Installing an outdoor wireless-enabled security camera seemed like a great idea — until the WiFi signal from my router failed to reach the device.
Even inside, the WiFi was letting me down. On the family room TV, two floors away from the router, Netflix kept buffering and blurring.
I pay a lot for high-speed Xfinity internet from Comcast, and have what's supposed to be fast modem/router "gateways" (XB3). But the dirty secret never mentioned in advertising is that a quoted 200+ megabits-per-second data output rate is "valid" only for devices connected by ethernet cable to the gateway. As soon as you beam the signals wirelessly, the count starts dropping.
Communiques on the older 2.4 band start much slower, then degrade with distance. Five-GHz channels are far faster out of the gate, but their "reach" is less, especially when bending around walls.
WiFi woes are a major cause of the low consumer satisfaction scores for internet service, only getting worse as more users switch from cable to internet-delivered TV and add home gadgetry. Recognizing this, Comcast will soon introduce a WiFi hardware fix — a system of "adaptive" signal relayer "Pods" by Plume that distributes content more efficiently around the house. The upgrade will be a selling point for Comcast's new xFi internet platform and 1Gbps tier.
Don't want to wait? Several other devices already function as well or better and require a onetime equipment charge in the $100 to $400 range. These are ideal products to spotlight in this final Gizmo Guy column, as I transition into an overlapping consumer watch beat, helping you negotiate an even wider world of goods and services.
The good news: First, try the free cure for the WiFi blues. Move your now hidden router to a more central position.
Still not working?
In a smaller home (of 1,500 square feet), a new high-powered router with more antennas, higher ("AC1900" minimum) speed, and multitasking "MU-MIMO" technology can help. A lot.
In a larger home, a range extender or a "Mesh" WiFi system that "daisy chains" two or more WiFi retransmitters, will carry internet-connected signals farther, though with ever-diminishing speed as each "hop" comes online.
(As initially reviewed, the short-hopping Plume system that Comcast offers requires a separate repeater in every room. Fingers crossed they're reducing that need.)
The best retrofits: Don't want to start over with a new router, which requires you to reprogram all the smart gadgets (wireless cameras, thermostats…) on your current router? Me neither.
Both devices ask to be placed about halfway between your WiFi router and WiFi dead zone. Then, with an app on a smartphone or tablet, you connect 'em to the network signal you want to amp up.
Plugged into a power outlet, the popsicle-styled Amplifi MeshPoint (discounted to about $110) proved especially easy to set up, beeping approval when first connected, then helping to fine-tune its signal strength with a swivel-top antenna.
And when extended with just one more Amplifi Mesh Point, the system delivered excellent reach, even to the family room, long a no-WiFi-fly zone. An Ookla SpeedTest free app now showed a 2.4 band incoming signal averaging 45 megabits per second (plenty to stream even ultra-high-def movies).
Before adding two MeshPoints, the Xfinity router's incoming (download) signal measured just 2.02 Mbps in the family room, and on the return path, a useless 0.04 Mbps.
Over on the 5 GHz band, MeshPoints pulled in a whopping 73 Mbps stream, almost double the unamplified Xfinity router's 39 Mbps score.
While it looks like a conventional, three-antenna router, Helios-EX ($149-$179) connects wirelessly to your installed home router, and then retransmits it as a 2.4/5 GHz "Extended Network." The Helios-EX proved especially powerful at pushing 5 GHz signals sideways, down and up a flight (hitting 75 Mbps in the family room). But it was just so-so redistributing 2.4 signals in any direction (downloading at 12 Mbps in the same FR location).
A hybrid multitasker: Test rig No. 3 was the Samsung Connect Home, the first Smart-WiFi System combining extended signal coverage with a smart home platform, Samsung SmartThings. This gear also connects to hundreds of compatible smart devices controlled through a single app. The app-based set-up often demanded "try, now try again," but is hardly rocket science.
Samsung sent two versions. A three-pack of puck-shaped Connect Home devices good for homes up to 4,500 square feet sells for $379.99. The newer Samsung Connect Home Pro — a higher powered ($249.99) unit kicks butt when used alone in up to 1,500 square feet. (Give it room. It gets warm.)
Ethernet-wired to my first floor Xfinity modem router, the Connect Home Pro alone delivered 190 Mbps (of 5 GHz signal) one flight up and out to the edges of its stated comfort zone. Really impressive! When meshed with the three standard Connect Home units, the SpeedTest numbers were lower but not shabby. The Samsung array now delivered 95 Mbps of 5 GHz signal one hop up, then 65 Mbps in the family room after two more hops. Still plenty powerful.