You can speed up your Internet connection and Wi-Fi for cheaper than you thought. It is a need that many homes face now, when the pandemic catches both students and parents under one roof, everyone is trying to work online at the same time.
The Wi-Fi series is becoming a particularly painful issue. In our small home, spreading meant that we needed a solid signal even in corners of the house, deck or yard that had never played a role before. While an Internet loss when you surf the web was not so great a year ago, a loss during a Zoom call is about as embarrassing today as looking up to work with your shirt inside and out.
This is how I upgraded our Wi-Fi at home and even managed to increase the speed from our main Internet connection (with the help of our ISP). It requires a little smart shopping and DIY can-do spirit, but my cash payout was minimal ̵1; and could have been less if I had known everything I know now.
Do you need more tips? Check out our history of 10 ways to increase the speed of your Wi-Fi router at home.
Mesh router (Asus AiMesh) to the rescue
When our current problems first hit, my first step in improving our Wi-Fi was to purchase a used Asus RT-1900P Wi-Fi router. One of the cooler features of Asus routers has been support for a feature called “AiMesh.” These are basically the company’s take on node based routers that you place around your home to fix wireless dead zones.
Asus AiMesh is a little different. Most mesh networks ask you to only buy matching nodes or buy them in sets of two or more – and to be fair, that’s the best way to do it. However, AiMesh gives you an option that allows you to mix and match different Asus router models. This can lower your initial cost, or allow you to build on a conventional installation you already have (provided your existing router comes from Asus and supports AiMesh).
Even better, Asus backed up many of its older routers with AiMesh support via a simple firmware update. My original dual-band RT-AC88U MU-MIMO 4×4 was able to get the firmware update, so I decided to pair it with a 2015-era Asus RT-1900P router. The RT-1900P also supports Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac).
My main reason for buying the RT-1900P was cost. Not only because I can be a cheap skater, but in March when there was a run on hand cleaners and toilet paper, there was also a huge demand for wireless routers. The situation was so desperate that I was happy to pay $ 70 for a five year old Used Asus RT-1900P router on eBay.
Mesh router versus Wi-Fi series extender
The second, even lower cost option (assuming you could find one) was to use a Wi-Fi range, also called a repeater. Wi-Fi extensions basically pick up a Wi-Fi signal and transmit it to a nearby Wi-Fi channel. It works, but it can be inelegant and create multiple duplicate Wi-Fi SSIDs [Your network name] and [Your network name]_Repeater) and sends the same packet regardless of need.
With AiMesh and Mesh, you can only have one SSID, and traffic is handled more intelligently. Network management is also done from one device, rather than having to run around the house and reset the range extension or pull a laptop to it with an Ethernet cable to update the firmware. In my anecdotal experiences with setting up extensions for friends and family, performances have also been sketchy, so it was not my first choice.
Set up AiMesh
The first step in installing AiMesh is to move both routers to the same room and update the firmware to the latest available versions that support AiMesh. You then reset the node, connect it directly to your computer using Ethernet, and tell it to be configured as an AiMesh node. Finally, connect your PC to the AiMesh router via ethernet and tell it to set up the AiMesh network.
It did not go as smoothly for me as it did in Asus YouTube videos, but if you can find your router’s IP address (check the manual or the bottom of the router) and roll up your sleeves, you can. It may require both routers to be restored to the default state, but if a router is already configured, you can save the configuration file, which can be uploaded to the router after it has been restored and paired.
In the five months that I’ve had the RT-1900P, Asus has run no less than three firmware updates for it. That many updates suggest that there may be lots of bugs to fix, but the fact that Asus is actively launching firmware for a five-year-old router (when other vendors may ask you to buy a new one) is overall a strength rather than a weakness .
Another advantage of AiMesh and a mesh system is the single SSID, which in theory means more seamless roaming between nodes. I say in theory because roaming sometimes involves a 3- to 4-second connection when the calculation is made. Other systems have a better reputation for handling it more seamlessly, but I did not expect commercial-quality Wi-Fi.
This attitude got us through the spring and summer, but with virtual schooling the likely plan for fall, it was time to get more bandwidth.
I called my supplier and asked what could be done to prevent me from defecting to cable (my only option). My ISP cut the price in half and doubled our speed. The speed, even if it is far from gigabit fiber or coaxial cable, should be enough to get us through the next hump.
