It’s time to roll up the shirt-sleeves and dive back into my favorite topic: wireless networking. I realize we beat this drum a lot at Lifehacker, but that’s because wifi woes are a pretty regular source of frustration for readers who don’t hesitate to give my Tech 911 inbox an earful.
This week, Lifehacker enthusiast Gareth writes:
I am a teacher in a lockdown working from home. My personal laptop has such incredibly inconsistent speeds I could not use it to teach. Luckily work have provided me with a different laptop which works fine. My laptop is fairly new and I have never had issues with wifi before with it. My current package is 125mb download and 10mb upload speeds. Yet some tests regularly coming in under 5mb. On top of this my ps4 is barely usable. Speeds of under 5mb are the norm. Sometimes less than 1mb. I bought a wifi extender and lan cable and still under 5mb despite as u see in the photos, my mobile getting over 100mb in the same room as the ps4 which was on a lan connection.
If you have any suggestions i would be very happy to hear then. I have tried changing the dns to the recommended ones online and did port forwarding but it made no difference. The speeds seem to be available in the router as other devices are fine. I know the ps4 only has 2.4ghz but surely that doesn’t limit the speeds as dramatically as it is?
It’s probably time to go shopping for a new router
I’m going to start by thanking you for sending along pictures of your networking nightmare, Gareth, which does confirm that your connection speed is garbage on both your PlayStation 4 and older laptop (< 5Mbps downloads), but great on your phone (~110Mbps downloads). I thought I had a few great troubleshooting ideas in mind until I got to the point in your letter where you share that connecting devices via an Ethernet cable didn’t fix your speeds at all. That complicates things.
In general, there are three basic troubleshooting tips I like to suggest to people when they’re getting inconsistent speeds across their devices:
- Reboot your router.
- Update your router’s firmware.
- Switch to Ethernet where possible, which should improve your connection.
I’m going to assume you already did the first suggestion; so try the second, in case that helps address any bugs or other networking quirks. And after that, I might even recommend a general factory reset of your router. While you’ll have to set up your wifi again (which should take all of five minutes to do), this could fix the problem, as if by magic. As for the last suggestion, I’m also assuming you’re plugging your laptop directly into one of your router’s Ethernet ports (not your wifi extender’s, if applicable), and that you using a relatively modern Ethernet cable to do it (Cat 5E or Cat 6). Have you tried using a different Ethernet cable, just in case?
It really is strange that your PlayStation 4 is struggling so much on an Ethernet connection, and I’m assuming you’d see the same results if you connected your old laptop directly to the router via Ethernet. If you do get faster speeds, try connecting back to your PlayStation 4; if you’re still stuck with slower speeds, try connecting with your new laptop, et cetera. Basically, the goal here is to ascertain whether there’s something wrong with your router (which is where I’m thinking the problem lies) or if it’s your devices. While I’d normally expect a messed-up router to give bad performance for all connected devices, it’s possible that there are some variables that are making this hard to discern.
For example, it’s possible that your newer laptop is connecting over your router’s 5Ghz band, and somehow that’s giving you a solid connection, whereas your older laptop is only connecting via 2.4GHz and messing everything up. The Ethernet issue is perplexing, but it’s possible you might see a normal performance if you use a different Ethernet cable, as mentioned, or test out different Ethernet ports on your router itself.
If your “router” is actually the router/modem that your ISP has given you, I think now’s as good a time as any to call them up and ask for a replacement (or an upgrade). If they balk, or you don’t want to deal with it, ask if there are any firmware updates your devices needs that they can send your way. (Or unplug your cable modem, wait a few minutes, and plug it back in to see if that forces any updates.)
You can also try buying your own router—I recommend something cheap and simple, given your speeds—and setting your cable modem/router into bridge mode. Basically, you want to turn it into a “dumb” cable modem and let your new router do all the heavy lifting.
If you already have this kind of a setup, I think you’re at the point of troubleshooting where it’s worth exploring a new router. Again, go for something speedy and simple, like the $60 TP-Link Archer A7, and swap it with whatever you’re currently using. That should fix your issues completely—and you probably won’t even need your wireless extender to get a decent signal throughout your house.
Generally speaking, I don’t like using wireless extenders if I can avoid them. They’ll do a number on your speeds if you aren’t precise about where you’ve placed them (around halfway between where your router is and where your router’s coverage terminates), and if the extenders themselves don’t support a dedicated backhaul connection to your router. You’ll want one that either uses 5Ghz to connect to your router and outputs a 2.4GHz network, or one that uses 2.4GHz to connect to your router and outputs a 5GHz network. If your extender is set to transmit to your devices and to your router on the same band, you’ll cut your maximum potential speeds in half—at minimum.
I applaud the steps you’ve taken to troubleshoot your router so far—switching to a faster DNS is a great, general thing you can do in any situation. However, you don’t need to mess with port forwarding, as that doesn’t have any impact on your download/upload speeds, but more so your overall connection (if you’re trying to access an online gaming service, for example).
My only other thought, if you really want to stick with this router, is to split your wifi into separate networks for the 2.4GHz and 5Ghz bands. That might at least allow you to squeak by in the interim with devices that can access whatever band gives you reasonable results (if any). However, this is really just a band-aid. If everything I’ve suggested doesn’t work, I really think it’s time to go shopping for a new router. And that’s normal! Routers mess up for the weirdest reasons.
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