Make Internet Fast Again, and What I learned While Trying

After moving to a new place, I had a very happy life with smooth, fast Internet from Comcast.

That had lasted about 6 months. Fast forward to today, the Internet has been dropping intermittently, and I spent several nights trying to figure out if something had broken.

After several unsuccessful calls to Comcast, with many of those calls ending with a nonchalant response, “Please reset your modem and try again in 15 minutes”.

I obediently performed a “power-cycle”, which is a technical jargon for switching an equipment, usually a modem, off and then on again. On my first attempt, I observed that the Internet had spiked to 100+Mbps on speedtest.net, which is more than what I had subscribed for. I was elated.

But that didn’t last long. 10 mins later, the Internet crawls back to a mere sub-1Mbps.

Exasperated, I would go back and try the “power-cycle” method again. And fail, yet again.

Finally, I had decided to take things into my own hands and attempt to solve the problem through trial and error.

I went through Amazon.com, and researched the top 3 most popular routes and modems.

Routers:

TP-Link C3150 Archer

TP-Link Archer C7

Netgear Nighthawk AC1900

https://www.amazon.com/NETGEAR-Nighthawk-AC1900-Gigabit-Support/dp/B00F0DD0I6/ref=sr_1_4?s=pc&ie=UTF8&qid=1484981237&sr=1-4&keywords=routers

Eero

https://eero.com/

Google Wifi Mesh

https://www.amazon.com/Google-Wifi-system-set-replacement/dp/B01MAW2294/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1484981341&sr=8-1&keywords=google+mesh

Modems:

Arris Surfboard SB6141

Arris Surfboard SB6190


The routers were picked by number of ratings on Amazon, cost/features and brand. Brand reputation was critical to me because in the realm of technologies, in spite of what one might think otherwise, electronics are not commodities — some companies consistently produce better and more reliable products. I tend to believe that these reliable companies are able to churn out superior products and I want to stay with dependable brands. Another added advantage here is if the product does break, and believe me, electronics will and do break over time, we can always send the customer rep an email to get things resolved.

The TP-Link Archer C7 is the best bang for buck in the list. It is significantly cheaper than the others in my list (about $90 as of this time of writing), and it has a ton of features that the average user might need. TheWirecutter.com even calls it best wifi router for most people (http://thewirecutter.com/reviews/best-wi-fi-router/). I liked the user interface, the simplicity of the product and also, it just plain works. However, it only has 3 external antennas and it just didn’t work for me (I live in a 3-story townhouse). The 5Ghz network provided upwards of 100+ Mbps within 30ft radius, yet anything more than that and I was lucky to get anything more than 40 Mbps. The 2.4Ghz network was more reliable and I was able to get coverage all over the place, however, it wasn’t providing speeds as fast as the 5Ghz network. 2.4Ghz competes with other networks in your neighborhood (I had about 10+ other networks in my area at any one time), and it’s simply not cut out for fast Internet speeds.

5Ghz network = Fast, but short distances

2.4Ghz network = Slow, but long distances

That’s a trade-off we often have to make in today’s world of networks.

Right? Well, not really.

I decided to take things further and see what other new technologies can we try today.

I then went on Amazon to do more research, and went to a local BestBuy to see if there’s anyone there that could help. And boy, one of the assistants at BestBuy sure knew his stuff. He was extremely knowledgeable, didn’t spew any B.S that the Comcast Customer service rep was telling me, gave me his honest and unbiased opinion (at one point, he told me not to get one of the expensive routers at BestBuy (*ahem* Eero) and just opt for a simpler AC1900 router.

Step into mesh networks. That’s the new technology that has everyone talking about in the networking world, it seems. Let’s step back a little for some networking lesson, shall we?

With a common everyday router, it sends out signal in waves. Inevitably, due to modern day infrastructure, there are beams and walls that block these waves and cause what we call “dead-spots” — areas where the internet waves simply can’t reach. In these cases, we as end users usually experience either a massive slowdown in Internet speed or sometimes not receiving any Internet at all.

Traditionally, there are several options to solve this problem. One of them is using a range extender, which basically works as a bridge to relay network. The pro here is that you’re now able to extend your network to all corners of your house. The downside here, however, is you’ll be receiving at most 1/2 of your original bandwidth. For example, if you have 100Mbps right next to the source (your router), then you can, at best, expect 50Mbps download bandwidth by using the range extender. And, quite a minor quip here, is that you need to transfer between two networks while within the same area. (Your router and the range extender use different SSIDs, and you can usually identify the range extender’s network name (or SSID) by the -EXT suffix.)

A mesh network, however, attempts to address the decreased-speed-with-increased-coverage problem. Note that I used the word attempt, because it is just a gallant attempt at best at this point in time. One of the most commonly heard names in the mesh network realm right now is Eero. They specialize in making mesh networking units (usually a set of 2 or 3 units) that link together to form sort of a mesh around your house without sacrificing speed. The promise is very, very sweet. However, in reality, the implementation leaves much to be desired. Leaving aside the astronomical price tag (one of the downsides of being a pioneer in electronics world, read Tesla), the Eero doesn’t work all the time. While some have heaped praises for its noteworthy performance, there’s another half that have complained about flaky performance and subpar Internet speed.

On the upside, customer service appears to be top-notch. A number of critical reviews on Amazon have been met with excellent response from Eero’s customer service team. While I’m not a believer in the technology at the moment, I’m keeping my eyes peeled and I’ll definitely jump on this once the prices make more economical sense to me.

Of all the routers I looked at, I’ve decided to find the sweetspot between the Archer C7 (AC1750, $90) and Eero ($500 for a set of 3 units) — the Archer C3150 ($150 on sale). For not a lot of extra $s, I think I’ve got a ton of more performance. In terms of bang for buck, I think this fits the bill.

One of the best features is the Smart Connect, which essentially addresses the concern about picking between 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz. Smart Connect relies on the router to intelligently determine what device is connected and allocate bandwidth according to the device’s capacity. It’s actually really well done, and I haven’t noticed any slowdowns so far (I’m 5 days in and still haven’t had any issues).

The only gripe I have is that the Smart Connect feature didn’t work for me right out of the box. I went to the TP-Link website and downloaded the latest firmware from this link. I did notice, however, that there are two different hardware versions. My device was V1, but from the research I did, there doesn’t appear to be any noticeable differences between the two versions.

I downloaded the latest V1 firmware, uploaded it to the router (use this URL to connect to your router: 192.168.0.1), and installed it in a matter of minutes.

A short reboot later, the router is up and running like a charm!

My experience thus far:

Turning on Smart Connect merged my two networks (5Ghz and 2.4Ghz) together. Now, all my devices that were connected to both networks remain connected, and the ones that are capable of 5Ghz are now getting maximum bandwidth.

In my 3-story 1400sqft townhouse, my router is placed on the middle floor, and I’m able to get 3–4/5 bars in the basement and top floor. On my Macbook Pro, I’m able to get 100+Mbps throughout the house; my iPhone 7 is able to get 80–90Mbps on the bottom and top floor, 100+Mbps right next to the router; my Android TV box stuck to the back of a TV is able to get 30+ Mbps right next to the router, which is more than sufficient to stream movie content smoothly; two iPad minis are able to stream movies smoothly as well all throughout the house.

The C3150 gets two big thumbs up from me.

Best Bang For Buck: TPLink C3150 Archer

If you have anything less than 3000 sq ft, I’d say this router is very difficult to beat for the price. The stellar performance, no-hassle setup, combined with Smart Connect offers a very, very compelling case.

Best Budget Router: Archer C7 V2 (V1 has some issues, so make sure you get the V2/3)