wondered whether this was just a “feature” of my computer, of Dell’s TrueMobile WiFi adapter that came with it, or of the Windows XP operating system: that there was something fundamentally flawed that made WiFi a real drag. It wouldn’t be the first time that I have had frustrations with this computer, after all; see my post from June about USB port problems, which remain largely unresolved. But in this case, the blame seemed more widespread: both my laptop and my wife’s computer have also had connectivity issues in various spots in the apartment.

I’ve looked into this problem before and I thought my options were either to buy another router and configure it as a signal booster (along the lines of this tip, via Lifehacker) or just move back to Ethernet cables. At moments of frustratingly failed connectivity, I have often thought about attaching a cable to a rock and tossing it over to the other window.

Fortunately for my neighbors’ windows, Lifehacker came through with another tip on creating an easy WiFi signal extender: they pointed to a template for a parabolic antenna you can make yourself, over at freeantennas.com. (There is a broader explanation of how and why it works posted here.) I lack the fancy wireless measurement tools that would let me tell you precisely how great the gain in signal strength is, but I can tell with great certainty: it works. It’s been more than a week since I made the antenna extender and attached it to my router and the WiFi connection hasn’t dropped once. The spots where my laptop used to have trouble are now filled with WiFi signal from my own network. Problem solved! And: so easily! This was about 15 minutes worth of effort and about $1.50 worth of materials.

All that said, a few comments and suggestions about the template, how to make it, and how to make it work. Definitely follow the instructions here, but with these modifications:

  1. An easy way to make the template bigger: put it into a word processor, like OpenOffice, and resize the template (while keeping it square) within your document.

  2. Print the template directly onto one half of a manila folder: stronger than paper, more readily at hand than card stock.

  3. This one is key: cut the tabs a little longer than shown on the template! It will make it easier to fold the tabs over, through the slots, when you’re finished.

  4. Cut out the templates and glue them – pattern-side up – onto tinfoil. Then cut the tinfoil to follow the pattern of the templates. Use a sharp knife to make the slots for the tabs, cutting through both the manila folder and the foil together.

  5. The pictures on freeantennas.com show extenders on both router antennas (for those that have two). Try just one antenna first. I only made one, and it’s done the trick.

  6. Lastly, the principle involved – focusing your WiFi signal – is not limited to your router: it can also work on your computer’s network adapter. In my case, my adapter is its own antenna. But I took the other half of the manila folder, covered it with tinfoil, and stuck it behind the adapter. Now, the connection is really strong, directing both the router’s and adapter’s signal more effectively.

11 September 2007

Elul Thoughts (over there)

Tis the season to be reflective. My thoughts thus far, over on the other side.