By Bob Rankin
If you’re in a crowded downtown café there may be so many people sharing the WiFi network that Internet speeds slow to a crawl. But in the same area there may be other networks, just out of range of your standard WiFi network adapter, that are virtually idle. If you boost WiFi reception range you may get a full 54 Mbps connection all to yourself. Similarly, if you’re in a hotel that charges for wifi access, by increasing your wifi range you might be able to pull in a free wifi signal from outside the hotel. Here are some tricks to help increase WiFi reception on a laptop.
First, update your network adapter’s driver if you haven’t done so lately. You can triple the speed and range of your WiFi adapter by using the latest driver instead of the generic Windows driver or a five year-old OEM version designed for an operating system you’ve long abandoned. Check the website of company that makes your wireless adapter (or the laptop vendor) and look for driver downloads.
An external antenna can pull in WiFi from distant hotspots. High-gain USB WiFi adapters are plentiful, cheap, and effective these days. Some are small, simple USB dongles with a 6-inch stick antenna that will give you 5 dB gain for under $10. That may double your WiFi reception range. At the higher end are $30-$40 30 dB, 1000 mW WiFi extended-range adapters like the Alfa AWUS036H. Dish antennas are highly directional; that means you’ll have to rotate the antenna slowly to pull in distant signals as the antenna faces the transmitters.
Antenna specs can be confusing if you are not a radio geek. Generally speaking, more is better: more milliWatts (mW), more decibels (dB), more dBi (signal gain relative to an ideal isotropic antenna), etc. Look for specs of 5-15 dB gain, or 25-30 dBi.