The degree to which we rely on the internet for everything from work to entertainment means sluggish Wi-Fi speeds are excruciating. Here are some common causes of Wi-Fi issues and what to do about them.
First, Assess Your General Network
Before we dive into the common reasons your Wi-Fi performance is less than expected, let’s get a few things out of the way so you can better troubleshoot your Wi-Fi speed issues.
First, don’t rely on a smartphone (or a laptop using Wi-Fi) for your speed test. Speed testing with a smartphone is not an accurate way to test the speed of your internet connection.
So before you point your finger at the Wi-Fi as the source of your problems, be sure to conduct a proper speed test on your internet connection first to rule out any bigger issues with your ISP or broadband modem.
Second, Wi-Fi speeds are deceptive. What your Wi-Fi hardware says it can do, as far as advertising and labeling is concerned, and what it can do under real-world conditions are different.
Even with a fiber connection that meets or exceeds the advertised speeds of your Wi-Fi router, you won’t get the advertised speed to your phone or laptop.
Instead of approaching your Wi-Fi problem from the standpoint of “Am I getting the full capacity of my internet connection to every device?” which is not how Wi-Fi works, approach it instead from the standpoint of “Am I getting expected performance based on my internet connection and the hardware I have?” and “Has my Wi-Fi experience recently degraded in quality?”
You can’t make a 5Mbps DSL connection faster with cutting-edge Wi-Fi hardware, and even with cutting-edge Wi-Fi hardware and a fiber connection, you’re not going to exceed the inherent limits of the Wi-Fi standard.
But what you can do, if the performance is not what you expect, is to work through the list below and rule out artificial bottlenecks that are leading to a cruddy Wi-Fi experience.
Outdated Wi-Fi Routers Impact Performance
Everybody hates spending money, and it’s frustrating to replace functional, albeit underperforming, hardware. But the reality is Wi-Fi hardware has advanced pretty consistently over the years.
If you’re still using an old router you picked up at Best Buy ten years ago or the lackluster Wi-Fi router built into the router/cable modem combo unit your ISP gave you, you’re not going to have a great time. Further, while some of the tips below might help you if you have an old Wi-Fi router, there’s really no replacement for biting the bullet and buying a new router.
Especially for folks with otherwise new hardware—newer smartphones, a new smart TV, etc.—it makes sense to upgrade as pairing newer devices with old hardware is hobbling their performance.
The Best Wi-Fi Routers of 2023
Best Wi-Fi Router Overall
Asus AX6000 (RT-AX88U)
Best Budget Router
TP-Link Archer AX3000 (AX50)
Best Cheap Router
TP-Link Archer A8
Best Gaming Router
Asus GT-AX11000 Tri-Band Router
Best Mesh Wi-Fi Router
ASUS ZenWiFi AX6600 (XT8) (2 Pack)
Best Budget Mesh Router
TP-Link Deco X20
Best Modem Router Combo
NETGEAR Nighthawk CAX80
Best VPN Router
Beat Travel Router
Best Wi-Fi 6E Router
Asus ROG Rapture GT-AXE11000
Poor Router Placement Dampens Signal Strength
The only thing worse than having an old Wi-Fi router is parking your Wi-Fi router in a terrible location—and if you have both an old and poorly placed outer, you’re going to have a really bad time.
If you need bright task lighting in your living room, you don’t put your high-power LED work light down in the corner of the basement.
And by that same measure, if you want really strong Wi-Fi where you actually use your Wi-Fi devices—like your living room and bedroom—you don’t put the Wi-Fi router down in the basement with the washing machine.
Moving your Wi-Fi router is an easy fix. Just be sure to place it where the signal is most central to your daily activities and avoid placing it near these Wi-Fi blocking things.
Too Many Devices Bog Underpowered Hardware Down
One of the biggest advantages of newer Wi-Fi hardware isn’t just the improved speeds that come with each new Wi-Fi generation but an overall increase in power and the number of devices the Wi-Fi router can handle.
Even if you’re not chasing performance benchmarks to show off your new 2Gbps fiber line, you’ll benefit from a newer Wi-Fi router if you have a plethora of devices in your home.
We want to emphasize that it’s the number of devices and not the number of users that you want to focus on. Increasingly devices, even when they aren’t in use, have a fairly high bandwidth overhead and place demands on your network you might not expect.
Cloud-based security cameras use a lot of bandwidth, as do a variety of other smart home devices—you’d be surprised how many bandwidth vampires there are around your home. People think about heavy bandwidth use when worrying about blowing through their data cap, but all those devices using the bandwidth are also usually using Wi-Fi too.
Add up all the computers, tablets, smartphones, consoles, streaming devices, smart TVs, smart home accessories, and more found in a modern home, and you’re looking at a list that easily brushes up to or exceeds the capacity of older routers.
While we’re talking about too many devices on your Wi-Fi network, we’d encourage you think about taking devices off your Wi-Fi network. No, we don’t mean living a life with an Xbox or smart TV fully disconnected from the internet—we mean switching any devices you can over to Ethernet to free up airspace for your remaining Wi-Fi devices.
Old Hardware and Cables Reduce Speed
This one is really easy to overlook if you’re not much of a networking nerd. While the Wi-Fi router itself and the Wi-Fi capabilities of the endpoint devices like your smartphone or smart TV are a huge part of the Wi-Fi performance puzzle, you don’t want to neglect the simple physical bits that tie your network together.
If you have outdated Cat5 cables or an outdated 10/100 network switch mixed in with your network hardware you’re unwittingly hobbling your network speeds.
For folks with slower sub-100Mbps broadband, you may never notice that old switch screwing up your performance, but if you have faster broadband, those old cables and hardware will reduce your maximum potential speed.
To avoid this, check the physical network cables linking different components in your network together to ensure they are at least Cat5E, or better yet, Cat6. And if you’re using network switches upgrade them from 10/100 switches to gigabit switches. Unmanaged gigabit switches and Cat6 patch cables are dirt cheap these days.
Channel Congestion Dings Wi-Fi Performance
Wi-Fi channel congestion occurs when multiple Wi-Fi devices are using the same frequency, or channel, in the same air space.
If your neighbor has their Wi-Fi router configured similarly to your Wi-Fi router, and you live close enough that your router broadcasts into their living space and vice versa, it can negatively affect your network.
This is more of an issue for devices on the 2.4Ghz band than on the 5Ghz band, but you should pay attention to it regardless if you live in an apartment or densely packed neighborhood. You’ll need to identify which channels are the most congested and refer to the documentation for your particular router to change to less congested channels.
Wi-Fi Extenders Increase Reach, But Decrease Speed
If you’ve struggled with Wi-Fi issues like slow speeds or lackluster covered, there’s a good chance you’ve considered using a Wi-Fi extender and possibly have one in your home right now.
Despite their popularity, from a sales standpoint, Wi-Fi extenders have a bit of a bad reputation when it comes to actual network performance.
While they can certainly extend the reach of your network when properly deployed, they can also introduce a lot of network congestion, latency, and reduced speeds.
To rule out your Wi-Fi extender as a source of Wi-Fi network headaches, temporarily unplug it. With the extender disabled, check your overall network performance with devices connected directly to the main Wi-Fi router. If performance improves significantly, there are likely two issues at play, possibly in tandem.
TP-Link Deco X20 Wi-Fi 6 Mesh System
This mesh three-pack supports Wi-Fi 6, WPA3, and will cover even a large home with wall-to-wall Wi-Fi.
First, your Wi-Fi extender may be poorly configured and deployed—use these tips and tricks to get better performance. Second, the extra coverage provided by the extender and all the extra devices you added to the network thanks to that extended coverage might just be too much for your main router to handle, even with the help of the extender.
In that case, it’s probably a good idea to just abandon the router + extender configuration and replace it with a more robust mesh network. Upgrading to a mesh network is like simultaneously upgrading your router and mating it to supercharged Wi-Fi extenders at the same time.