What could be the problem with my wi-fi connection? (Details of the setup and symptoms inside
September 15, 2011 11:24 AM   Subscribe

What could be the problem with my wi-fi connection? (Details of the setup and symptoms inside)

I moved a PC that previously had a wired connection to my router to another room, and so got a USB wi-fi adapter to connect wirelessly.

That wireless connection works intermittently and slowly, and I suspect that the reason for that is the connection is flaky, and is possibly stopping and restarting with great frequency. The reason I'm guessing that's happening is that when I look at the processes running, I often see many instances of ipconfig.exe starting up and quickly finishing. Oftentimes I see 4 instances of ipconfig in the process list at once. I also see nbstat.exe and arp.exe frequently active. (In this case not sure if they are being rerun from scratch, or just consuming CPU.)

I'm not sure what all those processes do, but googling and Wikipedia suggests they are somehow involved in the PC trying to assign itself a network address.

Other symptoms which may be relevant...

There are times when the PC seems to be connected to the router ok, and can see the router config screens etc, but still can't actually reach the internet. (Other PCs including the one I'm typing on now connected to the net fine while that was happening.)

Even when a web page is loaded more or less ok, the browsers often indicate they're still loading something, as if some page elements haven't made it through yet. (Tried in Firefox and IE, with unpredictable but similar results.)

System Details:

The router is a "Belkin N Wireless Modem Router". I've had it a while and it has been working with no hassle with a variety of devices used by us and our visitors. (Assorted laptops, desktops, varied handheld devices). Still working fine wirelessly with my iPod Touch, and by wired connecton to a new desktop.

The PC that's having this problem is an old Vaio desktop, running Windows XP SP3. As I said it was on a wired connection until yesterday, and Windows is fully patched and updated.

The new thing in the mix (which therefore arouses my suspicion) is the wi-fi adapter. It describes itself as a "Belkin Enhanced Wireless USB Adapter" and has an N150 logo also. It claims to be compatible with previous wi-fi standards (n/g/b).

So, given that setup and the symptoms I'm seeing, what are the possible sources of the problems and what could I do to investigate further?

Is this likely to be caused by faulty hardware in the wi-fi adapter? Or some problem with router or adapter settings? Or something else that I wouldn't know to look into?

Help from Mefites that understand this stuff would be greatly appreciated!
posted by philipy to Computers & Internet (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Are you in a house or an apartment building? Are there lots of other networks nearby?

I live in an apartment building in a neighborhood of apartment buildings, and I solved a similar problem by changing the channel of my router. When I looked at all the neighboring networks waith a wifi scanner, I saw they were all using one or two different channels. Switching to an unused channel made my connection a lot more reliable.
posted by Sauce Trough at 11:52 AM on September 15, 2011

Sounds a lot like the problems I've been having with WiFi. I live in a townhouse complex, and there are just too many ambient wireless networks around, so all wireless channels are occupied. I use inSSIDer to determine which channel has the least traffic, and then manually switch my WiFi router to that channel.

But what you're describing sounds just like the problems I've been having.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:12 PM on September 15, 2011

Best answer: Agreed that your issue is probably a noisy wireless environment. The other thing to consider is the adapter itself. Does it have an external antenna?

I've found that on my home network, laptops with built-in WiFi work fine (due to the large antenna built into the case), but I'm lucky if I can stay online with an external USB WiFi adapter (small and USB-stick shaped, with no antenna) even when I'm in the same room as the router.
posted by McCoy Pauley at 1:09 PM on September 15, 2011

Response by poster: To answer the questions people have asked:

- We're in a townhouse. Half a dozen or so wi-fi networks are detected around here.

- The adapter does not have an external antenna, it's just a small USB stick.

I'll Google inSSIDer and look into changing channels.

If anyone has other suggestions of things to look into, please let me know.
posted by philipy at 2:12 PM on September 15, 2011

Best answer: Yeah, I can almost guarantee you're running into the same problem that we have been having.

inSSIDer is a great little tool - remember, the higher the RSSI value, the less relative bandwidth the other party is using on the channel; still, if you can, choose a channel with no one else on it.

I found that I could not even log into our wireless router because connectivity was so bad, and had to plug a machine directly into the router to establish a connection.

After you've changed channels, you may have to power down and restart both router and modem.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:48 PM on September 15, 2011

Response by poster: Ok, I tried some different channels, but so far it hasn't made any difference. I didn't power everything on and off entirely between attempts though, so that may be the next thing to try.

It seems odd that my little iPod has no problems whatever. It's not like it can have a huge antenna in there or anything!
posted by philipy at 3:13 PM on September 15, 2011

Without trying to lead you on a wild goose chase, I found that it was pretty essential to reboot the modem and the router, although sometimes simply disconnecting and reconnecting to the router can work, too.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:06 PM on September 15, 2011

Best answer: Assuming wireless B or G the channels overlap so 1, 6 and 11 are the only ones you need to try. If it will do wireless A you might try that as it's much less common (so less interference) and has more channels but be aware that it also has less range. Re-read your question and you've got N which can use frequencies for both B/G and A so you can try an A channel (numbers 36 and up).

A wifi adapter with an antenna is probably advisable and a wireless repeater might be also be worth looking into. That's basically an extra access point that relays back to the router/main access point.

You could also look into updating the firmware on your router with Tomato or something that will let you turn the power up more. That risks annoying the neighbors though.
posted by Awfki at 6:28 PM on September 15, 2011

Best answer: Belkin gear isn't great. If this USB wifi adapter has never worked for you, chances are it's just plain faulty.

