Wireless Troubleshooting

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Wireless Troubleshooting

This guide is aimed at beginners to intermediate users, and will probably be no real news to people who have been using wireless stuff for some time already.

Like many people recently, I made a move to eliminate the myriad of wires that ran from all my pc's and devices to using wireless stuff. Also like a lot of people i ran into trouble (as you do) and learned a few things along the way that I thoguht writing a guide for should help people setting out on the path to wireless freedom... You can avoid my mistakes and headaches by absorbing the following tips and tricks, aimed mainly at static PC's to wireless router Access Point setups.

If you are literally just starting out setting up wireless stuff, my first big bit of advice is to buy the same brand of stuff for all your devices. Yes I agree that it shouldn't matter which manufacturer made what, they are all supposed to use the same communications standards, and should talk to each other without any problems, but i have found this on occasion, not to be true. In addition, sticking with the same manufacturer and range of devices will also mean you only have to understand and remember just one type of configuration software, and be able to spot anomolies with other pc's configuration. For troubleshooting purposes, you can easily swap hardware, and know how to configure the software on each pc should you run into problems.

Improving Reception:
This is a bit of a black art, I found the best method for gaining the best possible signal between devices was a bit tedious, but yielded results. The built in strength meters on most wireless adapter software is quite basic and limited to 5 degrees of condition reports, like the signal bar on your mobile. Really you need something a bit more accurate, and i would reccomend Netstumbler which can be found at http://www.netstumbler.com/ I'm not affiliated with them, its just a very handy bit of software. This will give you a decent rolling graph from 0 to 100 of the strength of the network you want to connect to, plus tonnes of other features handy for inspecting wireless networks in your vicinity. If you don't fancy using this software, then download a large file from your ISP (maybe something from the newsgroups) and adjust the aerial while watching download speeds.
 So, you have a wireless router, set its aerial in the upright position, and then go to the pc you're trying to connect to it. You'll probably get a signal right away, but it might be weak. To improve on this, imagine the aerial on the back of your pc is like the minute hand on a clock face. Move the aerial round in '5 to 10 minute' increments and note the results change on the netstumbler reception graph, and adjust for optimum results. You can also try clicking the aerial to the '45-degree from horizontal' position and doing the same thing. Its a good idea to write down which positions on the clock give the best results on a bit of paper so you don't forget them. If the results in netstumbler get you a signal that averages 75 or above I would say thats ok. If you are really into tweaking, leave the pc aerial in the optimum position that you found, and then go to where the router is, and start rotating its aerial in the same manner as you did for your pc, going back to your pc each time to check on the signal difference. you might be able to improve it even more, but then again, it could deteriorate even more. Only move one aerial at a time, and make notes, that way you can always backtrack if you mess it up and get it back to something that worked at least :) As a side note, netstumbler takes control of your wireless card so that no other programs can use it, this includes windows, so it'll disconnect you from the net, but once you close the program again it frees it up and windows should grab hold of it again and service should resume...
 In exceptional instances, if your PC can cope with the change in airflow, remove the side of the case if it comes off, and you wish to do so. I found a 25% improvement in signal strength and vastly reduced ping times just by taking the side off of a PC that i was struggling with adequate reception.

 In most instances, you shouldn't need to change this setting from its default unless you are experiencing severe connection difficulties which may or may not be through clashing with other networks. There are 11 channels to choose from on b/g setups, and your hardware usually tries to stick to a preferred channel from factory. Now, in netstumbler you can see what other networks your hardware is picking up. If you live in an area of high housing density you could find lots of networks all fighting for space. Note the channel numbers that are in use. If there are strong networks nearby on the same channel, try changing your own channel to avoid them clashing. It is worthwhile to note that of the 11 available channels, 1,6 and 11 are the only sort of 'pure' channels with no 'overlap' onto other bands, if you can get on any of those channels, this is best. The other channels share 'space' (or bandwidth) with the channels adjacent to them, so to avoid possible future problems, try stick to 1, 6 or 11. I can already hear some people tutting me for saying that out loud :-) The difference between using 1,6,11 and the other channels is so slight as to be basically undetectable to most people, but if you are experiencing difficulties for whatever reason, this is the first port of call in trying to improve connectivity. Some hardware will have an 'auto' channel select, this is a good feature because in a changing network environment, it is most flexible, but for a home network that is static, its better to set yourself on a certain channel. Your router/access point will probably be switched on all the time and will be an indicator for new users/owners setting up wireless stuff in the vicinity not to clash.

All of this is of course just a rough basic guide, nobody owns the channels that wireless devices use, nobody can reserve channels, nobody can lay claim to a channel, or has any right to tell anybody else to change channels... We all need to get along, and hopefully following the pointers in this guide will give you a headstart to avoiding problems, finding out how to troubleshoot them, and improving your overall reception.

Written by Andrew Welburn on possibly the hottest day of July on record? 19/07/06
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