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
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
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
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
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).