Inconsistent Wi-Fi performance is a frustrating problem. With so many variables, it can be hard to know where to start. Here are a few things you can try to resolve dropouts and unresponsive wireless networking.
First: Determine if it’s your Wi-Fi or Internet connection
Sometimes when people say “Wi-Fi sucks”, what they really mean is “Internet connection sucks”. That’s because “Wi-Fi” has become a catch-all term for an Internet connection that doesn’t use a cellular (cellular) network.
A wireless network bridges the gap between a device (like a laptop) and the wider Internet. Wi-Fi requires an access point like a router or a series of nodes throughout the house. A router can be connected to a fiber optic connection or a cable/DSL modem, or it can be an all-in-one device that includes a modem and wireless capabilities all in one.
Wi-Fi disconnection is caused by a problem with the local network. Internet drops are more likely caused by an external connection, but could be caused by network hardware issues on your end. If you see that your device is not successfully connecting to Wi-Fi (often indicated by a symbol at the top of the screen or in the Windows taskbar), then you have a Wi-Fi problem.
If you see that your device is still connected to a wireless network—either in your device’s settings or in the network status area—then you may have a broader internet problem. You can log into your router’s admin panel and view the connection status to be sure.
In either case, the first thing you should try is to reboot all network hardware, including any routers and modems in use. Turn them on by turning them off for about 30 seconds and then turning them back on.
If Wi-Fi comes back and you don’t have an Internet connection, it’s time to contact your ISP or use a mobile device like a smartphone to check for network outages. If you still can’t connect to Wi-Fi, you can start troubleshooting on your local network instead.
RELATED: Internet Problems? Here’s how to tell if your ISP is at fault
Your router may need a reboot (and update)
As mentioned in the previous step, your router may need a reboot to fix any problem that is causing the Wi-Fi to drop out. Routers are designed to be “always on” devices, but they still need to be rebooted from time to time. Like any other appliance in your home, they can fail in whole or in part, adversely affecting the appliances that rely on them.
If Wi-Fi works on some devices but not others, or if you can’t connect to it at all, try restarting your router. You can do this by unplugging for about 30 seconds, then plugging everything back in and waiting for it to reboot. Keep in mind, though, that it’s time to replace your router if you have to do this a lot.
You can also check for software updates and apply them using the website (router login) or mobile app you use to manage your device. You can usually find this page (or similar instructions) printed on the router itself. If you ever need to factory reset your router, you can use the login information on these stickers to reset it from scratch.
Special devices may require attention
Try testing several different devices using the same network to determine if the problem is limited to one device. It’s hard to recommend a one-size-fits-all solution for this, but you can test it by checking multiple devices in your home whenever you run into problems. Try to do this from the same part of the house as other factors (like dead zones) can affect performance.
For example, you may have an old laptop that frequently drops its network connection, it may have a built-in wireless network adapter that is more susceptible to dropping out than your modern smartphone.
You can then make device-specific decisions to resolve the issue. In this case, you can try to update the drivers on the laptop or buy a new network adapter in the form of a USB key. On a desktop computer, you can isolate the problem to the on-board networking and try to buy a new PCIe card instead.
If your drivers are up to date or replacing your network adapter isn’t feasible, you may need to consider switching to a wired connection. Although this sounds inconvenient, at least you will enjoy a stable and fast local network connection.
A 2.4 GHz network may serve you better
The newer 5 GHz bands provide faster speeds than their 2.4 GHz counterparts, but this comes at the cost of range and the ability to penetrate walls and other objects. Many routers, however, still include 2.4GHz bands to ensure compatibility with older devices.
If you’re connecting to an access point several rooms away or trying to get Wi-Fi reception outside, then you’ll have better results by choosing the 2.4 GHz network.
Use your router’s admin panel (or the associated mobile app) to check which bands are available. You can rename your SSIDs (Network Names) to make them recognizable and then connect directly to that SSID on the device in question.
You could be out of range
Some parts of your home may not be covered by your Wi-Fi connection, and even weather or atmospheric pressure can affect usable range. This may cause your network connection to drop in certain areas. You can test this by scanning your wireless network in the areas where you notice the problem, using the usual Wi-Fi connection screen.
Sometimes your network may show up with a weak signal on the first pass and then not show up on the second pass. This indicates a Wi-Fi dead zone, caused by your current distance from the access point, objects in the way or even interference. To solve the problem, buy a wireless network extender like the TP-Link AC1750 to cover the dead zone.
Best Wi-Fi range overall
Better yet, invest in a network router system to ensure the best possible whole-house coverage.
Distractions are often to blame
Neighbors installing wireless networks next door or new electronic equipment can cause interference that can negatively affect your wireless performance. This includes nearby access points using the same channel or security devices such as motion sensors on alarm systems and exterior lights.
Make a note of anything you’ve installed recently and try disabling it temporarily to see if that fixes your problem. If you’re concerned about nearby networks causing interference, you can use a tool like InSSIDer (Windows), WiFi Explorer (Mac), Wi-Fi Analyzer (Android) or Homedale (Windows and Mac) to scan all nearby networks and compare which ones are using same channel.
Ideally, you want all wireless networks in the area to use different channels for best results.
Upgrading the OS can bring problems
Some Windows users have reported that Windows 11 has problems with network drops. If you have this problem, consider rolling back to Windows 10 to see if that fixes the problem. You can then try Windows 11 later to see if the problem is resolved (conveniently, using a USB installation).
If you’re using a Mac, you’ll only be able to roll back to the oldest version of macOS that your computer shipped with. You’ll need to use an older Time Machine backup (made on a previous major release of macOS) or obtain a macOS installer for the specific version of macOS you want to install (available through Apple Support).
In general, mobile device upgrades are less likely to cause these problems. Android users can with a little work (and at the risk of voiding the warranty), but iPhone or iPad users can do the same, because Apple only “signs” the OS for a short period.
You may encounter more issues while using a beta version of the operating system, such as those distributed through the Apple Beta Software Program or Windows Insiders. Turn off iOS and macOS betas and revert to stable versions of Windows to fix any new issues you encounter.
Smartphone settings may be to blame
If you’re an iPhone user, iOS should notify you when the network you’re connected to shows signs that you’re not connected to the Internet. You will have the option to use mobile data instead until the connection is established. However, you can try resetting network settings as a solution to connection problems.
Google Pixels have a similar setting called “Adaptive Connectivity” that tends to drop wireless networks that have a weak signal. On Samsung, the same setting is known as “Switch to mobile data” under Wi-Fi > Advanced in Settings. The idea is that weaker wireless networks require more power, so they can drain the battery faster.
If you’re happy to sacrifice a bit of battery life for a potentially more stable connection, you can turn these settings off.
Maybe it’s time to replace your router
Routers don’t last forever. They are constantly on and tend to get worse over time as they get older. They fill up with dust and debris and this causes a build up of heat that kills the electronics. Aside from giving your router a good clean and making sure it’s not frying in direct sunlight or lacking ventilation, there’s not much you can do about it.
An older router will also lack the latest standards and features. New routers have faster transfer speeds, and some let you control everything using a smartphone app instead of a clunky browser interface. Best of all, there are now networked router systems that improve upon the old centralized routers in many ways.
To minimize future Wi-Fi problems, learn about the best Wi-Fi 6 router systems to choose from and how to avoid common network node setup mistakes.