Products to boost laptops wifi range
December 6, 2006 7:50 PM   Subscribe

Best way to get long range access to hotspots?

What is the easiest, best way for me to extend the wireless range of my laptop? I have an internal wireless card which i can't get access to without completely opening the case up. I don't mind buying an external wireless card and an external antenna but don't want to spend an arm and a leg. What products are my best shot?

I will be using this to do everything from accessing my home network around the neighborhood to getting emergency access to the internet when i'm on the road and urgently need some information.
posted by ZackTM to Computers & Internet (13 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Well, depending on how far you need to get, your 2 easy options are a USB 802.11 dongle with appropriate USB cables, or, for longer range, some replacement card (like an Orinoco) with a jack for an external antenna, and a matched cantenna or Yagi.

Lots of places, including Fleeman Anderson Bird, near me, stock such antennas and stuff.
posted by baylink at 7:58 PM on December 6, 2006

Sometimes in these kinds of protocols there are hard limits on range due to handshake timeouts and the fact that the speed of light isn't infinite. I don't know specifically whether any such limits are present in 802.11 but I wouldn't be surprised.

If you're willing to pay for wireless, then get an EVDO card from Sprint or Verizon. That will get you coverage nearly everywhere that their cell phones work, but you pay per-kilobyte for usage, and there's also a monthly fee. This has the advantage of not being tied to hotspots, so like a cell phone it can be used in a bus or train.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 8:23 PM on December 6, 2006

Also do a search for "wok fi" which is using asian cooking implements with usb wifi thingies.

This is not the best link, but demonstrates the concept:

wokfi down south
posted by mecran01 at 8:38 PM on December 6, 2006

Do you like Pringles? I like Pringles.
posted by caddis at 8:41 PM on December 6, 2006

If you want to buy a cantenna like caddis described, here's one at
posted by cosmicbandito at 8:53 PM on December 6, 2006

I built my cantenna from the instructions at this site. Based on some NetStumbler testing, it appears to have about a 12-14dBi gain. Use a camera tripod for stabilization.
posted by Pimonkey at 9:47 PM on December 6, 2006

When I was living in Moscow I built a WiFi-Boosting antenna from Ikea napkin rings and an external USB adapter. I highly recommend you do something similar as it works great. It took me from no available APs to a constant connection.

The basic principle of all these products is to use a USB extension cable, a reflector of some sort, and a mini-tripod or clamp to affix the antenna somewhere. The Wok-Fi stuff is definitely rad and functional. A collapsing colander may be more kit-like/pack friendly.

I recommend you build something like I did, and affix the results on a mini tripod, while bringing a ratcheting clamp along with you. That way you can put up the antenna anywhere, and get at least a decent link.

I'm using a no-name ZyDas chipset dongle, but there are many others that work. last I heard, many Atheros chipsets were nice, too.

There are commercial products that do this sort of thing but they're honestly not worth the money at all. Just grab some kitchenware, tape, etc and make your own.
posted by fake at 10:03 PM on December 6, 2006

Here's the dumpling strainer antenna article that I believe mecran01 was referring to.

This sort of antenna, a USB wifi device, and a USB extension cable is probably about the most portable, packable "long range" solution.

Otherwise, you could get panel antenna, a high-power/high-gain PCMCIA card, and a pigtail connector to hook the former to the latter. This may be slightly more bulky and has more complex hardware requirements though.

I had bought a Senao 200mW card at some store online, found a 12dB gain panel antenna at the local electronics surplus store, and bought a pigtail off eBay that provided me with semi-reliable internet access for several months, leeching off somebody's open access point two blocks down the street with the antenna in my living room window on suction cups.

Check out for lots of good hardware advice.
posted by xiojason at 10:06 PM on December 6, 2006

"Cantennas" are technically illegal in the U.S. under Part 15 FCC rules, and in some states, including where I live, arrests have been made for use of such devices, where they are considered evidence of intent for unauthorized network intrusion. Using highly directional antennas to leach WiFi access from fixed locations also makes it much easier to accurately triangulate your location as an infringing user; I've had a couple of idiot neighbors try to grab access from my WiFi signal, and I've really appreciated the reliable directional signals they provided while trying to do so, as it made it much easier to locate them, and play reverse head games with them.

WiFi "works" precisely because it is a very short range service. Using directional antennas, "power boosters" or other mechanisms to intentionally circumvent the Part 15 range limits entirely for your own convenience is boorish at best, and can disrupt legitimate users operating gear in the intended manner. Don't be a jerk.
posted by paulsc at 2:29 AM on December 7, 2006

It seems to me that there are perfectly legitimate reasons one might want an amplified signal.
posted by litlnemo at 6:25 AM on December 7, 2006

I've had good luck with the adapters by Hawking.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 8:14 AM on December 7, 2006

Hawking does a rather cool-looking USB 802.11g adapter with a directional dish. Plus, you can move the antenna around and pretend you are a super-spy or something. I'm hoping the next model willautomatically pan around and find the best signal for you.
posted by baggers at 9:22 AM on December 7, 2006 [1 favorite]

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