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Archive for April, 2018

The Greatness and Tragedies of WiFi Extenders

You live in a home. We are not defining what a home is because it could be anything: McMansion, apartment, townhome, condo, cave, earth house, box, whatever! Point is, once you get too far away from your WiFi source, the internets just doesn’t work. Routers have come a long way but there are times that it just can’t reach where you place your new wifi smart thermostat or sitting on your back patio. Homes have the tendency to have dead spots or act like a giant faraday cage (define: a cage/box that blocks electric fields, like cellular or WiFi signals).

How WiFi Works

wifi_signal

Basically, it is a sphere with moving dents. It goes up, down, and out. This screen shot below shows how WiFi goes out in a generally circular pattern. Any IT networking people would be telling me to shush right now because that’s not completely how it works, but it gives you a general impression. Notice, there are no corners. So imagine superimposing this circle onto your square home, and you can imagine in the corners of your home the wifi will be much less strong. A friend directed me to the app called AR Signal Master (iOS) or there is another for Android, Wifi Analyzer (Android). Using these, you can go to those suspect dead spots to get a reading on your homes WiFi strength. The further you are from the WiFi router, the weaker your signal will be. Here’s a nice generalization of what the dBm (decibel-milliwatt) signal means:

Strength Meaning Real Meaning
 -10 to -30 strong signal Everything so fast!
-30 to -67 stream videos Yay Netflix!
-68 to -70 surf websites Yay cat memes!
-71 to -90 weak signal hurry up cat memes!
-90 and less no signal da fuq!?! *waves phone around*

Notice all the numbers have a (-) in front of them. WiFi for home services are measured as (-) because that’s how the WiFi decision group made it because… well go look it up. It is all about WiFi power and outside of the above strength you aren’t using normal Wifi and that is outside the scope of this article.

Eliminating Dead Spots with Extender Set Up

You used an app to discover an important corner or part of your home has a WiFi signal less than -71 and is not supporting the use you want out of it. You have two options, purchase a new mesh WiFi system or buy a significantly cheaper WiFi extender (several options on that WiFi extender page. Let’s use an extender! First things first, decide your needs. Are you going to stream video (Netflix, Hulu, DirecTV Now, etc) from the extender? Or just going to run your smart thermostat from it? That decision affects what you will buy:

The way these extenders work is that they piggyback from your existing wifi where the signal is still strong and then re-broadcasts a new wifi signal for your device connections. Placement of an extender is critical. If you place the extender in a bad WiFi spot, the extender will allow devices to connect to it and show a full signal, but still have slow speed. So you need to place it in a ‘good’ connection spot and then it re-amplifies that signal for your devices:wifi_extenderIn this image, the purple circle is your existing WiFi and the blue is your extenders WiFi. You place the extender at the edge of the existing WiFi (purple) where you still have a good signal (for streaming video between -30 and -67 dbm and for smart thermostats or general surfing at most between -68 and -70 dbm). This will give you the most distance for your extender and highest speed back to your original WiFi source.

Configuring the Extender

You bought the extender, placed the extender, and now you need to configure your extender. The directions with most extenders are excellent, so I am going to defer to those manuals. HOWEVER, I will tell you some best practices and why.

The most important is a re-iteration of the above, make sure the extender is in an area that still has good WiFi signal from your original WiFi source, or you will not be happy and your speeds will not improve. Your connections will improve, but you will be super angry with full signal bars.

The second most important piece of extenders are in the naming of the wireless network names (SSID: service set identifier). In the image at the beginning of this blog with AR Signal Master, the WiFi SSID name is ‘Sailing Through Life.’ Yours may be ‘Jim’s Best WiFi’ or ‘FBI_van1’ or something to that effect. If you have the wireless names of ‘TW2134234’ with a crazy password of ‘f3q4fjkh4534’ then you are making life MUCH harder on yourself. All, I repeat all, WiFi routers are able to be renamed and have easier passwords used. Time Warner, AT&T, Comcast, Spectrum, and more can all have their default wireless network names renamed and more human passwords used. I would suggest taking this time to create a wireless name and password that is much easier to use (and then reconnect all of your devices). Here comes the most important part of my advice, name your extender wireless SSID as something different than your original Wifi network name. If you source Wifi is MyAwesomeWirelessNetwork, then name your extenders wireless network MyAwesomeWirelessNetwork_E. If it also has 5G signal, then:

Source SSID Name Extender SSID Name
MyAwesomeWireless MyAwesomeWireless_E
MyAwesomeWireless_5G MyAwesomeWireless_E5G

The reason behind this naming madness is because these extenders do not automatically hand off your device from one wireless network to the other. When you get home, if your source WiFi is near the front door, your device will connect to that source and stay connected to it at all costs until the signal is gone. If you keep your extender wireless SSID the same as your source wireless name, when you get up to your bedroom your phone will still be connected to the source wifi, show a strong signal, but not be able to surf the internet because the real signal is weak. When you are in an office building and connected to their WiFi and you walk around and stay connected, that is because they are using much more expensive equipment that does hand off your devices between antennas. These extenders don’t do that. What this means is that when you rename them as different networks, and you get to your bedroom with low signal, you can then select the MyAwesomeWireless_E network name from your bed and then continue to enjoy strong internet signal and good speed.

