10 years ago, WiFi needs were simple. WiFi was a nice to have and I put the router in the attic of the house so the signal could reach all of the house. We have what is called a “two and a half” story house which means that we have two living floors plus an attic you can walk up to. It’s not a big house as each floor isn’t very large, but we do have a cube, more or less, where our height is about the same as the length and width, not including the attic and the basement. Therefore, the signal in the attic meant good coverage to the second floor below it where my office is and adequate coverage of the first floor. The basement had basically zero coverage but who cares – it’s a basement.
Shortly after we got some WiFi cameras and a dedicated camera viewer device that needed to work well on the first floor. We also had people visiting with WiFi enabled laptops. So the WiFi needs had escaped the office and were now everywhere in the house. I added an older router to use as an access point in the first floor kitchen and that had our coverage working pretty well.
Now, of course, WiFi is all important. The wife’s iPad, our two smartphones, my new tablet, all are primary devices now. And everything we do on them needs the network. And the WiFi setup I had setup years ago just wasn’t cutting it for these modern needs. For years, the cameras and camera viewer have been dropping out frequently. It’s frustrating, but hardly mission critical. More recently, I noticed that when I am home and check my e-mail on my phone through WiFi, the e-mail has to wait about 1 minute for it to decide if can get messages and it frequently gives up. On the other hand, if I leave the house and am only on the cell network, my e-mail zips right through in an instant. That’s not the way it is supposed to work. What good is WiFi if I’m better off with the cell network?
I set out to try and improve the situation. The first thing I did was tried upgrading the Comcast cable modem. No, it shouldn’t impact WiFi at all, but I wanted to make sure that the problem I was having wasn’t actually a network problem. I was only seeing the problem on my WiFi connected devices, but it was possible that the cable modem was contributing to the problem. (See my separate post about the cable modem upgrade.) Not surprisingly, there was no improvement after changing the cable modem. Although, perhaps the speed of my wired connections did bump up a bit.
Router3 is what I call the router in the attic. It is a Netgear WNDR3700v2. Router4 is the name of the router in the first floor and it is also a WNDR3700 but it is a v4. (I name the routers based on the sequence of when they were purchased – i.e. router4 is the fourth one I bought – genius, I know.) Both routers run dd-wrt but they necessarily need to run different versions of the firmware since they are different hardware versions. And because of that, and since I operate on the “don’t fix what isn’t broken” philosophy when I can, the dd-wrt version on router3 was “sp2” from 2011 while the version on router4 was the current version at the time I bought router4 (I updated the firmware before I checked the version so I don’t know exactly what it was before).
More testing seemed to indicate that router4 was more flaky than the attic one. I shut off the WiFi signal from the first floor router for a bit and found throughput was pretty reliable. Which meant that either the first floor router was broken or that it was causing interference.
The first thing I changed is the dd-wrt version of router4. I wasn’t aware of any specific problem with the firmware version I had but at this point, with something broken, it was worth trying to do the upgrade and seeing if it would help. It did not. No change. At this point, I was beginning to think it was the router hardware.
I also tested signals using Acrylic so I could see that the signal for router4 was pretty stable – at least as much as router3. If I had been getting signal drops, then it might have been more reasonable to blame the firmware or the environment. But at this point, I think it was an internal hardware issue that caused the flakiness. And therefore, time for new hardware.
Router shopping sucks. They all have the same basic functionality but there is a wide range of prices. And the reviews are rarely helpful. Most routers end up with an average review of a 4 because they work well for most people (who give them a 5) and others find that they don’t work well at all (who give them a 1). So when the results are all about the same and the internals are frequently made by the same manufacturers, and the firmware is irrelevant because I’m going load dd-wrt on it regardless, then there really isn’t much in the way of factors to consider. Gigabit, AC capability, dd-wrt compatibility, and ummm, available. In fact, that last criteria is the one that helped seal the deal for me. Because I don’t want to end up with a router that doesn’t work as well as I need, I wanted to be able to return it so I didn’t want to order online. Best Buy had a couple of options in stock near me but I went for a D-Link DIR-880L in stock at the Micro Center near me. Router5, as I call it (yep, still genius), got the dd-wrt treatment and got tested by Acrylic. I am kicking myself for not bothering to test router5 before putting dd-wrt on it because it would have been really interesting to know how good the signal is from the stock firmware. But frankly, I’m not interested enough to bother putting the stock firmware back on to retest. Router5 seems to have about the same signal strength as router4 did. But on the plus side, the weird glitchy behavior from before is gone now. So it really does seem like router4 did have some hardware issues. At this point, I’ve improved the WiFi situation by fixing the glitchy behavior but I’m still underwhelmed by the signal strength in the house. I must be able to do better. Let’s try some antenna modifications.