The coverage and convenience of a wireless Internet connection allows increased flexibility in work, mobile and entertainment spaces. The key item that dramatically affects range and performance is the antenna inside or attached to your wireless router. Wi-Fi antennas vary from powerful highly directional devices to omni-directional units offering more flexible placement options.
The antenna type found inside or attached to many routers is an omni-directional unit. These devices radiate from both sides of the unit, allowing highly flexible placement options. However, omni-directional antennas tend to radiate laterally and downwards, so a central location preferably on the upper level of a home works best. These antennas might appear as "rabbit ear" stick-style units that protrude from the router, or remain invisible as self-contained units. Many routers containing internal antennas often do not offer the ability to upgrade the elements, limiting potential range and point-to-point performance.
Used for longer distances, directional antennas resemble small satellite dishes, Yagi element arrays or panel-style units. These devices are commonly used to drive a signal from building to building or from one station to another. This technique is commonly used on university campuses and rural areas where running new wired connections is impractical. The router must have a provision for attaching an external antenna, typically a threaded or locking bayonet-style connection.
Marine and recreational vehicle users who want to maintain a solid Wi-Fi connection have plenty of options. These units are designed for outdoor use and offer the extreme range needed to hit remote Wi-Fi hotspots. Like other external antennas, these connect to a router and are often accompanied by an external PCMCIA adapter card for laptop use. You can use a combination of antennas providing a modest 5-decibel boost to an external marine or RV antenna for increased range in those fringe areas.
Multiple techniques exist to improve Wi-Fi performance at very low to no cost. Sliding a cardboard or foil parabolic backing to a Wi-Fi stick antenna increases directionality of the signal but also boosts range. The infamous "cantenna" is a directional unit utilizing an old metal coffee or potato chip can with an antenna element attached to it. Other enterprising individuals have re-purposed old satellite dishes for an extreme boost in power and range, although this might be overkill in most residential applications.
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