How to get faster broadband
Rubbish Wi-Fi is up there with stepping on a plug or burning a pizza in terms of the worst things that can happen to you at home.
Truly, few gadgets are as vital as the humble and oft-forgotten wireless router. But how often do we take the time to make sure we’re getting the most of it?
So, whether your YouTube videos are constantly buffering or you can’t access the internet from a certain bedroom (maybe you, ahem, have work to do in bed; we won't judge you), we’re here to tell you there’s a better way.
Simply follow these tips and tricks to supercharge your broadband and enjoy a stress-free home life. Well, until you next step on a plug at least.
Home broadband tip #1 - Get your positioning right
Because most home internet comes in via a phone line or alongside a TV service, many people just plug their wireless router next to their cordless phone or TV. But like any connected device, a router needs to be situated away from obstructions and other wireless gadgets in order to maximise performance.
The one thing that’s likely limiting your ability to move your router is the length of the cable coming out of the wall, but you can fix this easily and cheaply.
Once your router isn’t quite so restrictively tethered, move it away from anything that could block its wireless capabilities. Find somewhere central to your home, preferably high up, away from thick walls, and where possible, visible to the area where you use your wireless devices the most.
An ideal spot for your router is on top of a bookshelf in your living room. You’re trying to avoid thick concrete or steel obstructions and other electronic devices, particularly microwaves and cordless telephones.
Home broadband tip #2 - Go wired, not wireless
It might not sound obvious in the age of wireless-enabled convenience, but if you want faster, more dependable internet access, don’t use wireless at all.
Wired connectivity is still faster, more dependable and lag-free than any wireless technology currently available. Going wired makes more sense for static devices that are in the same room as your router, but your mobile devices will also benefit from the reduced stress being put on the overall wireless bandwidth of the router.
Most standard routers come with four wired ethernet ports which can be used to connect your wired devices. The further your router is away from your devices, the more you’ll have to spend on cabling, as longer ethernet cables are more expensive than shorter ones.
Now, if you're anything like us you probably have a lot of devices in one place - TV, games console, music streamer, Roku or similar and so on. In which case you might want to invest in an ethernet switch such as this Netgear GS205 (£9.99). That way, you can have one long cable going between the router and the switch (this 5m Cat6 cable (£5.19) is flat so it can go along skirting board or under carpet), and then shorter ones between the switch and your devices.
However, also check your boxes for ethernet cables - Sonos products all come with them, for example.
Home broadband tip #3 - Utilise your powerlines
Unless you’re a) rich enough to have had your home networked or b) poor enough to live in a studio apartment, you’re probably going to have one bedroom where the wireless signal isn’t quite as strong as you’d like.
While you could just buy a really long ethernet cable and lead it from your router to the room in question, it’s probably not practical - or attractive - for most homes. Thankfully, your existing power supply can be used as an alternative.
Powerline networking isn’t as fast as standard ethernet networking, but it is faster than most wireless connections, plus it’s more stable, which makes it great for gamers. At the cheap end of the Powerline market is the TP-LINK TL-PA411KIT: two small plugs with one ethernet port on each. One goes near your router, the other goes near whatever device you want to wire up, and setup really is that easy: there’s no configuring or access keys to remember.
You can also keep adding these adaptors as you go, so if you bought two kits, you could wire up three rooms of your house. There are a couple of catches though. One, these adaptors only have one ethernet port, so if you have multiple devices in one room, you’ll need another ethernet switch. Also, these powerline adaptors need to be plugged directly into the wall to work, rather than in an extension lead, and there’s no passthrough, so you can’t plug other devices into them.
If you want a more premium Powerline option, the TP-LINK TL-WPA8630P is the product to go for. In our tests, it was up to three times as fast as the cheaper kit, so 4K video streaming was much more feasible. One of the plugs also has three ethernet ports, so you might not need a separate ethernet switch. Plus, they have another plug built-in, so you’re not losing a power socket on the wall by using them.
Home broadband tip #4 - Stay secure
If you’ve only got basic security on your router (or even worse, no security at all), there’s always a chance someone else could be piggybacking on your network without you knowing. You could have a cheeky neighbour using up your bandwidth without paying for it, but far more dangerously, you could have a nefarious intruder up to no good.
