Thursday, August 03, 2006

Another move, another wireless network to administer...

So as of Tuesday morning, 8/1/2006, at 12:30a I am now a resident of Elk Grove. The move was fairly painless, at least in the physical sense, as far as moves go. One large 15-foot truckload of "the big stuff" and three smaller trips in my pickup took care of it. No matter what I intend there is always the rush of the last day. Believe it or not, on July 31, the day I had to be out of my apartment, I returned the 15-foot truck, made one trip to the new place in my pickup, returned the utility dolly and moving blankets I had rented, had two fillings done at the dentist and returned my high-speed internet modem and cables to the main Comcast office, all before cleaning the entire apartment and making one final trip to the new place. I spent a lot of time driving and listened to most of that day's Howard Stern show three times as it replayed throughout the day on Howard 100.

One of the first tasks I like to accomplish once moved into a new place is to establish my connection to The Great Intertron. In this case, broadband access was already in place, so I merely had to set up my PC and Xbox.

Or so I thought.

I am sharing a condo with two other people I have lived with before, and when I moved to Fair Oaks almost two years ago I left my wireless router with them because it was time for a new one for me. So now I'm back and need to utilize this router once again. There's nothing wrong with it, it's just that 802.11b is so 2003.

You understand.

The only problem with connecting to this router was that it was encrypted and...

wait for it...

here it comes...

they had lost the admin password and no longer had the WEP key written down.

Oh, joy.

Being determined as I am, I set up my Xbox first and tried to connect just to see what would happen, and was presented with the discouraging message Not connected. No surprise.

Once my PC was set up I tried logging in with "admin | password" and then "admin | 1234," but to no avail. Using my roommate's laptop which contained the mysterious WEP key I brought up the router's support page on the web and proceeded to do the "restore to factory default" procedure. All went fairly smoothly, although I had to tell the laptop not to power down the network card (wired) when running on battery power and set up a new network connection and then reboot the cable modem and router several times before everything started working.

I did the usual practical precautions of changing all of the router's defaults and also generated a new WEP key. Perfect.

Xbox (no, not a 360 yet!) connects painlessly despite entering a 128-bit WEP key with a gamepad, with a signal strength varying from "Good" to "Very good." The network bridge sits on top of my TV at a decent height and the signal only has to go through a couple of walls.

PC connects, but at only a 40 - 50% signal strength. I could establish a connection with the router but for some reason it would not assign an IP address to my PC, so I could not even login to the router itself. The PC, and correspondingly the wireless NIC antenna, sits near the floor and the signal goes through the same two walls as the route to the Xbox, but there is another computer (the laptop in the next room), many books and a closet full of stuff also in the way. For whatever reason, the signal sucked. Elevating the router two rooms away helped quite a bit with a boost to about 70% signal strength, but I had the router on top of a tall box right next to one roommate's laptop which wasn't really practical.

So today I bought a high-gain antenna for my PC's wireless NIC. This is an extremely simple solution to weak or distant wireless signals. It also turns out that regular consumer stores like Best Buy and Circuit City don't carry this type of item. I could have ordered online but dammit I needed this today, and ended up at the all-powerful Fry's Electronics and they had everything I had found online and more. I ended up buying an AirLink ASB-10MA, primarily because it had the best price-to-gain ratio. I also considered the D-Link ANT24-0700 and also just a remote antenna stand from Linksys to give my regular antenna more height. The AirLink was $18 while the D-Link unit was $34 and the Linksys stand by itself without a high-gain antenna was $25 (high-gain antenna sold separately at another $35!).

I don't pretend to understand the concept of antenna gain, but the AirLink model provides +10dBi of gain while the Linksys antenna provides +7dBi and D-Link offers two varieties at +4dBi and +7dBi, so when in doubt more is better, right? After scanning that article on antenna gain it is apparent that these manufacturers are fudging the true and actual gain a bit by using a theoretical baseline (really, don't ask -- I just look these things up as I need them. I can't explain them), but what am I really going to do about it?

The antenna boosts my reception to almost 75% (varies), but the speed is also noticeably improved and the signal is definitely more consistent. With my original antenna and the router elevated the throughput was only about 1 Mbps and the router connection would drop regularly. Now it appears to jump up to the full 11 Mbps potential of 802.11b and has remained connected since I plugged it in this afternoon. The only complaint I have about this antenna is the short length of the connecting cable -- it's only 100 cm. 1 meter, or about 3 feet. Online reviews at revealed this is a common complaint about these high-gain antennas. The D-Link and Linksys items have 1.5 m cables. I have a rather large shelf that sits on my desktop, so I had to place several empty keyboard and modem boxes under my PC to raise it to a height that would allow the antenna to sit on the top shelf.

So all is well now with a consistent, albeit wireless, umbilical cord to this electronic wonderland. It remains to be seen how my Xbox Live connection will perform. I haven't played in months and I'm truly itching to see how it does.

[Additional info]: I just removed a decorative metal tin (duh!) from in front of the new antenna and the signal strength jumped to 85%.


C-had said...

*COUGH* Get a 360 *COUGH* :-)

Kevin said...

*CHOKE* Give me $500 *turning blue* ;-)

If it makes you feel any better, I did preorder "Gears of War" this morning after I found out its release date of Nov 12 was announced, so I'll be sure to have one before then. :)

Eric said...

Excellent! I've noticed problems with clients with home-quality wireless routers where if they have a weak signal, DHCP has a hard time assigning an IP address. It even happens to me once in awhile when I'm in the backyard. Usually an IPCONFIG /renew on the command line a couple of times will do the trick, but it can be an oddball problem. I've even resorted to rebooting routers and sitting the laptop a few feet away to get it to work right.

C-had said...

Honestly, it will be the best $500 you have ever spent on a gaming rig...

let us know the minute you are up and running!

Brent said...

Your emperor commands you to get a 360.