It’s time to put an end to slow and unreliable home networks. Jonathan Parkyn explains how to speed up your Wi-Fi, boost your broadband, protect your privacy, share your files safely and more
If you have two (or more) computers at home working off the same router, then you have the raw ingredients of a network. You’ve probably got a combination of laptops and desktop PCs; connected to your router by a cable or via Wi-Fi; they may even all be running different versions of Windows. It doesn’t matter – they can all form elements in a home network that interact pretty much seamlessly.
Set up your network and you can wave goodbye to scurrying between your various PCs clutching CDs and USB sticks in an effort to simply transfer a document, photo or video from one machine to another. What’s more, your network will let you edit a document or play music tracks from any computer in your home, whether the file is stored on the desktop PC in your office or the laptop perched on your living-room coffee table.
So far so good. Unfortunately, much like your PC, your home network is prone to speed-sapping bottlenecks and under constant attack from malware and hackers. Then there are the irritating teething problems as you try to connect additional devices.
In this feature, we’ll explain how to pre-empt and fix these problems. We’ll explain how to position your router to get the best Wi-Fi coverage possible and how to extend that signal to rooms that your Wi-Fi can’t seem to find. We’ll also explain how to free your Wi-Fi from the smothering effects of your neighbours’ signal and how to stop passers-by from snooping on folders and files you share on your network.
We’ll also guide you through the process of creating a network in the first place and explain how to add your printer to it so you’ll be able to print from any connected device in your house (including tablets and phones).
MAKE YOUR NETWORK FASTER
1 Test your wired network speed
If your home-network speed slows to a crawl on a regular basis, you’ll need to identify precisely where the bottleneck is. The trouble is, your home network is made up of several different types of connections, so you’ll need to rule out each one in turn. Let’s start with any wired connections you might have. Wired Ethernet connections are usually faster and more reliable than Wi-Fi, but substandard cables and old networking kit can slow things down. Most modern networking devices support gigabit connections, which allows for theoretical speeds of up to 1Gbit/s. But if your network is bogged down with old devices or cables, speeds can drop below 100Mbit/s. You can quickly test your wired network speed using a free tool called LAN Speed Test (Lite). Download it from www.snipca.com/23498 and run it (it doesn’t need installing). Then navigate to a network folder or the IP address of another network device, then click Start Test. Very low Mbps scores (below 20) could signify a problem with an adapter or a cable.
2 Test your broadband speed
Could your internet service provider (ISP) be to blame for your network slowdowns? If your broadband speeds are much lower than you’ve been promised, it will directly affect all networked devices in your home. If so, you can complain to your provider (see next tip), but you’ll need to gather some evidence first. To test your broadband speed, connect your PC and/or laptop to your router via a network cable (rather than over Wi-Fi, as wireless signal variations can affect your results). Then visit a couple of speed-test sites, such as Ookla (www.speedtest.net) and Broadband. co.uk (www.snipca.com/23440). Test at different times of the day – for example, evening and morning – and, if possible, use different PCs (a desktop PC and laptop). Keep a log of your results over the course of a week.
3 Complain to your ISP or switch providers
If your speed-test results show you’re getting slower broadband speeds than you’re paying for, you should contact your broadband provider and let them know there’s a problem. Consumerrights website Which? provides free template letters that you can download from www.snipca.com/23441. Keep a log of any communications between you and your ISP. You should also compare your speed-test results to the speeds promised by your ISP’s postcode checker (such as BT’s at www.snipca.com/23442).
Complaining won’t always yield results because slowdowns may be due to service restrictions, for example, so do check your contract. If your ISP is unable to provide the speeds it advertised, or won’t lower your tariff in line with your actual speeds, you could consider taking your business elsewhere. These days, switching providers is much easier than it used to be. Most of the responsibility for carrying out the switch lies with the ISP you’re moving to. So check the latest deals at www.broadbandchoices.co.uk or www.uswitch.com. Bear in mind that if you’re still within your current ISP’s contract period, you may need to pay an exit fee to switch to another deal.
4 Test your Wi-Fi speed
It’s important to remember that your Wi-Fi speed and your broadband speed are two different things. If you’ve tested your broadband using a wired connection, as suggested in Tip 1, and found that you’re actually getting fairly good speeds coming into your router from your ISP, then your next step is to test the speed of the wireless connection between your router and the other devices in your home.
