Wifi for dummies (laptop edition)
February 5, 2018 2:05 PM   Subscribe

I'm a worker bee who works from home, and my new (temporary) digs in a townhouse are proving troublesome because my work laptop is getting sloooow internet, or frequently no internet at all. I have limited tech literacy and I don't understand how or why the wifi could be supporting great connection speeds for what seems like EVERY other device in the house, except for the one computer that really needs it. Can you explain this to me like I'm five - and maybe help me figure out how to fix it?

Just to start: I know I should probably ask IT support at my work for help, but that department takes a pretty hard line about not troubleshooting people's individual internet connectivity problems when they're working from home (fair enough). The answer will always be "you need to physically plug your laptop into your modem," which unfortunately doesn't work for me as the cable drop comes into the living room on the main floor, and my office is upstairs. This is temporary rental housing so we're vanishingly unlikely to pursue a solution that would allow us to put the modem in my office.

I used to consider myself relatively tech-savvy and able to troubleshoot this sort of stuff, but over the past 10 years I've become less able to intuitively understand where the problem might be and what I even need to be googling to figure out how to fix it. That's where I'm hoping you can come in, mefi!

Like it says above, the issue is that my work laptop--a Dell XPS running Windows 10--is consistently showing no wifi connection or a very slow connection (consistently tests at 4-5 Mbps). I thought it might be having the wireless router on a different floor, but even when I test my work laptop while sitting right next to the router, I'm still showing the same terrible speeds I get from a floor away. In contrast, sitting in the exact same place, my 7-year-old Macbook Air is testing at around 80 Mbps. My phone (a Pixel) shows similarly fast connection speeds, even when I'm holding right next to the slow laptop computer.

I don't really get how or why this would be happening. Can anyone who understands this stuff explain to me what sorts of things might be the problem--and for bonus points, anything I might be able to do to fix it?
posted by iminurmefi to Computers & Internet (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
First thing I would do is temporarily plug your computer directly into the modem with an ethernet cable just to make sure that the problem is indeed wifi and not something else.
posted by JackFlash at 2:11 PM on February 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

WiFi is flaky, news at 11?

Is the laptop connecting to a (heavily contended with your neighbours) 2.4Ghz network whilst the phone +MacBook are connecting to a 5GHz wifi network? Some routers offer both & only one might be problematic. Or the problem might be the other way round - a 2.4GHz connection might be solid, whilst the 5GHz network has more trouble with the walls in your house.

In the short term, you could probably buy a long ethernet cable and run it up the stairs whilst you’re working. Not elegant, but it will fix the problem :)
posted by pharm at 2:11 PM on February 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

First thing I would do is temporarily plug your computer directly into the modem with an ethernet cable just to make sure that the problem is indeed wifi and not something else.

And that very reasonable suggestion is how I discovered my Dell evidently doesn't have an ethernet plug. Huh. I'm sure there's some sort of adapter in the giant box of cords that came along with the laptop, currently shoved in the bottom of the closet. I will check and report back.

pharm - is there an easy way to check which network different devices are connected to? (Apologies if this is an obvious question.)
posted by iminurmefi at 2:35 PM on February 5, 2018

There's probably some way to figure it out by delving around in settings screens, but I'd first check if the access point's management page says anywhere which device is connected to which network. Or you could even just try and temporarily disable the 2.4 or 5 ghz network for testing. (uh, be sure to re-enable the first one before disabling the second, so you don't have to plug in with a cable to turn wifi back on)
posted by aubilenon at 3:06 PM on February 5, 2018

Overly basic, probably: Is your Windows 10 current? I'd ignored an autumn "update!" notice until December; after updating, my laptop kept dropping my connection (and had started messing with MS Word by the end of January) until the latest update, performed Saturday.
posted by Iris Gambol at 3:35 PM on February 5, 2018

You wouldn't happen to have the SmartByte service running, would you? I just recently bought a new Dell laptop and it had this dreadful network "optimization" software installed. Out of the box I got 5 Mbps through wifi; after stopping and disabling the service, I got around 100 Mbps which is what I should be getting.

You can check by going to Services and looking for "SmartByte Network Service". The software is described here but it seems like something designed for people with very slow network connections.

It is also possible that installing updated drivers from Dell will fix the problem. The Dell auto-updating software does not work reliably in my experience, so you'll have to go directly to Dell's support site.
posted by meowzilla at 4:09 PM on February 5, 2018

There are cheap USB-to-Ethernet adapters for your laptop to plug in. Cheap enough that it's worth having one for this diagnosis, and keeping around for any travel you do.

Who pays for your internet connection? If it's you, and you own the router (or rent it from your ISP), then you've got the right to access your router. You can set up whitelisting of your existing devices, to make sure your neighbors aren't helping themselves to your router. You can also change the channel on your wifi signal (for 2.4 GHz use 1, 6, or 11-- even though you share those channels with your neighbors, you get less obtrusive interference by sharing those channels rather than trying to pick something in between -- counterintuitive by true). Make sure you've got WPA2 or higher encryption (WPA2 is perfectly adequate for your needs), and consider change the password. If you've been using WEP encryption, you should assume your neighbors all have your password-- all it takes to break in to that is a couple weeks of passive activity.

I know that changing the wifi password is a PITA. I've got freakin' lightbulbs now that need to know the password. But it might be time.

I think long term your solution is to run a cable upstairs somehow from your downstairs router to another wifi router set in Access Point (AP) mode. In AP mode, it will accept connections from devices, but it will leave the job of assigning addresses (aka the DHCP service) to the downstairs router to which it is connected. You don't want two wifi routers both running DHCP-- they'll duplicate their efforts and confuse every connected device.
posted by Sunburnt at 4:16 PM on February 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

* Distinguish between wireless connection quality vs internet connection quality. If your wifi tray icon has 4 bars (radio waves) and your internet is still slow, then the wifi (probably) isn't the problem.
* Make sure you're connected to the right access point. Compare wifi network names between working and non working devices. If your router has two access points (one for G devices and one for newer N devices), try both.
* Consider that it might be the dell's wifi radio. Try an external usb wireless radio instead.
* If you suspect the wireless router is the problem (and you don't want to learn about configuring it) read the manual and hold down the factory reset button to start from scratch. You'll have to reset the passphrase and reconnect all your devices, but if something was misconfigured it should correct itself.

Basically just figure out what is different about your dell from your other devices, and start testing things. Click around and make guesses. I would make absolutely certain your computer isn't connecting to some other access point that you don't own, like one of those obnoxious xfinity hotspots, or a neighbor's open wifi.
posted by mammal at 8:23 PM on February 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

Try an external usb wireless radio instead.

Seconded. This has been my only viable solution to at least two wifi problems. The only downside is that they don't usually (I think) also provide for bluetooth in combination.
posted by Chitownfats at 1:28 AM on February 6, 2018

If you don't have an Ethernet adapter buy a USB Ethernet they can be found for under $20. Test the laptop by plugging directly to your router/modem. If the speed is good get a set of powerline network extenders. These are a set of adapters that plug into you wall outlet at extend the Ethernet network via the electrical lines in the house. I use these for several computers at home when wifi was not given the performance needed. The links are for examples only not recommendations. Good luck.
posted by tman99 at 6:55 AM on February 6, 2018

« Older Best ultra-light weight budget/expense-tracking...   |   What's something that can overwhelm and negate... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.