First, check your wireless router for a sticker that has its login details. Then grab an internet-enabled device and go to the stated web address - it should be IP address of the form 192.168.1.1 or similar - and enter the username and password. Under wireless security settings, there should be an option to use a WPA2 password, which is generally more secure than WEP.
Next, go to this password generator, choose “Bare Minimum Security” and hit “generate”. This will create a 20-character password that will be much more difficult for a hacker to crack by brute force than standard 8-character wireless passwords.
If you want to be super-secure, then go for a 63-character password. It’s obviously going to be a bit of a hassle to input into a games console using a controller, but hey, you’ll be as secure as you can get without turning Wi-Fi off completely and donning a tin-foil hat.
Home broadband tip #5 - Ditch your router
The new BT Smart Hub
Well, not entirely. That would be stupid. But while the bundled wireless routers that you get for free from your ISP are getting better, they still fall short of dedicated home routers when it comes to wireless range and speeds.
Take Netgear’s R6400 router, an AC1700 router that theoretically reaches maximum wireless speeds of up to 1700Mbps.
Netgear’s router range goes right up to AC5300 on the Netgear R8500, although that currently costs an eye-watering US$400. These ratings are pretty much meaningless in the real world - first of all, you’ll need compatible devices to take advantage of all that bandwidth, and even then, your wireless speeds will be far less than the stated maximum. However, even the R6400 will be miles faster than most bundled routers - so fast that streaming 4K video around your house shouldn’t be a problem on compatible devices.
The router’s three external aerials should improve range too, while there are some cool features, such as the ability to plug in a hard drive or printer and being able to access it anywhere on the network, or even the world. This particular router also allows you to perform some of the more advanced tricks later on in this guide, but only if you want to - buying a dedicated router alone should solve a lot of wireless problems right out of the box.
Home broadband tip #6 - Just be-QOS
One of the other big benefits of buying a dedicated router is that it offers the ability to control traffic on your network. If that sounds a bit too much like becoming a network administrator for your liking, then wait, come back - being a network administrator is F-U-N! No, what we mean to say is that it’s not as difficult as it sounds.
It’s all done via a feature called QoS, or Quality of Service, and if you’re constantly frustrated by buffering video, it’s the answer to your prayers. In the router setup menu, go to Advanced->QoS Setup->Setup QoS Rule. Here, you can choose what’s most important to you based on your application or device. So if, for example, you watch Netflix on your PlayStation 4 a lot, you could choose to either prioritise Netflix as an application across your entire network, or prioritise all traffic to your PS4 based on its MAC/IP address.
If someone on your network is BitTorrenting (and naughty them, if so), you could either choose to deprioritise all peer-to-peer traffic on your network, or any traffic to and from the offending machine. So next time the two services are battling against each other over your precious broadband, your router will ensure you can still watch your video, while your housemate’s file sharing will be slowed right down.
You can tinker with these settings to your heart’s content, and it can be quite addictive, not to mention borderline villainous once you realise the power you wield. However, most people can get away with just prioritising anything to do with video and gaming, and deprioritise file sharing and bulk downloads.
Home broadband tip #7 - Go DD-WRT
OK, now time for the advanced part of the tutorial. Custom firmwares such as DD-WRT may not be as user-friendly as most standard router interfaces, but they are much more feature-rich, allowing you access to the sort of features that are only usually available on enterprise-level routers.
The reason we recommended the Netgear router earlier is that, aside from being a great option out-of-the-box, Netgear actively supports the installation of custom firmwares through its excellent community-driven website MyOpenRouter.
There are some great features within DD-WRT. For instance you can survey local Wi-Fi networks to see the channels that are being used by your neighbours, thus allowing you to choose a wireless channel where there’s less interference. And you can boost your antenna power, meaning your wireless signal travels further through the house. You can also turn off wireless bands that you’re not using, such as 802.11a/b, meaning the router will focus only on the bands that are needed, such as 802.11n/ac.
Other nice-to-have features in DD-WRT include the ability to turn on a network-wide VPN, which has a whole host of benefits, such as private web browsing or accessing services that are restricted by location (such as Netflix or BBC iPlayer). If you have kids, you can also control the websites they can access, and when they can access them.
In short, you've just got the keys to the kingdom of broadband wonderfulness. Have fun out there.