Something you may care to check before trying to exchange it, though: is it plugged straight into the back panel of your PC? Especially with the smaller adapters, having a bunch of sheet metal close by will do bad things to their sensitivity. You might get better results running it via a USB extension cable.
posted by flabdablet at 10:00 PM on September 15, 2011

Response by poster: No success yet despite channel hopping, but here is some more info...

inSSIDer shows the signal strength varying between -70 and -60 db. I have no idea if that is good or bad, but the colors on the scale suggest it is maybe marginal?

Also I got inSSIDer to make a log file. Which of course I can't really interpret. :(

But one thing I did notice in the log file is that the "Signal Quality" is always showing as 0. Again I have no idea what that indicates, but it doesn't sound good.

Re other points people raised...

so you can try an A channel (numbers 36 and up)

The router drop down only goes up to 13, unless there is some other place I should look. Couldn't see anything despite looking through all the menus.

is it plugged straight into the back panel of your PC?

I've tried it both ways now, plugged straight in and via a cable. That made no difference either.

So I guess the remaining hypotheses are a) the adapter is faulty or b) it is just not sensitive enough. Does it make sense in whichever of those is the case to switch it and get one with an external antenna?

The way this is all headed, it almost makes sense just get a new low-end laptop rather than all the expenses involved in trying to network the old desktop wirelessly.
posted by philipy at 9:15 AM on September 16, 2011

Try plugging that same USB wifi adapter into another PC closer to the router and see if it works any better there. If it doesn't (and I'm expecting it won't) you should organize a warranty replacement.
posted by flabdablet at 12:03 PM on September 16, 2011

Response by poster: Ok, I got a refund on the Belkin adapter.

I'm now considering getting something like this Edimax adapter. Does that sound like a good idea? I'm assuming it's still worth trying different adapters before resorting to a range extender, though by now I'm almost frustrated enough to order both at once.
posted by philipy at 10:02 PM on September 16, 2011

Best answer: These teeny tiny Edimax adapters are very cheap and work very well.
posted by flabdablet at 4:22 AM on September 17, 2011

Response by poster: It's good to hear an endorsement of Edimax kit from a Mefite, cos I'd never heard of them until yesterday.

Would you recommend going for the teeny one over one with an antenna? Size doesn't matter much in itself as it's for a desktop.

I'm now thinking of getting this one. Also can be had very cheap, and if the reviews are to be believed, it should be good at making the most of the signal.
posted by philipy at 9:27 AM on September 17, 2011

I'm always a bit leery of plugging things that look like crowbars into a computer's USB ports - it's too easy to break them. Should be fine if you use it with a cheap USB hub stuck to the top of the tower with double sided foam tape.
posted by flabdablet at 2:18 AM on September 18, 2011

One nice thing about having a stick-shaped antenna is that you could easily add a parabolic reflector to it and point that at your router.
posted by flabdablet at 2:28 AM on September 18, 2011

Response by poster: My new adapter arrived, and it's working fine now.

I did eventually go for the one I mentioned earlier. I'm using it with a cable, so I can position it conveniently and there is no worry about breaking it off as there might be if it was plugged directly into the PC.

Thanks to everyone for your input. You all helped me in different ways, and I'm sure your answers will be useful to anyone else that has wifi woes and finds the thread.

A summary of key things that I learned from the responses:

- A noisy wireless environment can be a problem
- It's possible to change channels to try to improve matters
- inSSIDer is useful software to help with that
- External USB adapters are typically not as good as those built into laptops
- One with an antenna may be better at pulling in the signal
- Plugging one directly into the back of a desktop PC may be a bad idea because of the metal plate
- Edimax is well thought of for this kind of kit (and is both cheap and good)

All that helped me narrow down the possible causes of the problem and figure out what kind of adapter would have the best chance of working for me. Thankfully everything seems ok now.

Thanks Mefi!
posted by philipy at 5:27 PM on September 26, 2011

- External USB adapters are typically not as good as those built into laptops

Not necessarily true. I've had a Compaq laptop that got far better results with the micro-size Edimax adapter I linked above than with the flaky piece of crap built into it.

- Edimax is well thought of for this kind of kit (and is both cheap and good)

In my book, Edimax is among the OK cheapie generics (TP-Link is another). Belkin, on the other hand, is almost always troublesome - either because it performs like crap from the get-go or is impossible to configure sanely or flakes mysteriously after a couple months of indifferent service. About the only Belkin gear I've ever been happy with is cat 5e patch cables. Would not trust them with anything containing actual electronics.
posted by flabdablet at 5:43 AM on September 27, 2011

Response by poster: Not necessarily

"Not necessarily" is reasonably consistent with "typically not". Not that we have a scientific study here, just a canvassing of Mefi opinion. But even a provisional "typically, but not always" is a helpful thing to know if, like me, you find yourself wondering what the heck the problem can be when every visitor's laptop / iPad / smartphone connects just fine, but one thing doesn't and you have no idea why not.

Edimax is among the OK cheapie generics

To be fair my conclusion on Edimax was based on the comments by lots of buyers left on multiple sites like Amazon, and then further validated by you. If you want to recommend something that's better than cheapie generics, please do that. That's not going to be relevant for me now, but it might help someone else.

Belkin, on the other hand, is almost always troublesome

Re Belkin... I was aware it's got a mixed reputation. But personally I had good results with Belkin kit in the past, including my Belkin router which is by far the most stable of all the ones I've ever had. There's not really any brand that I haven't heard of horror stories with though, and frankly it was with some trepidation that I bought it in the first place! The user reviews for it were majorly divided between people saying "piece-o-crap, won't stay up for 5 minutes" and "fantastic, goes months without a glitch". It seems YMMV, but mine turned out to be at the good end.

That was back before I joined Mefi. Now I'd probably ask for recommendations here first.
posted by philipy at 10:05 AM on September 27, 2011

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