When double band is not enough
With dual broadband performance, my cheap skate router setting was no longer up to the job for our laptops. While our wired desktops were good, laptops later on on the RT-1900P node benefited as much.
The reason? In AiMesh, as with many double-band nodes based on mask systems, some of the wireless speed is provided for the backhaul channel through which the routers transmit network traffic to each other. With only two bands – 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz – and some of it overloaded with traffic between the routers, we definitely had poor broadband throughput in the range of 15 to 30 Mbps, even with our very moderate broadband.
In more expensive systems from Asus and others, this is alleviated with tri-band routers. These routers have a 2.4 GHz band and two 5GHz bands. When set up as a mesh system, it makes it possible to say one of the 5GHz bands is completely dedicated to the wireless backhaul, providing more bandwidth for computers or other devices.
The problem for me is that these systems are not that cheap. When paired with the latest Wi-Fi 6 or 802.11ax, they are downright painful to buy, even if they are a joy to use. You can read about my colleague Michael Simon’s experience of laying down a lot of ropes for a tri-band Netgear Orbi system.
Although 802.11ax is pretty cool and we have an 802.11ax / Wi-Fi 6 laptop in use, the vast majority of our hardware is WiFi 5 / 802.11ac or older. I was looking for a way to get more performance without taking down $ 600 to $ 700 on a set of high-end 802.11ax tri-band mesh routers, I went with the counter-intuitive idea of running a wired backhaul.
Yes, it may not make sense to build a wireless network set up to avoid wiring – and then actually end up in wiring. But creating a weird backhaul was definitely the cheapest way to get more performance.
Mesh networks can either eat wireless bandwidth to talk to each other – or they can eat wired bandwidth. By threading an Ethernet cable between my two routers, I would essentially get many of the benefits of a tri-band network system at no cost. For $ 26 (for a 125 foot Ethernet cable) I was able to double and triple the speeds of laptops connecting to the RT-1900P.
And then I got cheaper
In fact, rather than spending $ 26 on a 125 foot CAT 6 cable, I was able to get a box of drywall dust-coated bulk CAT5e cable from a friend, and buy a crimp, connector, and cable tester for $ 17. so I could return the $ 6 CAT 6 cable.
Yes, this meant running a cable through the floor (where the coax for the long gone cable system had run) under the house, and then along the garage roof and up a heat vent, but in the end I ended up with far better performance than running an AiMesh network on just two bands.
With requirements – and high-performance routers – still quite high, you may want to consider this option if you have a newer AiMesh Asus router. In fact, most router experts recommend running a cable connection for the dual bandwidth settings for best performance.
Being cheap can also cost you
While I’m generally happy with my $ 17 speed, and the increased node performance to the Internet from 30 Mbps to 60 Mbps, I was quite disappointed with the performance of my five-year-old RT-1900P node. I think getting a stable 60 Mbps on the 5GHz band was a marked improvement from 30 Mbps – but it was three meters from the node. For those close to that node, it was fantastic, but in my garage and in a bedroom tax corner to the node, the performance was only 30 Mbps even with the hard drive back hall.
Obviously, the $ 70 investment in RT-1900P was a mistake, as a more modern router would give me better performance. So back to Amazon I went to look for a newer router with better performance and a reasonable cost. Asus had recommended its Blue Cave router. which is a dual-band, 802.11ac, MU-MIMO router with a 4×4 antenna configuration. In addition to the alphabet soup with network specifications, it has an Intel Lantiq dual-core processor and 512 MB of RAM, which most network geeks say will help in packed households.
It also generally receives high marks from reviewers. To stick to my cheap skates, I picked up a refurbed Blue Cave for $ 75. This replaced the $ 70 RT-1900P as the wired node, and it really increased performance greatly: computers in the bedroom and garage hit our 100 Mbps limit.
My total cost for our pandemic routers has been around $ 162. It’s still a reasonable cost, as a decent mesh tri-band Wi-Fi 6 system would cost more – and probably wouldn’t make a difference with our current ISP.
If I could do it again, I would have skipped the original RT-1900P altogether. Instead, it will be distributed so that someone else will benefit from it.