Here we suggest switching to a phone or tablet and using an app called Wi-Fi Sweetspots (Android www.snipca.com/23481; iOS www.snipca.com/23480). Launch the app and then roam around your house so it can measure the wireless connection speed throughout your home and even out in your garden. This will help you quickly establish where your slow spots and areas of no Wi-Fi signal (otherwise known as dead zones) are.
5 Move your router
It’s tempting to keep your ugly, flashing router tucked away out of sight in a cupboard or in the loft. But, if your Wi-Fi speed tests reveal you’re suffering from wireless slowdowns around your home, it’s likely that the signal from your router is being hampered in some way. If that’s the case, simply moving it to a better position may be all you need to do to speed things up again.
Establishing the prime spot for your router is tricky and depends on the layout of your home. Somewhere open, central and high up, such as a landing, is ideal, though you’ll obviously be limited by the position of your phone socket. Walls and floors will obstruct the signal, so bear this in mind. Also, try to keep your router away from any devices that might affect the quality of your wireless connection, with interference from electromagnetic or electrostatic noise from phone chargers, hi-fi speakers and so on.
6 Switch Wi-Fi channels
Are your neighbours dragging down your Wi-Fi speeds? Your wireless speed and coverage will be affected by interference from other Wi-Fi networks jostling for space in your neighbourhood. Most wireless networks use either 2.4GHz or 5GHz frequencies (or both). Within each frequency is a range of separate channels and switching your router to a channel shared by fewer nearby networks can improve performance levels.
To establish which channels your neighbours are occupying, download a free tool called Acrylic Wi-Fi Home from www.snipca.com/23482. Run it and you’ll see your own network name (known as its SSID) listed with all the other wireless networks in your immediate area – each will be colourcoded so that you can identify the signals in the graph at the bottom right. To find out which channel you should move to (from 1-14), click the Channel column to sort the networks by channel and compare channels 1, 6 and 11 (the channels most often used by home networks). Work out which of 1, 6 and 11 is least used (or not used at all) and make a note.
It’s then a case of accessing your router’s configuration settings (usually by logging in with an admin password provided with your router) and going to the Wi-Fi or WLAN section to choose a different channel. If you have a dual-band router, you may need to change the channel for both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz wireless bands. Once you’ve changed channels, turn to Wi-Fi SweetSpots again (see Tip 4) to see if your Wi-Fi signal is now stronger throughout your house.
7 Update firmware
Some routers suffer from performance problems that have since been discovered by its manufacturer and then fixed by new firmware. If you’re having trouble with speed and coverage, check if there’s a newer firmware available. You can usually do this by logging into your router’s configuration settings (see above), then the System or Management section.
Bear in mind that in rare circumstances updating firmware can cause the router to lose any settings you’ve previously applied, so if you have changed anything within your router settings (such as its Port settings or its channel) you should make a note before proceeding. Most routers also provide an option to make a backup of existing settings than can later be restored. Some routers, including BT Home Hubs, apply updates automatically, so you may not find an option to update firmware yourself – check the router’s manual, or ask your ISP if you’re not sure.
8 Get a new router
If your router’s getting a bit long in the tooth, it may not support the latest Wi-Fi standards or faster speeds, so consider upgrading to a newer model – preferably one like the Buy It Awardwinning Synology RT1900ac, which works with newer 802.11ac standards and offers dual-band 2.4GHz/5GHz connectivity for the best signal quality. Even better, you could try negotiating for a free router from your ISP. If you’ve been with your provider a while, you might be able to persuade its customer services department to send you a new router to keep you as a customer, though you’ll probably need to sign up for a new contract period to qualify. Just don’t throw your old router away yet, because…
9 Turn an old router into a Wi-Fi extender
There are loads of devices you can buy to improve Wi-Fi speed and coverage, including Powerline adapters and wireless repeaters. But all of these cost money. If you’ve got an old wireless router hanging about unused, with a bit of tweaking, you could turn it into a wireless access point that can boost Wi-Fi speeds in the dead zones of your home.
