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Whenever someone sends me a question about how to fix their Wi-Fi, I wince.

It's not that I dislike like helping people with their router problems. In fact, there are few geeky endeavors I find more rewarding than fixing connection issues at a friend's or family member's place.

But Wi-Fi has always felt more like a dark art than a science to me, one that's hard to conjure without being physically present. Potential points of failure are everywhere, and what works well in one home might not in another. Even the reviewers of networking gear can reach drastically different conclusions about same product. (Consider, for instance, TP-Link's cheap RE220 range extender, which got a glowing review from CNet and a not-so-great one from PCMag.)

Wi-Fi is fundamentally at odds, then, with my desire to answer questions with specific recommendations. The best I can do is walk your through how I'd diagnose Wi-Fi problems myself. That way, you can make better decisions on whether (and how) to upgrade your own gear.

Size up the problem

The first step to solving Wi-Fi issues is to run lots of speed tests, so can understand why and where you're having problems. Do a Google search for "speed test" on your phone, then hit the blue "Run Speed Test" button at the top of the page. Measure speeds around the area where connectivity feels slow, then work your way back to where the router is located, running multiple tests in each area as you go. The goal here is to figure out whether you're dealing with a handful of dead zones or poor speeds throughout the house.

I also suggest rebooting the router and testing some more, and plugging a computer directly into your router with an ethernet cable and running another speed test there, especially if speeds consistently fall far short of what you're paying for. For newer laptops that don't have ethernet ports, you'll need a USB-to-Ethernet adapter, but if that's too much trouble or you don't have a laptop, you can also try calling your internet provider and asking them to test your internet speed remotely.

Know your router

To figure out whether a router needs replacing, it helps to know how old it is. One easy way to do this to locate the router's model number, then search on the web for info about which version of Wi-Fi it supports. Here are the major Wi-Fi versions to know about:

  • 802.11a/b/g: Extremely old and almost certainly the source of all your Wi-Fi problems.
  • 802.11a/b/g/n (or just 802.11n): Outdated at this point and a solid candidate for replacement. Many of these routers only support a single frequency band that's slower and more congestion-prone, and "dual-band" variants have limited range on the faster 5 GHz frequency band.
  • 802.11ac (also marketed as Wi-Fi 5): Not the latest standard, but still widely available even in some of the best routers.
  • 802.11ax (or Wi-Fi 6): Congrats, you probably just replaced your router.

Wi-Fi versions alone aren't an indicator of quality—a cheap Wi-Fi 6 router can be far worse than a high-end Wi-Fi 5 one—but each successive version has introduced new features that improve connectivity, and we've generally seen a push toward better performance over time.

Try some smaller fixes

Just to rehash a tip I discussed back in December, sometimes just changing your router's channel and bandwidth settings can work wonders for reducing Wi-Fi interference, especially in areas somewhat close to the where speed shouldn't be a problem. By digging into your router's settings, you can bypass automatic channel selection and find a channel that might be less congested.

You can also try some other little tweaks, like getting your router off the ground and clearing some space around it, but I wouldn't start rearranging your room for the router's sake. Chances are the improvements will be minimal.

Extenders: A last resort

Because replacing a router is a pain, a lot of folks wonder if they can just solve their problems with a Wi-Fi extender or repeater, which take the wireless signal from a router and rebroadcast it farther away. ("Extender" sometimes refers to a device with a wired connection to the router, though I often see both terms used interchangeably.)

My experience with these is hit or miss. Wireless repeaters will always degrade whatever signal they receive, so the benefits can cancel out if you're trying to address a dead zone or interference from other nearby wireless devices. The same is true with powerline adapters, which send a wired ethernet connection from your router to another part of the house through your wall outlets. Depending on how your house is wired, this approach can give you a weak connection or not work at all.

I don't tell people to avoid extenders outright, because they can work in some scenarios, but keep your expectations low and be prepared to return the device if it doesn't help.

Picking a router

Once you've concluded that it's time to replace your router, then what?

A mesh Wi-Fi system will be the surest way to solve your Wi-Fi problems, especially in larger homes or ones with lots of dead zones. These systems let you plug in multiple access points throughout the house, creating one big network. They're better at managing connections than a router with an extender, and systems advertised as "Tri-Band" can connect each access point without congesting the rest of the network.

Such systems might not be necessary, though. If you haven't replaced your router in a while, even a new standalone one might be enough to power through dead zones if they're not too far away. Standalone routers are generally less expensive than mesh ones, and in some cases they have features that mesh systems lack, such as USB storage support or a large number of ethernet ports.

Ultimately, though, there's no way to tell for sure if a new router will work without trying it yourself. You can read all sorts of reviews—I like The Wirecutter for simple advice, and Dong Ngo for nitty-gritty networking details—but even the best advice isn't one-size-fits-all. Buying a new router will always involve a leap of faith.

A note on modem-router combos

There is one complicating factor that I haven't mentioned so far: Although cable companies used to distribute internet modems and routers separately—the former bringing in the internet from outside the house, and the latter to distributing Wi-Fi through the home—it's more common now to get both functions in one box. That makes installation easier for the cable company, but makes router replacement trickier for you.

