Help a tech idiot pick up more wireless signals...
November 19, 2008 9:00 AM   Subscribe

Help a complete tech idiot: What wireless adapter/dongle (??) should I purchase to boost the wifi range of my laptop? (Also, maybe you could help me understand some of the tech language or point me to a DIY project an idiot could accomplish...)

Thanks for your patience in advance! I've searched through the past questions on this topic but I must admit it is a little hard for me to deciper.

I'm looking for something like THIS to allow me to extend the range my laptop can pick up wifi from.

(So, this is called a wireless adapter. Is a dongle a separate category of wireless adapters?)

What is the best type of equipment for getting this done? Or do you recommend a specific model?

I have two options for machines which this will be used on, it can work on one or the other, or both:
a Mac laptop with a nonfunctioning wireless card running OS X
a PC laptop with functional wireless card running XP

My ignoble instinct is to just buy something that I can plug in and do the magic for me, if it exists. But I'm open to gaining some skills that would allow me to be a little more creative and build my own set-up, so if you have a suggestion for a really beginner level instructions or guide, that would be nice too.
posted by dahliachewswell to Technology (12 answers total)
USB Wireless stuff is usually pretty simple. You typically plug it into a free slot and, with XP, it will automatically detect it (or, better yet, the drivers will be on the USB dongle and will install themselves) and install some drivers. In other cases, they'll ship with a CD that has the drivers that you need.

Typically with a USB dongle, it will be XP or Mac, there are few that roll both. I would suggest getting one for the mac, since the wireless card on that is busted.

As far as DIY projects go, making a wi-fi booster using a pringles can is detailed here. There are dozens of how-tos online, I haven't done one myself but they don't appear to be too complicated.

Although, if you're getting a weak signal with your laptop, I would suggest either trying to find a different spot with your laptop or updating/refreshing the drivers before buying something.
posted by hellojed at 9:39 AM on November 19, 2008

There are very few, at least to the best of my knowledge, Mac-compatible USB WiFi adapters.

This is because there's really no standard for sending IP over USB, so each adapter vendor basically makes up their own way of doing it, and writes it into the driver. Typically they only write Windows drivers. (The majority of device drivers on the Mac are written by Apple and for hardware that conforms to various standards.)

That's not to say that there aren't any Mac USB Wifi adapters, just that they're few and far between, and sometimes in order to find a compatible one you'll have to look at the serial number of the device you're buying, determine which chipset it uses, then download an obscure driver from the chipset manufacturer's web site.

Here's one that's allegedly compatible without any screwing around or additional downloads. No idea if it's also Windows-compatible, though.

This one supposedly does both. I would do some additional research before buying, though, to make sure people aren't experiencing problems.

Anyway, all of this may be a moot point though, because without taking the USB adapter apart, you won't be using a Pringles-can antenna with it. They don't have external antenna connectors (at least as far as I've ever seen) that would let you plug one in, like most PCI and some Mini-PCI cards do.

I can't for certain say that there isn't a Mac/PC USB adapter with an external antenna, but I think the odds are strongly against it.

A better way to boost your laptop's range would probably be to get a Wireless-to-Ethernet bridge like this one that has a removable external antenna. You basically build and attach your cantenna (or COTS Wifi antenna that gives you some gain), and then connect it to your computer via Ethernet. It won't matter if your computer is a Mac or a PC, since it'll just be speaking Ethernet to the bridge box. I am a big fan of these devices, and as long as you don't need to be portable or run off of the computer's batteries, I think they're the best solution going.

A "black box" device that speaks a well-known protocol on each end (Wifi on one side, Ethernet on the other) is always going to be more compatible than a halfassed device that requires you to install vendor-supplied drivers on your computer in order to communicate with it. It also has the advantage of being relatively future-proof: it'll keep working while a device that's dependent on drivers will become so much scrap metal when the vendor decides to EoL it and stop updating the drivers for new releases of your chosen operating system.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:37 AM on November 19, 2008

Just buy a USB Wifi adapter with (or buy additionally) an extension cable. Place the wifi adapter away from the computer. You should get a better signal.
posted by blue_beetle at 10:39 AM on November 19, 2008

The Wi-Fire is USB, Mac-compatible, and apparently worth the money. If you're intrested, I think they sent me a discount code recently.
posted by djb at 10:44 AM on November 19, 2008

Those little USB wireless adapters will not give you better range. The built-in card on your laptops are usually a higher quality and have an antenna that runs through the body of the laptop. This is a much, much better antenna than the little one stuffed into the USB adapter. I would not waste money on this for the PC laptop. I would update the wireless driver on the laptop and the firmware on the router. I would also try different channels on the router (1, 6, or 11) to see if that helps reception. Move the router away from cordless phones and microwaves, to a more central location, a higher location, etc.

