A ‘different’ evening of radio

Normally I wouldn’t use this space to talk about computer hardware, especially something as pedestrian as a wireless router, but I’ve been bringing myself back up to speed on modern router technology and I had an interesting a frustrating, experience last night that continues to leave me scratching my head with bewilderment.

Wireless routers are just radio transceivers right? So I’m still technically on-topic right?

My wife and I have been experiencing very poor Internet service in our home lately. The network would drop out multiple times in an evening, and our aging Linksys G router (~6 years old) couldn’t seem to maintain a lease from the Time Warner-supplied cable modem. Often, I’d need to enter the router’s setup to renew the lease, or simply power cycle it along with the cable modem. To be honest, I wasn’t sure which device was at fault, but more often then not, a simple lease renewal would bring the Internet back and life would go on.

At last count, we have 12 wireless devices in our home that access the old Linksys at any given time – an Xbox, two iPhones, two Kindles, two Roku boxes and five computers, not to mention guests who visit and use our network with their phones or other devices. Ironically, the only “wired” connection to the router is our television! To put that into perspective, when my wife and I were married in 2005, I think we had maybe two computers that shared the wireless, which in itself was still a newish technology. I recall the G standard being much faster than the B router we’d previously used, and we were excited when we upgraded.

Well, there’s the paradigm of Moore’s Law, and as expected, routers today are much more powerful. They have more onboard memory than the computers of the not-so-distant past, they can perform sophisticated load balancing, run torrent programs, act as standalone print servers, etc. They are capable of more throughput too, with the “N” standard and the use of multiple antennas (as I understand it) to send and receive data simultaneously and ultimately faster. They can also operate at higher frequencies to mitigate band crowding (we are surrounded by routers in our neighborhood).

So when I read an article on The Wirecutter last week about the Asus “Dark Knight” RT-N66U router and it’s impressive list of capabilities, I went ahead and ordered one. Quite simply, it’s possibly the best router for home networks available at present, especially if you are doing a lot of streaming with multiple machines.

This sucker has three antennas and offers capability on the older 2.4 gHz band, as well as the less-crowded and potentially faster 5 gHz space. Dual band? Hey, that’s just like my Yaesu handheld! Access to more frequencies with less people? Sounds like an Amateur Extra upgrade!

Setup was simple and we were up and running within a few minutes. If a device supported it, I reconfigured its network settings to use the 5 gHz band. I also setup some “quality of service” balancing to hopefully provide better throughput for the increased levels of video streaming we’re doing with our two Roku units.

Everything was copacetic until I powered up my laptop in the ham shack. Suddenly ALL devices on the 2.4 gHz band dropped connections and were unable to re-join the network. After minutes of frustration, I determined if I disabled wireless on the laptop, the 2.4 gHz portion of the wireless LAN would come back to life. 5 gHz was apparently unaffected. My Lenovo B750 had turned into a wireless killswitch! How is that even possible? How could my sexy new $170 monster router be brought down by some third-party no-name network adapter? I can’t answer that, but perhaps someone else can.

After two hours of Internet searches, profanity and scouring online forums, I read a suggestion to install/upgrade my laptop’s wireless adapter driver. I downloaded the most recent driver package on Lenovo’s site, put the drivers on a USB stick and transfered them to the notebook. My first attempt resulted in a botched installation of the driver. I rebooted and tried again. This time it seemed to work. I was on the 2.4 gHz connection and it was functioning, plus, the other devices on the network connected happily and seemed to work fine also. More testing will likely be needed, but for the moment, everything seems to be playing nice. I feel like I’ve dodged a case of the “Shidas Touch,” at least for the time being!

While the router’s purported speed of 450 mbps is unlikely to improve the 20 mbps Internet downstream trickle from Time Warner, I should be able to move files much quicker between our machines over wireless, opening the door for a NAS hard drive backup/file/media server or other fun applications. This router should be able to handle anything I throw at it long into the future.

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