If you have a combo box and are paying for it in rental fees, consider replacing it with two devices: A new router and a separate cable modem. But be aware that some companies—particularly fiber-optic internet providers such as AT&T and Verizon—make replacing the modem component difficult or impossible.

If replacing the modem isn't possible or necessary, you can just disable its Wi-Fi features so they don't interfere with your new router. The instructions for doing so can vary by provider, so expect to do some Googling of "modem mode" or "bridge mode" plus the name of your internet provider.

Or, perhaps, ask your friendly Advisorator author for further assistance. I might still wince a little, but I'm always happy to help.

Fortnite in limbo: Last week, Apple and Google both kicked the wildly popular game Fortnite out of their respective app stores. In doing so, they've set up a major legal showdown over how mobile apps are packaged and paid for.

Developer Epic Games says it wants to save players money. Instead of using the in-app payment systems on iOS and Android, from which Apple and Google take a 30% cut, it tried to offer a players direct payment option that was 20% cheaper.

Apple and Google say that's not allowed, and the situation has quickly become a mess. Epic has sued both companies on antitrust grounds—and launched a PR campaign to match—while Apple is threatening to revoke Epic's developer privileges entirely, a move that would affect a lot of other software makers that rely on the company's popular game-making tools.

There's a lot of blame to go around here—on Apple and Google for being too restrictive with their huge platforms, on Epic for dragging kids into a battle between corporate giants—but it's hard to see this ending without some change to the status quo.

Another Surface: Microsoft is planning to release a dual-screened phone called the Surface Duo in September, and it's been letting some members of the press play around with it. General consensus is that the device is conceptually interesting—it has a pair of 5.6-inch screens that can sit side-by-side or fold all the way around like a book—but the tech specs are less-than-stellar given the $1,400 price tag, the software is glitchy, and the camera can't keep up with other flagship phones.

The Surface Duo reminds me of a story I wrote in January about a funky phone with a slide-out physical keyboard. It's just so hard to build niche devices like these without compromising on major features such as camera quality or spending an eternity squashing bugs, which is why most phones are just boring rectangular slabs instead. Being an avowed foldable phone fan, I applaud Microsoft for trying something new, but it still feels like an idea whose time hasn't come.

YouTube Music promises: As a follow-up to last week's newsletter, Google has told Ars Technica that it's "working hard" to address missing features for folks who've uploaded their personal music collections to YouTube Music. The company later confirmed specifically that it will allow users to play their uploaded songs on smart home devices, presumably including Google Home speakers and Chromecasts.

I like having redundant ways to perform a particular task, so I may use YouTube Music as a backup method for music if Google makes good on its promises. Still, Plex has earned its place as my go-to music player, though, and it's too late for that to change.

A smarter webcam: Back in March, I wrote about a couple of apps that can turn your smartphone into a webcam. Now, there's a new iPhone app called NeuralCam Live that goes step further, adding AI effects that can spruce up your appearance during video calls. It includes a "Head Bubble" mode that fades out the area around your head, a "Ring Light" that brightens up your face, a variety of color filters, and even a "Gesture Guard" that—no joke—blurs out the camera if you pick your nose.

It's fairly easy to set up, too. Just download the iPhone app, install the companion Mac software, and plug your phone into your computer with a Lightning cable. (Windows support is supposedly coming soon.) You can then select "NeuralCam" as your video source in apps like Zoom or Google Meet. The app is free to use, but its low-light mode and certain color filters require a "Pro" subscription at $5 per month or $30 per year.

(If the name "NeuralCam" sounds familiar, it's because the same company makes a $5 camera app that brings night mode photography to older iPhones. I mentioned it back in September and still use it regularly.)

A grab bag of Android updates: Google has released a bunch of new features for Android phones. In car dashboards, Android Auto will show upcoming calendar appointments with options to call or get directions to the destination. For visually-impaired users, the Lookout camera scanner app now has the ability to identify food labels and read from paper documents. And for folks in California, Android will now provide earthquake alerts.

My favorite update, however, is the rollout of "Bedtime Mode" on devices other than Google's Pixel phones. Just download the Google Clock app and look for the "Bedtime" tab at the bottom-right. From here you can set nightly reminders to go to sleep and schedule routine wake-up routines with music and smart home controls.

Better Dropbox backups: Dropbox has added an easier way to back up your computer's Documents, Downloads, and Desktop folders on a Mac or PC, so you don't have to move files into a dedicated Dropbox folder to store them online. You'll find the option to set this up under Preferences > Backups in the Dropbox desktop app.

Dropbox isn't the only cloud storage service with Documents folder integration. OneDrive offers something similar in Windows 10, and Apple's iCloud Drive can backup Desktop and Documents folders on a Mac. But if you're already invested in Dropbox, or you bounce between Windows and Mac computers, this should make backing up your precious documents a bit easier.

Some notable deals this morning:

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