5 Ways To Increase Your Laptop’s Wireless Range When Traveling

April 12, 2012 by  
Tech

Boryspil International Airport terminal b

Being just slightly out of range of a wireless network can feel like mentally pulling your shoulder out of its socket for a modern traveler. So before you dislocate your conceptual imagination shoulder, let me show you how to squeeze out a tiny bit more Internet from those airwaves.

1. Plug Your Laptop In

european plug

The reason this works is because when your laptop is running off battery power it slightly cuts the energy to the resources that take up the most power. The most obvious one to our human eyes are dimmed screens but slightly reduced electricity to the wireless card is less conspicuous. Your laptop’s wireless card takes up a significant amount of power to run optimally (just turn it off to see your estimated battery life jump). When you’re near a strong connection a 10% reduction in power isn’t often noticeable but when your on the fringes of connectivity it can make all the difference.

2. Do A 360

granada roundabout

Wireless signals permeate, bounce, and deflect off a variety of surfaces in complex patterns from their sources. That includes that sexy body of yours eerily hunched over in front of a laptop on an airport floor. Many people often try moving a meter to the left or right but if you’re fidgeting for your Facebook life, rotate instead. Moving around 360 degrees is more likely to be effective in boosting that feeble wireless signal. If you happen to be in a hotel, hostel, or new apartment rental you can use HeatMapper (Windows) or NetSpot (Mac) to get a visual layout of where signals may be strongest.

3. Invest In A USB Wireless Antenna

usb wireless antenna

One of my simple hacker tricks your can use to travel smarter, these devices can extend your wireless range 3-5 times beyond what it is without help. USB wireless antennas (here are some of my favorites) are inexpensive – around $25-50 USD – and won’t take up much space in your backpack. The only drawback is they’ll consume more power, about 10-30% more, than your built-in wireless card. Another good reason to plug in.

4. Find Hidden Wireless Networks

alcatraz san francisco

One way to get around flaky wireless connections is to find better ones that may be hiding right under your nose. Many airports (some JFK terminals for instance), bus and train stations don’t bother encrypting their wireless connections for contract workers but rather just hide the SSID (public network name). Both NetStumbler (Windows) and KisMAC (Mac) can uncover those invisible wireless connections that might be floating around.

5. Position Yourself Wisely Around Metallic Surfaces And Mirrors

Airports tend to have large decorative metallic walls more often than not and hotel rooms usually have large mirrors in them. Both surfaces reflect wireless connections about 1-3 meters in front of them depending on where the wireless source is located in relation to it. The larger the surface, the further away you want to sit to find the wireless sweet spot. But if you happen to be near a curved wall with a metal surface, you can try sitting halfway between the curvature for more signal strength. The video below gives a good demonstration on why this can work.

Extend Your Wallet’s Range When All Else Fails

For those times when physically extending your wireless range doesn’t get your beyond nothing but annoying paid connections you can lessen the pain of purchase by sharing that signal connection with friends. You can turn one wireless connection into two using an Ethernet cable and if you’ve got a USB wireless antenna, turn your laptop into a wireless hotspot (how to on Windows 7 and Mac).

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  1. Arianwen says:

    Great tips! Just don’t trip over your charger cable while you’re doing the 360 :)

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  2. daniel says:

    wow,

    really nice information! ;) love it the post mate!

    thanks!

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  3. Good tips to know, especially if you’re a travel blogger! Thanks for the helpful advice!

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  4. Peter Shaw says:

    Wow, that was such a handy post! Netstumbler was really useful, have’t tried it overseas yet but have tested locally and it works like a charm. Let’s hope wifi networks don’t cause cancer cause they are literally everywhere.

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    • Anil P. says:

      I don’t think it’s likely, or any more likely than other forms of radio waves. Though all of those electromagnetic waves might have other more subtle effects. I guess we’ll find out in 50 years!

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  5. Carlo+Geneva says:

    So yeah, why does MacAirs have connectivity problems. So far whenever I hit up a hostel with great WiFI, and I use it for a while, connectivity issues arise. Curious why. Thanks for the tips!

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    • Anil P. says:

      It’s hard to say, it could be many things for your specific situation (depending on software, etc.) but on a high level, the small frame of the laptop and low power to the wifi card aren’t ideal for many Internet connections. Also, OS X Lion seems to have many issues with maintaining a connection because of the way it handles IP addresses.

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  6. Good stuff, I didn’t know about the wireless USB plug. Heck, just last night locally everyone else seemed to have a connection at a regular place I go, yet I couldn’t connect.

    So I went down the street and connected there, so I know at least my internal card is working.

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    • Anil P. says:

      An antenna is such a great purchase if you’re online often. It also has many other benefits like allowing you to act as a router or repeater for your friends or other devices. But even without those benefits the added wireless range is wonderful :)

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  7. Hi Anil: I followed your advice from the 2009 post and bought an Alfa antennae.Loved it – saved my but innumerable times. Unfortunately, When I upgraded to the newest version of the Mac OS, it no longer worked because it did not support 64 bit, and ALFA had no device for that would work. Instead, I bought a Rockland. It worked like a charm in the US, but now that I’m in Nepal it won;t work at all. It sees all the connections and even says it’s connected but when I open a browser it invariably says I’m offline. I’ve tired every combo of settings with no luck. Any suggestions?

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    • Anil P. says:

      Hi Barbara, so the problem is only limited when you’re within Nepal? Try this to start – in your Mac, go to Spotlight and type ‘Terminal’. In the window that opens type:

      dscacheutil -flushcache

      …hit Enter and then try to reconnect. That will refresh your DNS cache which may be the problem. Let me know if that doesn’t work and I’ll help troubleshoot further. Good luck!

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  8. mina says:

    great tips! i travel with a macbook air which is notorious for having connectivity issues. i’ll try these next time.

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  9. Wftristan says:

    Great advice – I am always trying to get that little bit more Wireless connectivity when i am travelling (and often when i am not too) .
    Will share this

    Tristan

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