Net neutrality worries got you thinking about your home internet? The bad news is that adjusting a router is brutal. Navigating the drop-down menus is like trying to build a website in the early 2000s. But powering through and correctly tweaking a few settings can make your Wi-Fi work much better — or at least get the speed closer to the number for which you’re paying. Here’s how to get the most out of your router—and how to deal with signal interference from other residents and businesses that can gum up your connection.
Get a Speed Testing App
On my iPhone, I start with SpeedTest. Hit “test,” and write down the number you’re getting. That will be your starting point, and your reference to see whether the steps laid our here improve your performance. Android has an even better free app called Wifi Analyzer, which does the same thing and also can scan the area to see exactly what type of radio congestion is nearby.
Get Into Your Router
Find the black box that your cylindrical coaxial cable or ethernet cable plugs into. That’s the router. Search the box for what looks the make and model—it’ll be something like TP Link or Linksys. Then Google its name, plus “settings” and “login.” This way you’ll figure out how to access that router from a device (laptops work best, especially if you can plug directly into the router with an ethernet cable).
For example: On a Verizon system, you connect to the router and then type 192.168.1.1 into a browser. If you haven’t changed the settings since the Verizon guy came to your apartment to set it up, the username and password is probably still “admin” and “admin.” If that doesn’t work, check the router’s exterior for a small etching with the username and password. Sign in.
2.4 or 5 Gigahertz?
Among your options, you’ll see options for 2.4 or 5 gigahertz (Ghz). You may have noticed this when looking for Wi-Fi networks if you saw the network name followed by either 2.4G or 5G. This refers the to wavelength of the signal coming from the router. In practice, the two are useful for different applications.
The 2.4Ghz wavelength is good at going far and around walls, but isn’t fast. 5Ghz is fast, but can’t go far or around obstacles. You can choose one wavelength or enable both—though if you enable both, you will have to tell your phone, laptop, TV, and other devices which network to connect to.
To get this right, try enabling just one of the two, rebooting the router, and testing the speed from different rooms around your apartment. If 5Ghz is awesome in most rooms where you use internet, and your devices all support it (most new phones and TVs do), use that. Everyone else in your building probably uses 2.4Ghz, so that frequency is generally more jammed up.
Pick a Channel
Among all these menus, you’ll see an option to pick a channel for your router. Think of a channel as the traffic lane within the wider 2.4 or 5Ghz bandwidth. As with car traffic lanes, the less crowded, the better.
Most routers pick a channel automatically, but if your connection is inexplicably slow, check your speed-testing app to see if your router is on a crowded channel (lots of people use the lower numbers). If so, try a couple of new channels, run more speed tests, and pick a faster channel. I promise it’s worth the annoyance if it means your Netflix doesn’t buffer.
If this is your first time fissing with router settings and you find that your device is still on the default username/password, then change it to something else. Anything else. The criminals who did the Dyn hack sought out devices that were still set to those defaults, which made them easy to access. You don’t need to get too fancy or complicated here. Writing the new username and password on a Post-It and slapping it on the router is completely acceptable (I mean, unless you have shady friends who visit).
While you’re at it, find the security section of your router’s settings. If it’s not already selected, check “WPA/WPA2 – Personal,” or whatever has “recommended” in parentheses. Same goes for “AES” in the encryption field. Extra credit if you enable a “guest network” and put all your TVs and baby monitors on that rather than the main network you use for your computer and phones. All of these measures make it difficult for someone who’s not you to access your router, which is a gateway to other sensitive devices. Sounds crazy, but it’s possible for a criminal to do all that from a car parked across the street from you.
The Fallback Option: Buy Your Way to Happiness
Tweaking the settings on most routers, especially if it’s one you lease from your internet provider, means dealing with an intimidating array of pull down menus and initialisms like IPV6 and DNS. If you can afford it, get a mesh Wi-Fi system. I usually prescribe Eero, which is the best-looking and most reliable system I’ve tested. It automates all this complicated optimization, and, most importantly, just works. Hopefully, as the technology gets cheaper, these will replace those black boxes you just spent an hour conquering.