Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Boosting Wi-Fi: Linksys’ Range Expander

The broken network

For years I’ve been yelling like crazy anytime my ethereal connection would suddenly (and rather frequently) loose gallons of information across the volume of my house, lost in a limbo, surrounding us and penetrating us (eek!).
I’ve been eyeing those signal boosters for quite some time, and back then, they were damn expensive. But better times have come, and I made the decision to acquire one of those boosters, which act as relays.

I’ve noticed that all other laptops, all using a combination of B and G protocols, had no issue to receive and send data no matter where, regardless of the unfavourable location of the router. However, my own PC and its Asus Wi-Fi card (WL-138G V2), always lagged behind. The black sheep of the lot if you want. I’m no expert in networks, and I though the card would solve all problems after trying several and truly mediocre Wi-Fi USB keys.

That along the fact that the provider’s box was particularly erratic in its automatic IP addressing, so I had to pass everything on manual, giving a specific IP to each machine and playing around protections.

It was time to change the situation.
So, I cracked the purse, and went for one of those magic relays. I bought the following model, the Wireless-G Range Expander (WRE54G), but only after reading a lot of stuff on internet. Anytime it gets technical, I always spend hours being sure that I’m not going to flush my hard earned money down the toilet. As usual, you get mixed feelings. Some people it’s mediocre but you don’t know if they’re idiots who couldn’t tell a mouse from a shaver, others say it’s fantastic but you don’t know if they are network übergeeks either.

You finally go by instincts and consider that most of the reviews are positive, and that Linksys is a division of the renowned Cisco.

Fast forward to the day I decide to open the box. The manual is rather enigmatic. Shit. The reviews said it was extremely simple to install, but sorry, things seem just too easy to make sense.
I started reading the sort of folded flyer which serves as a manual.

They tell you to plug the RE (Range Expander) to the router with the Ethernet cable. However, the line that follows says that if you want to use the Auto config function, just place the RE next to the router.
Huh, OK. My network is set manually. I just have no idea how bad it’s going to go if I let a machine do stuff on its own, so I pick the first solution.
So I give it some juice.

Then comes the absolutely stellar paragraph:

If your existing wireless network has security disabled, proceed to Step 2: Using the Auto Configuration Button.
If your existing wireless network has security enabled, proceed to Step 3: Using the Setup Wizard.

Wait. Of course I have a security on my network for crissake! The router alone is supposed to be a protection. I use encryption keys. The whole network is set up manually, and the hotspot is invisible.
How the hell couldn’t there by any security?
Obviously, we need Step 3.

Enter dozens and dozens of minutes of fiddling with the laptop (how fortunate that I had one), plugging the damn RE, using the damn CD, trying various combinations to finally have the relay pick the IP of my laptop (it would have been wiser if that thing had not attempted to do that), therefore kicking the laptop out of the network. Of course I also forgot that poor old computer needed to be restarted once the connection was lost (activating, repairing and tweaking connections from windows doesn’t work, no matter the tool or the panel). Meanwhile, although having borrowed a perfectly valid IP, the Magic Wizard couldn’t connect to the network, probably because it was just too dumb to use the manual parameters it robbed from my laptop. Cheeky thing.
I ran ipconfigs a million, but the damn piece of plastic drove me mad. There, I pulled everything off the wall and plugs and stuff and ended resetting the RE to its factory settings.

So I had to go back to the other solution, and here’s how it worked for me and my manually set IP network. Much easier, may I say.

How I did it right

Put that RE next to your laptop, preferably sitting next to your Wi-Fi spot, then press that Auto Configuration button on the RE for six seconds (to be sure), and then open your internet browser on the computer.
Type the RE’s by default IP, (logically, enter the password provided in your manual, and then, from that first page panel, enter the other parameters manually (SSID, bridge, provided network address, etc.) and save that freaking stuff altogether.

You have the option to set the broadcast protocol on “B”, “G” or “mixed”.
“G” should work with most computers, it’s the superior protocol, and going for a pure option gives better results on all points.
I tried “mixed”, but it was rather terrible, laptops didn’t gain anything, nor did my own computer, and the RE’s option flickered on its own between “B” and “mixed” when I came back to the setting panel. So I put it on pure “G”, which corresponded to what my Wi-Fi card was meant for anyway.

I moved the RE next to my computer, and now, I enjoy a 100%, five bars perfect flux, either way.
Aside from the difficulty to refresh the setting panel after I saved it, the stuff now works perfectly, and comes with all the tools required to set it anywhere in your house. Walls, tables, anything.

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