The only exception I can think of that will 100% increase range in a directional adapter like this hawking. Obviously its not very mobile. Mac version here.
posted by damn dirty ape at 10:53 AM on November 19, 2008

a Mac laptop with a nonfunctioning wireless card running OS X

Dongles are annoying and probably the lest effective, especially for laptops. For the Mac laptop, just replace the wireless card with a working one. Depending on the Mac model, this could be very simple (do it yourself) or worth a trip to the store. But the results will be better and more convenient than any dongle.

Also, consider boosting the OTHER END of the equation. Where is your wireless access point? Where do its antennas point? Can you add bigger antennas? Can you add a second access point in a more "dead" part of your home?
posted by rokusan at 11:50 AM on November 19, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks, these answers are very helpful!

Just to clarify, I don't really have a problem with signal weakness around the home, the functioning card works just fine picking up signals in an apartment or cafe. I would just like to try to pick up signals from as far away as possible, ex: people in my neighborhood who have offered to share a connection, etc. What kind of range are we talking about with these options?
posted by dahliachewswell at 12:00 PM on November 19, 2008

Wifi range in a urban settings is very, very poor. A couple hundred feet at best. Less if you have to go through walls or if there is lots of interference. The directional antenna I linked to may help you, but you need to point it directly at the wifi source. It sounds like youre trying to get on unsecured wifi connections, but your laptop may see the ssid broadcast, but cannot connect. This is typical as connecting properly requires a pretty decent signal to noise ratio.

If this AP is a few blocks down then you wont be able to connect. If its two or three houses down and you have line of sight to the AP (pal puts router in window you can see) and you point the directional hawking at it,then you have a good chance of connecting. No line of sight and far away? Not much can help you.

If youre new to this you can run a program like netstumbler that will help you detect nearby APs. You can walk with your laptop and try to figure out which direction the signal comes from. You may be able to get one one network by moving the laptop to one corner of your home or by pointing the directional hawking out the window.
posted by damn dirty ape at 12:11 PM on November 19, 2008

You can also use a second (or third) wifi access point as a signal booster. You put it in some location that gets the best connection to ANOTHER wifi access point, and use it to two-hop the connection.
posted by rokusan at 12:41 PM on November 19, 2008

I like the Alfa USB Wifi Adapter. It works on Windows, Linux, Mac (OS 10.4 & 10.5). It has an external antenna of the rubber-ducky variety that you can unscrew and use some other antenna if you want. (I've never had the need to try this.) It supposedly has greater output and more sensitivity than the cheaper USB Wifi Adapters. All I know is, when I use this baby, I get much better connections than with the wireless in my (Toshiba) laptop. Like, a two-bar connection becomes a four-bar connection. Like, I can connect to signals my laptop can't even detect. It comes with a USB cable so you can wave it around to find the best signal, then hang the adapter there. (Near a window seems to work best for me.) You can find it online. Just Google Alfa USB Wifi Adapter. (Disclaimer: Although this may sound to some like a paid promo, I'm really just a very satisfied customer.)
posted by exphysicist345 at 4:24 PM on November 19, 2008

Response by poster: maybe people are no longer checking this thread, butttt...

has anyone ever tried this/this type of gadget?
posted by dahliachewswell at 1:04 PM on November 20, 2008

Yes, but you have no devices you can plug that into. Laptops dont have external antenna connectors. Typically, these devices are plugged into routers, not into laptops. These are also not portable at all and need a wall mounting.

The hawking I linked to above is a USB device with a mini directional antenna on a pivot stand, this one is just directional antenna.
posted by damn dirty ape at 2:05 PM on November 20, 2008

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