Sometimes my iMac just won't connect to the wireless network.
June 25, 2009 4:40 AM   Subscribe

Endless network wifi problems - capricious connections ahoy!

We've got three computers using the same internet connection - a windows XP machine attached by ethernet and two imacs connected via wifi.

Sometimes (like today) we turn an iMac on, and we get the full Airport fan and great performance. Other times we get 'There was an error connecting to NETWORKNAME'. There seems to be no reason why it sometimes works and sometimes doesn't.

Technical details:

BT HomeHub wireless router/modem - connected by ethernet to:
Windows XP PC
Apple Airport Express plug

iMac core duo 2ghz OSX 0.4.11
iMac core duo 2.6 ghz OSX 0.4.11

Sometimes whole days go by when the iMacs only get the 'error' message (the message being totally vague and unhelpful, by the way). We've tried calling Apple and BT's helplines. We spend up to 40 minutes on each, and are always told that it's an issue with the other party. Totally maddening.

The wireless has a WEP security passcode, which presents no problems on 'good' days.

The router is turned off at night, so I don' think it's a heating problem.

When it's not working, I unplug the XP machine upstairs, or the Airport plug. Sometimes some of these things seem to work.

The connected XP machine nearly always works correctly, so the internet is coming into the house okay, I think.

Any advice very much appreciated.
posted by Cantdosleepy to Computers & Internet (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You turn off your router? Huh.
posted by newfers at 6:14 AM on June 25, 2009

1) Routers usually need a few seconds (most people give them at least 10, but ideally 30 seconds or a minute) to boot and get all set to work. You don't mention inserting that time into your start of the day, but you might wish to turn on the router, then wait a little bit before connecting devices to it wirelessly.

2) We have found with our PowerBook G4 attaching wirelessly to our Netgear wireless router that after powerup, we ALWAYS have to click the wireless fan icon and explicitly choose the WPA-PSK protected network by SSID. I'm not sure but it sounds like you are complaining about that.

3) Eventually, because I got tired of wireless-connection related issues for my consoles and computers, I dropped the few hundred dollars/hours of time it took to wire the house because wired connections are better. The laptops (3 of them) connect okay to our wireless networks (I run a closed network and an open one) when we need them to, but there is sometimes some fiddling required.

That's my final recommendation. 3. If you know you'll be where you're at long enough and your lodging terms allow it, I always recommend wired ethernet home networks as a backbone for any desktop or semi-permanent computing station for laptops.
posted by kalessin at 6:23 AM on June 25, 2009

Thanks, Kalessin. I'm not at all worried about having to manually select the correct network. The problem is that it either connects automatically (ace!) or that no amount selecting the network (which can always be seen on our list of available networks) will get us beyond the 'There was an error connecting to NETWORK NAME'.

Newfers - yep. It's a friend's house and they don't want their electricity bills to be any higher than necessary.
posted by Cantdosleepy at 6:48 AM on June 25, 2009

I sometimes have to "nudge" my various Macs toward wireless connectivity.

That said, there may be interference where you are. Have you tried changing the channel of the router? Also, try a scanner like iStumbler to see what's around you- if there is another SSID on your channel with equivalent (or even stronger) signal strength, you're going to have problems. Again, a channel change usually fixes it.

There may also be physical environmental issues. Have you tried relocating the iMacs upstairs to see if something in the walls/flooring may be interfering? I've got a Mac Mini at the opposite end of my apartment from my wifi router, and there's a washer/dryer unit in my office- when the unit's running, I get a lot of interference for some reason.

It's a friend's house and they don't want their electricity bills to be any higher than necessary.

The amount of electricity your router uses is pretty negligible, since there are no moving parts.
posted by mkultra at 7:07 AM on June 25, 2009

I must be missing something,.. but why do you have the "BT HomeHub wireless router/modem" and also the "Apple Airport Express plug" (plug?).... so that means you have two wireless routers?

I realize its cumbersome,... but if it was me, I'd temporarily move one of the iMac's upstairs (preferably as near as possible to the wireless signal) and test it for a day or 3. Make sure that the wireless connects as reliably as possible. Then move it back downstairs and see if the problem returns.

My intuition tells me you are either getting some interference of some kind,.. or your wireless router (which one?) is either failing intermittently or needs a firmware update.
posted by jmnugent at 7:08 AM on June 25, 2009

perhaps this will give you a better error message. In /Applications, there's a Utilities folder. In there, there's a Terminal app.

Open it, and type this command:

tail -f /var/log/system.log

Then try to connect again.

And see if any of the messages on the screen make sense with regard to your problem...
posted by DreamerFi at 8:17 AM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Maybe try switching the wireless router to another channel, if it doesn't already search for the least congested.
posted by orme at 9:01 AM on June 25, 2009

If a router was going to have heat issues, turning it off overnight wouldn't correct those issues. The heat problem would build in a matter of minutes or hours. Turning it off at night can only cause problems, as far as I can see.

Wireless isn't good at doing multiple levels in a building. The signal prefers to be mostly line of sight. If you imagine the position of your client device and draw an imaginary line between it and the router, you will probably see that it has to go through a lot of building to get back and forth. If it is impossible to move or add a wireless access point to the other level, try adjusting the antenna to "point" towards your computers in the other level. (In this case, the signal propagates perpendicular to how the antennas are pointed. So if it's pointing straight up, the signal propagates in a sort of disk shape circling around the antenna. If you can tilt the antenna so that the big disk tilts toward the computers, you might solve the problem.)
posted by gjc at 12:39 PM on June 25, 2009

Thanks for all the input guys.

I ran iStumbler, and our router was the only one broadcasting on channel 9. This was on a good day, though - I'll make sure to try it on a day when it's not working.

There may also be physical environmental issues. Have you tried relocating the iMacs upstairs to see if something in the walls/flooring may be interfering ... when the unit's running, I get a lot of interference for some reason.

We have a wireless phone in the room, but that's always on, so it wouldn't really explain the 'sometimes fine, sometimes rubbish' nature of the connection.

I might try to update the firmware on the router next time I'm at the office.

Thanks for all the help guys! I'll be back in the office on Thursday, so expect an update*!

(*more inane questions)
posted by Cantdosleepy at 2:11 AM on June 26, 2009

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