Case Report

A friend purchased wireless extender and placed it perfectly to connect to his smart home thermostat. The source and extender had the same wireless names. He streams TV and around the time that he installed the extender, the TV quit being able to stream Netflix. After talking for a while, we agreed to unplug the extender and then voila, his TV started streaming perfectly. The reason is because his extender shared the same name and the TV was likely connecting to the extender which has enough strength to run web surfing and smart thermostats, but not stream Netflix. Since the names were the same but the extender had a strong ‘signal’ but not stronger ‘throughput’, the TV would connect to the extender and choke. After renaming the extender, he was then able to definitively connect to the source WiFi and stream perfectly.

Don’t name extenders as the same as your source WiFi name because it makes it virtually impossible to figure out the source of potential WiFi issues.

Building a Smart Home: Episode 2, Alexa vs Google vs Siri

Who will win?

Looking back at my smart home requirements, it will need voice control capability. This blog will focus on picking the ecosystem with the best voice control.

Turns out, it is not a hard battle to eliminate one of them. I love Apple products because they historically ‘just work’. They have been having trouble lately though, especially with iOS 11. The glitches just make it frustrating. This is not about iOS 11 issues though, this is about Siri and how she has not kept up with Google Home or Alexa. Right off the bat, we are eliminating Siri as the controller of our smart home because she is just not updated enough and Apple cannot keep up with the competition from Google and Alexa. Sorry Siri, I wanted you to be my AI, but you’re not the droid I’m looking for.

Siri: “If you say so.”

Alexa vs Google Home vs Siri

This one is a tough one. However, my decision was made by default and I’ll explain why later. More objectively, I want to know which voice control most products support. Both Amazon and Google have made HUGE strides in getting people to adopt their technologies and it is definitely showing. In the end though, we all know which one has gained the highest mainstream following. You have to remove your ‘fanboy’ hat of either systems and really see which device systems are pushing:

Which one looks the most familiar? In my humble opinion, I have seen far more Amazon Alexa logos that Google Assistant/Home (Google Assistant and Google Home are basically interchangeable terms–Google Home is a product and Google Assistant is the brains in the product). Plus, we are people and Alexa gives us the more personal experience… its a NAME, not a title. It’s an instant connection.

However, earlier I said ‘objectively’. So lets be objective. I Googled (ha) ‘compatibility of alexa vs google assistant’ and noticed the first few hits were a bit biased. One of them had a head to head of these three voices and in the ‘Winner’ section, they didn’t even declare a winner but instead said how much they like Siri… and Siri is NOT the winner. I want her to be, but she isn’t.

Enter Tom’s Guide. They had a nice article laying out all of the information objectively. In the end, It basically came down to a tie between Alexa and Google Assistant, except I found a flaw in their results. They rated Alexa a ‘3’ in availability. Are you kidding me? BEHIND Siri? Siri is ONLY in Apple products and that is NOT available. I get it, they are counting Availability as “with you”. But we are adjusting this based on being in a smart home. More than once I call out for Siri across the room and she doesn’t answer. Alexa does, or Google Assistant does. I have adjusted the ratings accordingly:
voice assistant chart

With the adjustment for availability, you can see which one is the winner… Alexa. Google Assistant just doesn’t have the ubiquitousness (is that a real word?) as Amazon Alexa. HOWEVER, Google Assistant is smarter than Alexa. Google is able to better parse out commands and information from voice commands than Alexa who takes them command by command.

Final Showdown

When it comes down to Alexa or Google Assistant, after reviewing objective evidence and making personal opinions, my choice is Alexa. She has better compatibility with home products, has better aesthetics than Google Assistant devices, and has better human feedback (thought Google Assistant has better human thought compatibility). Google Assistant has better brains, but Alexa has better interfacing.

A final thing, I have been getting Alexa products as gifts from friends over the holidays. Alexa is proving to be a popular gift giving item, therefore since I have acquired a total of 6 Alexa products, we will be going with Alexa!

Choice: Amazon Alexa