Q. The WiFi in our home is so slow, it's faster to look up things over my phone's 3G connection. How can we speed it up?
A. This question came from a relative who lives in Brooklyn, so I did some firsthand research during a visit to New York. She lives in a dense neighborhood that abounds in both gadgets and babies, which is a good combination for the future of the electronics industry and the human race but not so good for WiFi.
Too many laptops, tablets and other mobile devices leads to congested WiFi airwaves. A baby boom makes that situation worse: Many baby monitors transmit over the same 2.4 Ghz frequencies used by WiFi. Microwave ovens and cordless phones can also contribute to the din in those airwaves.
The result, as I could see on my laptop in the living room, was a pokey wireless connection that reminded me of some of the worst WiFi I've seen on trains or airplanes.
The usual tricks for optimizing the performance of a WiFi network--starting with disabling support for the now-obsolete 802.11b standard, which no current hardware needs and which will bog down your network--can't do much to overcome this level of congestion.
At a minimum, I'd look at buying a newer, higher-end router. Reviewers have found a major upgrade in speed and coverage if you go from $50 entry-level models to $100-and-up routers.
A new router will also bring a choice of connections: They could create a wireless network on 5 GHz frequencies in addition to the usual 2.4 GHz.
This second WiFi band brings a couple of key advantages: It's far less susceptible to interference and it delivers much faster speeds.
How fast? As it happens, I've been testing a few baby monitors for a separate story, and they've done a marvelous job of stepping all over my regular WiFi network.
With two of them active, almost half of my bandwidth vanished from interference: Instead of the usual 15 megabits per second, the Speedtest.net benchmarking site reported my downloads averaged 8.6 Mbps. Switching to my router's 5 GHz signal dispersed the traffic, restoring a full 15 megs of download speed.
(Dual-band routers link both wireless networks internally, so having devices on different bands doesn't prevent standard file sharing.)
But nothing comes for free, and the tradeoff here is considerably diminished range.
In my relative's case, that meant that the signal couldn't reach the first floor. You can purchase a second router and use that to extend the first one's signal, but that will further cut into your bandwidth. Instead, how-to posts at the Wirecutter and SmallNetBuilder endorse the more efficient remedy of setting up a wired link between two routers.
The cheapest way to do that is to run Ethernet network cable from one to the other, but then you're most likely drilling holes in walls and floors. If you don't mind the added cost, powerline-networking adapters — figure $50 or so for a pair — can relay the connection over your home's existing electrical wires.
That leaves one last problem: Many phones don't connect to 5 GHz WiFi. That includes the iPhone 4S, but as recently as last fall I tested current Android phones that couldn't connect to a 5 GHz network. In that case, you'll have to put up with a slower wireless link on that device--or stick with cellular data and hope that increased use doesn't push you past your plan's data cap.
TIP: TRY BLUETOOTH FILE TRANSFER
If you need to get a file from one Mac to another, Apple's AirDrop provides a quick, elegant way to move them wirelessly. If you have a Windows PC in the mix, it's useless. You could use a cloud-storage system like Dropbox or Microsoft's OneDrive to move the file, but sending a document five feet by way of some distant data center may be a bit much--especially if your current Internet connection is weak or nonexistent.
Bluetooth wireless, however, provides about the same ease of use as AirDrop once set up. And even the initial pairing process has now been reduced to verifying that the same number appears in dialogs on each screen. To start this routine in OS X, open System Preferences and click Bluetooth; in Windows 7 or 8, open the Control Panel and type "Bluetooth"; you'll want to have both machines within reach.
Rob Pegoraro is a tech writer based out of Washington, D.C. To submit a tech question, e-mail Rob firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/robpegoraro.