How to Boost Signal Strength With a Wi-Fi USB Stick
By John Lister
A USB Wi-Fi stick, also known as a wireless adaptor, is the simplest solution when you have a computer without a built-in wireless card. Because it is more portable, you have several options for improving a weak signal reception. As a wireless stick is usually cheaper and simpler to replace than a built-in wireless card, you may also find it more viable to upgrade the stick to get technical improvements.
A USB Wi-Fi stick houses a physical aerial, just like those used for picking up radio or television (albeit on a smaller scale.) The placement and direction of the stick, and in turn, the aerial can both affect signal strength. This can be because the stick is better positioned to point in the direction of a wireless router, or because it is moved further away from a source of interference such as metal or another wireless device. In this regard, Wi-Fi sticks have an advantage over built-in wireless cards: by using a USB extension cable, you have more scope for moving the stick about to find the position with the best signal strength, without needing to move the computer itself.
Some physical workarounds may boost signal strength using the same principles as boosting a portable TV or radio aerial reception. For example you could use a metal, paper or cardboard object to create a cone or dish shape with the Wi-Fi stick (on an extension cable) secured in the middle. This may help focus and reflect Wi-Fi radio waves and allow you to pick up a stronger signal. Reported results for such makeshift techniques are extremely varied, so you may need to experiment with different options.
Upgrade Wi-Fi Version
Wi-Fi comes in several variants, known by letters such as b, g and n, which are taken from the end of the number for the various international technical standards for Wi-Fi. B is the slowest while n is the fastest. By upgrading to a wireless n stick, you will get a faster maximum speed when connecting to other wireless n devices such as your router. Wi-Fi is backwards compatible, so an N stick will work with a g router, but only at the slower speed. A newer standard, ac, is due to take effect in 2014; although some devices are already available, they may not bring a practical benefit in most home setups.
A dual band Wi-Fi stick is one that can transmit in the 5 GHz frequency range as well as the standard 2.4 GHz range used by many Wi-Fi devices. The frequency itself does not inherently improve signal strength or transfer speeds, but has two indirect advantages. First, 5 GHz Wi-Fi is less likely to suffer interference from other Wi-Fi devices, simply because 5 GHz connections are rarer. Second, the 5 GHz frequency range is less prone to interference from non-Wi-Fi wireless devices such as cordless telephones or baby monitors. 5 Ghz devices are not compatible with 2.4Ghz devices, so for maximum flexibility look for a dual-band stick when upgrading rather than getting one that only works on 5 Ghz.
A professional writer since 1998 with a Bachelor of Arts in journalism, John Lister ran the press department for the Plain English Campaign until 2005. He then worked as a freelance writer with credits including national newspapers, magazines and online work. He specializes in technology and communications.