Should You Set Your Router to a Different Channel or Keep It on Auto?

By Andy Warycka

A slow wireless connection can be cured by changing the channel on your router.
i Polka Dot/Polka Dot/Getty Images

Wireless routers are chock full of settings most of us never bother to delve into as long as the Web pages keep flowing. However, you might not realize you could be giving up performance by letting the router choose a channel for you. Changing your router's channel can reduce interference from other nearby networks and devices, allowing you to get the most out of your connection.

Basic Router Principles

Much like cell phones, Bluetooth headsets and other wireless technologies used today, routers are glorified radio transceivers, using radio waves to transfer data between computers and other devices. A typical wireless router offers a usable signal up to 120 feet away indoors, or 300 feet outdoors. Routers typically operate on the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands, which are frequencies shared with everything from cordless phones to baby monitors to microwaves.

About Router Channels

Routers operating in the 2.4 GHz segment can be set to one of 11 different channels between the frequencies of 2.412 GHz and 2.462 GHz. Each channel is 5 MHz apart, though the channels occupy a bandwidth of up to 40 MHz, so there is always a degree of overlap between channels. The key to avoiding interference is moving the center channel frequency as far away from other channels in use.

Routers on the 5 GHz band are far less susceptible to interference, as the frequencies used range from 5.1 to 5.8 GHz, offering anywhere from eight to 23 channels with no overlap whatsoever. However, it's still worth setting your 5 GHz router channel manually since the automatic settings of most routers default to the same channels.

Advantages to Setting a Channel Manually

The most common default channels used by wireless routers are 1, 6 and 11. Since most users don't change the default settings, many networks operate on the same channel and interfere with each other. This causes your connection to slow down and even drop out from time to time. This can make streaming video or other data-heavy activities problematic and irritating. Getting away from the crowd by setting your channel manually can dramatically improve network performance.

Determining Which Channel to Use

Change the channel to any of the non-default channels, ideally as far away from the defaults as possible - channels 3, 4, 8 and 9 are all good options to get away from the crowding on the 2.4 GHz band. If interference from other networks is causing your problem, trial and error will quickly reveal success or failure. With over 100 channels to choose from on a 5-GHz router, getting away from interference is generally pretty simple -- picking almost any channel other than the defaults will get you away from the crowd.

If you prefer a more scientific approach, download the free inSSIDer utility (see Resources), which allows you to see not only the names and strengths of the wireless networks around you, but which channel they are using as well. Then simply pick the channel that is most clear of interference.