In pursuit of the perfect Wi-Fi network

From the garage to the backyard to the basement, we blanketed every square inch of the CNET Smart Home with fast, reliable Wi-Fi. Here's how we did it.

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The CNET Smart Home is here, it's real, and it's going to take our ability to review connected home technology to a whole new level. But a smart home is only as strong as the Wi-Fi network it's tethered to, and for the kinds of testing we want to do, a simple router hidden underneath the living room TV just isn't going to cut it.

Keep in mind that we're building this property out -- all 43,000 square feet of it -- to serve as an optimal smart home test environment. Moving forward, we want to be able to test products out in every room of the house and in every corner of the yard. We want to have dozens of devices up and running at once, from connected cooking gadgets in the kitchen to a smart home theater in the basement to intelligent gardening tech outside of the home.

The challenge: build a robust, reliable Wi-Fi network capable of supporting whatever we want to test, wherever we want to test it.

Mapping out the situation

For most homes in the U.S., the Wi-Fi network you're already using will suit any smart gadgets you buy just fine. For us, though, it's important to have a space where we can test products in a variety of environments without worrying that the Wi-Fi strength is affecting performance. Another caveat: Wi-Fi isn't all encompassing. