You’ll be familiar with its yin-yang logo from the ubiquitous stickers advertising public internet access in pubs, hotels and coffee shops across the UK. But what actually is Wi-Fi?
Wi-Fi is a wireless technology that allows devices like computers, tablets, games consoles and smartphones to talk to a network without a physical link.
Rather than being tethered with a cable you can simply connect over the air, providing an easy way to network homes and access broadband internet without cables cluttering up the place.
What does Wi-Fi stand for?
Wi-Fi is not actually short for anything, the term and logo were created for marketing purposes. It’s a trademarked name owned by the Wi-Fi Alliance, an organisation which certifies wireless networking equipment and promotes the use of the technology.
Though inspired by the audio term ‘Hi-Fi’ it does not stand for ‘Wireless Fidelity’. And while Wi-Fi is the official name you may also see it spelt as 'WiFi' or 'Wifi'.
Often you’ll see wireless-capable equipment boast that it has been certified by the Wi-Fi Alliance. This means it meets the particular standards for their certification process, and it can be an indication that a device offers a good level of security or compatibility, but not all Wi-Fi hardware has been certified. Typically this is due to the cost of the certification process and not a sign that it’s incompatible with other Wi-Fi gear, so don't worry too much if you've got something missing the certification mark.
How to get Wi-Fi
Most likely you already have everything you need to use Wi-Fi. Any modern laptop, smartphone, tablet or games console (plus a whole lot of other hardware) will include Wi-Fi support, so you just need to be within range of a network to connect.
To use Wi-Fi at home you simply need a wireless broadband router to create the network and broadcast a signal.
Nearly all ISPs give these out for free to new customers and they come setup to use Wi-Fi right out of the box. Even if you’re not currently using it you can probably do so right away by finding the name of your wireless network, connecting on a wireless-enabled device and entering the password.
If you’re not sure of the network name or password check the router itself as these details are often written on a sticker. Alternatively access your router’s administrator controls to view (and change) the wireless network settings. It's a good idea to do this anyway as leaving routers set to the default options can make it easier for others to access your network.
What’s the difference between 802.11b, 802.11g, 802.11n and 802.11ac?
Something you’ll come across when looking at Wi-Fi hardware are the 802.11 specifications. These Wi-Fi standards are created by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), and although the precise technical details aren’t something most of us need to know, they do provide a quick reference to the speed of a wireless network. In short, the newer the 802.11 standard a Wi-Fi device supports, the faster it will be. That's the theory, anyway!
The table below shows the top speeds of the most popular Wi-Fi specifications. These are backwards compatible, so you can buy a cutting edge 802.11ac router and still connect old hardware (though frequency also needs to be considered - see below). Keep in mind that these are theoretical maximums, particularly when it comes to 802.11n and 802.11ac - they have very high top speeds in ideal conditions but in reality actual speed will be much lower (though still better than the older standards).
|802.11n||300Mb (5GHz)||2.4 / 5GHz|
The table also shows the frequencies. Many devices only utilise the 2.4GHz band, which provides greater range and penetration of obstacles like the walls of your home, but is more prone to interference as it’s the same frequency used for cordless telephones and other devices. The 5GHz band supported by newer 802.11n and 802.11ac routers can be much faster, but it’s also got a shorter range.
When buying Wi-Fi hardware you should check that the supported frequencies match your existing Wi-Fi setup, though to simplify things we’d recommend always going for ‘dual band’ equipment as it will then support both 2.4GHz and 5GHz. Not only is this better from a compatibility point of view but it also means you can switch to using 2.4GHz if the limited range of 5GHz proves to be problem.
How to improve the speed and range of a home Wi-Fi network
Is your Wi-Fi too slow? Having trouble getting a signal in some parts of your home? As useful as it can be wireless networking can also prove very frustrating, particularly if you’re attempting bandwidth-intensive tasks like streaming video or transferring large files. But there are some things you can do to improve the performance of Wi-Fi.
To maximise signal strength your Wi-Fi router should be situated as centrally in your home as possible, raised off the ground and away from walls.
Change the channel
Wi-Fi signals operate on various channels, but if there are lots of Wi-Fi networks around you using the same channel they can clash and cause interference that slows down your connection.
A simple way to mitigate this is to change your Wi-Fi network channel to one that’s not in use or isn’t quite as busy.
First you’ll want a tool such as Wi-Fi Analyzer for Android or WiFiInfoView for Windows to see the details of nearby networks. Once you've identified a suitable channel, just head into your Wi-Fi router settings to switch to a quieter channel.
Keep away from sources of interference
Microwaves, cordless phones and many other devices can interfere with a Wi-Fi signal, so when positioning your router try to keep it as far away as possible from anything that could cause a conflict.
Remember that Wi-Fi often uses the 2.4GHz band so if you’re buying something like a new home phone you might want to opt for a model that works on a different frequency.
Check your security settings
If your internet seems unusually slow it could be because someone is using your connection without authorisation. Wi-Fi is convenient, but as physical access isn't required it does also mean that anyone nearby can connect to it provided they have the details or are able to hack them (which can be worryingly easy).
To protect your network you should always keep it password protected - and change the password on a regular basis - and ensure that in your Wi-Fi router security settings you're using 'WPA' encryption and not 'WEP', which is an older and very insecure standard. If you suspect someone is accessing it without permission your router's admin tools can be used to view all devices currently connected to the network
Upgrades for faster Wi-Fi
On some routers (and Wi-Fi receivers) it’s possible to unscrew the aerial and replace it, improving reception and broadcast strength. Aerials are easily available online and not expensive so this can be a cheap and effective way to boost signal.
If you don’t mind spending some money there are affordable range extender devices that boost Wi-Fi in parts of your home where the signal is weak.
They’re generally very easy to use - just plug in and follow the setup instructions to connect the extender to your wireless network and you'll have a new offshoot of your Wi-Fi connection that's got a much stronger signal.
For more information read our feature about Wi-Fi boosters.