Precise instructions for how to do this depend on the make and model but, in general terms, you need to log into the old router’s configuration utility and switch it to Access Point (AP) or Repeater mode. You then need to position it within reach of your existing Wi-Fi signal, but on its outer edges. Plug the old router in, connect it to your Wi-Fi network (you’ll need to enter its password) and it will boost the Wi-Fi signal so it extends into those previously unreached areas. See instructions for configuring TP-Link routers as access points (at www.snipca.com/23484) for an example of how to do this.
10 Find out what programs are hogging your network
Dozens of tools and programs make use of your network connection all the time – without you even knowing. But there’s a hidden Windows tool that lets you sniff out those programs that are greedily gobbling up more than their fair share of bandwidth. Click Start, type resource and open the Resource Monitor. Click the Network tab then look at the ‘Processes with Network Activity’ list. Look for anything here that shouldn’t be using your network. These might include programs you thought you’d long since deleted, or programs that load with Windows (whether you realise it or not). If you see anything that shouldn’t be running right-click it then select End Process. For a more permanent solution, you may need to change the programs settings or uninstall it completely.
To stop programs opening with Windows 7 and 8, click the Start button, type msconfig then press Enter. When the System Configuartion window opens, click the Startup tab then untick any programs you want to stop loading with your PC. In Windows 10, right-click the Start button, click Task Manager, then the Startup tab.
MAKE YOUR NETWORK SAFER
11 Password-protect network file sharing
One of the benefits of having a home network is that you can move and share files between your PCs without using a USB stick – we’ll show you how to set up a handy shared folder on page 56. But if such network-based file sharing isn’t password-protected, hackers could access your files.
To fix this, right-click the network icon in the notification area (far right of the taskbar) and select ‘Open Network and Sharing Centre’, then click ‘Change advanced sharing settings’ on the left. In Windows 7, look for the network labelled ‘current profile’ (it should be ‘Home or Work’). In Windows 10, scroll down and look under All Networks. In both cases, you should see an option to ‘Turn on password-protected sharing’. Make sure this is enabled. Next, go to the ‘Public folder sharing’ section then select ‘Turn off Public folder sharing’, then click ‘Save changes’. This ensures that the user of any other PC connected to your network will still require your PC’s log-in details in order to access its shared folders.
12 Delete unsafe public Wi-Fi networks
You probably already know that unsecured public Wi-Fi hotspots are risky to use. But did you know that Windows stores these connections and may automatically re-connect to them in the future without you even knowing? To prevent this, you should delete any old Wi-Fi connections you no longer use – especially unsecured ones.
In Windows 10, click Start, Settings, ‘Network & Internet’, then WiFi. Next, click ‘Manage known networks’, click any you want to remove, then click Forget. In Windows 7, click start, type manage wireless, then click Manage Wireless Networks. Select any network you don’t want, then click Remove.
13 Use multiple firewalls
Protecting your network with more than one firewall won’t cause any conflicts. In fact, we’d recommend running at least two firewalls: a hardware one on your router and a software one on each PC you use. Almost all routers have a firewall built in. To make sure your router’s hardware firewall is enabled, access the router’s configuration tool (check its manual to find out how). Then look for a firewall option (usually located in the Advanced or Security settings). If it’s not enabled, switch it on and save your changes.
On your PC, you can use Windows Firewall if your antivirus software doesn’t provide one of its own (Avast Free, for example). It’s perfectly safe, just not terribly easy to use because it keeps a lot of options hidden and its interface isn’t user-friendly. One way to drastically improve Windows Firewall’s interface is to install a free tool called Windows Firewall Control (www.snipca.com/23495). Install it and it will provide quick access to your firewall’s settings whenever you need them, directly from the notification area – just click the green tick icon to access dozens of options. One change to make immediately is to switch the firewall from Low Filtering to Medium Filtering. This will block any outgoing connections that don’t match rules, blocking keyloggers, spyware and other malware from sending data from your PC.
14 Change your Wi-Fi password
Your router probably came with a pre-set password (usually found printed on the back of it). This is unlikely to be the safest password and can be noted down by anyone who enters your home, so access your router’s wireless settings and change the Wi-Fi password to something stronger.
The best way to create a secure, random password is to use a free online password generator, such as LastPass (www.snipca.com/23496). Just make sure you keep a record of it somewhere. Depending on the type of encryption your router uses you will need a password of a certain length. To create a password that’s the right length use the Password Length box in the Details section.
