WiFi Connectivity Experience

A few years ago, I received a Ring video doorbell as a Christmas gift. If you’re not familiar with one of these they are a great simple device that replaces the exterior doorbell on your house. Most exterior doorbells are really just a simple switch, but these devices include a wide-angle video camera, speaker and microphone for two-way conversation with anyone who rings the bell. I have the earlier version 1 which includes a 720p HD camera, but the newer models incorporate a 1080p camera for better resolution. The device couples with your home’s WiFi network, so that you can connect with it on your iPhone. In addition to iOS, Ring supplies application software for Android, Windows and Mac so there should be no problem with compatibility. 

In my case, the problem came with my regular WiFi signal not being sufficiently strong to work with the doorbell mounted on the outside of the house near the front door while my WiFi router is in my basement office. Fortunately, I had an old Linksys WRT160 router which I had replaced a few years ago with a Netgear WNDR4000. The Netgear was a significant improvement to the older Linksys which did not support the 5GHz speed. The doorbell only uses the 2.4GHz band so I created a separate network for the doorbell and the living room where the signal from the Netgear was weak.

First Netgear Router

The WNDR4000 was fine with my computer located in the same room as the router, but my wife who has her computer on the third floor would often have poor connectivity on the 5GHz band and occasionally even on the 2.4GHz band. Neither router supported the newer 801.11ac protocol, but we rarely need to transfer large files between computers on different floors. Another drawback with this setup is it left us with 5 networks broadcasting their availability; two from the Netgear WNDR4000 (one for the 2.4 band and one for the 5GHz band), one from the Linksys, one from the Comcast cable modem and one for the xfinitywifi network which Comcast foists on all its subscribers for anyone to use when they visit your home. The main reason for not using the WiFi network on the cable modem is that the bandwidth is substantially inferior. Throughput with the cable modem network in barely 25% of what the bandwidth is when connecting through the Netgear router.

As with all technology, improvements are always being developed and routers are no exception. I don’t follow router technology all that closely, but knew that router manufacturers do not support their products all that well after a few years preferring that you buy their next latest and greatest devices. Firmware updates for the WNDR4000 have been few if at all in the past couple of years. I was considering either buying a mesh router setup or a newer ac-capable router and would occasionally peruse the comparisons on Small Net Builder.com where the contributors review routers for speed, flexibility and throughput. Mesh routers for home use are still relatively expensive and are more expensive with lesser performance than some of the better single unit routers on the market. Their current favorite is the Netgear R7800 even though it is a couple of years old. The price for the R7800 on Amazon fluctuates from a low of $155 to as much as $230 and can change from one day to the next. It was $270 less than a year ago, so when it was offered recently as a daily deal I went ahead and bought it.

Setup Complications

The R7800 is larger than the WNDR4000 and has four external antennas on it plus the capability to add external hard drives for file sharing services such as an iTunes server, FTP, VPN or Time Machine through two USB 3.0 ports and an eSATA port. One can also manage the router through Netgear’s genie app for Mac or iOS, but I prefer to use the web interface which allows getting to all the settings and is similar to that of my older routers. A key feature of the R7800 is its ability to determine the best band to connect any given device, so rather than having two SSIDs, one for the 2.4GHz band and one for the 5GHz band the router will show only one and it will connect to the highest speed depending on signal strength to the connecting device.

Replacing the WNDR4000 with the R7800 was a snap – physically. The R7800 was even able to connect to my Ring doorbell, but that connection proved to be less than reliable. All too frequently, the Ring app would just sit there and whir, and no picture would appear. Other times it seemed to work fine. As a result, I thought I’d have to go back to my old setup and place a second router with a separate network in the Living room closer to the front door, but I thought why not set up the second router as a repeater/extender for my new base station? As it turned out Netgear removed this capability from their firmware for the R7800 even though it is still present in the latest firmware for the older WNDR4000. One needs to enter the mac ID for the repeater into the base station in addition to telling the old router to function as a repeater for all this to work. Consultation through an online chat with Netgear Support verified that most of there current routers do not work with repeaters. The only other way to get around this shortcoming would be to replace the Netgear firmware with opensource firmware from DD-WRT, but of course, that would void the warranty.

The alternative was to setup the WNDR4000 as a secondary access point. This proved successful and the better choice even though instructions for doing this were not in the manual but in a knowledgebase tech note on Netgear’s web site. What was further frustrating was that the tech note left out key pieces of information like do the wireless settings need to be different or the same as on the base station? The answer as it turns out is that they need to be exactlythe same; same network names for both 2.4 and 5GHz bands, same security protocols and same password for connecting. When done correctly the WNDR4000 can act as a secondary access point for the main router. Just click the check box for AP Mode and assign it a fixed IP address.  

The major difference between a secondary access point and a repeater is that the repeater connects to the base station through WiFi. Since it is placed near the periphery of the base station’s reach, connections through a repeater are generally slower than using a second access point. However, an access point must be connected to the base station using an Ethernet cable. Since I already had a cable going from the living room to my basement office, this was not a problem. Once finally configured, connection to the Ring doorbell was reliable and responsive. 

Conclusions

All in all it took me about a week to figure this all out. While the Netgear manual was fairly good, it was sparse in providing explanations or integrating it with other network devices. Their genie app is made for dummies and adds an unnecessary extra layer of froth to get through. I have since deleted it from my mac; never did load it on my iPhone. Tech support through the online chat was quick but not very knowledgeable – I suspect it’s an AI bot. Phone support is available for free in the first 90 days after registering a new purchase, but wait times are typically greater than an hour. After the 3-month grace period technical support will cost you between $30 and $100 per year. Thanks, but I’ll muddle through on my own with the Internet’s help.

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