Friday, January 29, 2016

Ay-yi-yi! WiFi!

Why is your Second Life running so slow?  One problem could be the way you're connecting up to the internet.  So today, let's get a little technical!

We use WiFi for just about everything these days.  We carry our laptops anywhere in the house, and don't think twice about using them to get on the internet.  We stream video over WiFi.  We play games.  If we have a computer in an upstairs bedroom, we connect it to our network and to the web with WiFi.  I mean, who wants to run those cables through the walls!?

Well, um...YOU do.  At least you do if you want the best performance over your home network.  This is especially important for services that transfer a lot of data, like Second Life.  It can make a big difference for streaming video too, especially if your video is the new 4K UltraHD variety.

Most home routers these days have two kinds of connections:  Ethernet cables (a "hard wired" connection) that's capable of handling up to 1 Gb/s (gigabit per second, or about one thousand million bits.)  And a wireless connection that supports wireless protocols with varying speeds.  The newest routers boast (in theory) wireless speeds up to 1 Gb/sec, too.  "Well, if the wireless connection is as fast as the wired one, Lindal, what are you going on about?" you may ask.

The thing is, while it is theoretically possible to get just as fast a connection on WiFi as on a wired connection, it is almost never the case in practice.

To get that 1 Gb/sec rate, even in theory, requires that your router support the newest 802.11 ac standard.  Most home routers today support 802.11 a/b/g/n, but not ac.  The 802.11 n standard gives a theoretical maximum rate of 450 Mb/sec, less than half that of the 802.11 ac standard.

Even if your router has 802.11 ac, you probably won't see gigabit transfer rates.  Wireless speeds are strongly affected by distance from the router and by obstacles between the router and your computer, like walls and floors.  Plus, the network adapter or chip in your computer has to be 802.11 ac capable, or it won't even see the router's ac signal.  Routers running the 802.11 ac standard use a radio frequency in the 5GHz band, and these signals tend to be even MORE impacted by distance and obstacles than the older 2.4 GHz band used for the b and n WiFi signals.

Your wired connection might not be running at 1Gb/sec, either.  If your router or the network chip in your computer use the older "fast Ethernet" protocol, you'll be limited to a tenth of that, 100 Mb/sec.  And if your Ethernet cables are the older CAT5 standard, they may limit you to the lower 100 Mb/sec speed too.  You'll want CAT5E or CAT6 cables to be sure your network is really able to run gigabit ethernet.

To get an idea of how all this can affect you in the real world, try this experiment.

  • Find a large file on your computer, around 10GB (gigaBYTES...a byte is 8 bits, so that would be 80Gb.  You gotta pay attention to whether the "b" is capitalized or not.  A lowercase b is "bits", an uppercase B is "bytes.")
  • Copy the file and transfer it to another location on your hard drive.  See how long it takes.  It won't take very long.  This is your baseline, because your computer can move data around internally a lot faster than the data can move on your network.
  • Take the same file and transfer it to another computer on your network.  Both computers should be connected to the network with good quality ethernet cables.  Not quite so fast, was it?
  • Now take the same file and transfer it to a laptop or other computer that is connected with a WiFi connection.  You may have time to run out for a snack!
"Lindal!  I just CAN'T run cables!"  Don't be too sure.  Running cables is not always as hard as you think, although it can mean having to cut some holes in the walls and patch and paint them afterwards.  My Resident Geek recently re-wired the entire basement and main floor all on his own over the course of a few weekends.  But you may be able to improve your WiFi performance and avoid this altogether.  I don't recommend any of the "WiFi extenders" or "networking over power lines" gadgets.  I have not had much luck with either one.  However, you may be able to re-locate your WiFi router or access point to a more central location in your house.  Try to find somewhere that's on the main floor, in the middle of the house.  We wound up using a coat closet!  If you can't get strong coverage everywhere in the house, try for a location that gives you a strong signal in the room where you usually use your computer for Second Life.

There is a free app for your Android smartphone that will let you SEE the signal strength of your WiFi.  Go to the Google Play store and download "WiFi Analyzer."  This is very useful when trying to tweak your WiFi performance by moving the router or reorienting its antennas.

Good luck, and happy Fast Networking!

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