MAKE YOUR NETWORK EASIER TO USE
15 Share files, printers and more via HomeGroup
Windows has a built-in system to make file-sharing safe and easy. HomeGroup is a way to share files, printers and media between the Windows 7, 8 and 10 PCs in your home. Click Start on one PC (your main one), type homegroup, then press Enter. Click ‘Create a homegroup’ and work your way through the on-screen instructions, selecting the files and devices you want to share and making a note of the HomeGroup password. Next, on your other PCs, click Start, type homegroup, then press Enter. Click ‘Join now’ and work your way through the on-screen steps, selecting what you want to share and entering the HomeGroup password when prompted. To see the folders shared on your HomeGroup, open Windows/File Explorer and click Homegroup in the left-hand column.
16 Set up a shared network folder
Creating a new folder that all the PCs on your network can access is pretty simple. Open File Explorer, navigate to the folder you want to share, then right-click it and select ‘Share with’. If you’ve already set up a HomeGroup (see previous tip), then select ‘Homegroup (view)’ if you want to prevent users of the other PCs on the network from changing or deleting files, or ‘Homegroup (view and edit)’ if you don’t mind other users changing any shared files.
Another way to set up a shared folder is to use online storage, which lets you share files beyond your home network over the internet. To do this in Google Drive, for example, log in at drive.google.com, right-click a folder, select Share, enter the email addresses of those you want to provide access to, then click Send.
17 Share a printer with any device
Windows’ built-in printer sharing is fine if you only use PCs, but if you set up Google Cloud Print, you can print from tablets and phones as well – even if your printer’s the old-fashioned, USB-only type. To use this you will need Chrome installed on the PC that’s connected to the printer.
Switch your printer on, open Chrome, type chrome://devices into the address bar then press Enter. Click ‘Add printers’ and follow the steps. Most recent Android devices (Android 4.4 and later) have built-in support for Google Cloud Print – simply tap Settings, then Printing to set it up and start printing from that phone or tablet. If you have an Apple device, you’ll need an app called PrintCentral Pro (www.snipca.com/23508, £4.99 for iPhone, £7.99 for iPad). You can print from any PC by installing the free Cloud Print driver (www.snipca.com/23507), or print via the internet by signing in with your Google account at www.google.com/cloudprint, then clicking Print, ‘Upload file to print’. Note that some printers have dedicated (and usually free) phone and tablet apps to let you send print jobs – HP’s ePrint app is one example: www.snipca.com/23516. Check your printer’s manual to find out more.
18 Check your network usage in Windows 10
Windows 10 provides an easy way to monitor how much data has been transferred to and from your PC over your network, which can help you identify which tools and apps are putting a strain on your network. Click Start, Settings ‘Network & Internet’, then ‘Data usage’ on the left. Here, you’ll see the total amount of network data used over the past 30 days. Remember, this is all network data, not just data downloaded from the internet. Click ‘Usage details’ for a list of usage broken down by app or program, with the biggest data hogs at the top. Use the dropdown menu at the top to change between Wi-Fi and Ethernet (information sent over a connected network cable).
GET MORE FROM YOUR NETWORK
Wi-Fi isn’t only for browsing the web or streaming Netflix films. Here are some less common ways you can make the most of your wireless connectivity…
1 SET UP A WIRELESS NETWORK CAMERA
Keep an eye on a pet while you’re away or set up a motion-detecting security cam for less than £50 (www.snipca.com/23485).
2 ADD A CHROMECAST
Turn your older telly into a wireless Smart TV, and control everything from your smartphone or tablet, with Google’s fabulous casting dongle.
3 CREATE A GUEST WI-FI
Don’t want to give your Wi-Fi network password to every Tom, Dick or Harry who visits your house? Some routers let you set up a special guest network that’s separate from your main one. Check your device’s WLAN settings for a guest option. If you don’t find one, you might want to consider using an old wireless router to set up a separate Wi-Fi network.
4 SET UP A PLEX MEDIA STREAMING SYSTEM
Plex is our favourite media-streaming tool. Partly because most of its best functions are free, but also because it’s a great way to wirelessly share music, films, photos and more around your network. Start by downloading the server tool to your PC (www.snipca.com/23491), then log into your Plex account (via apps) on a PC, phone or tablet.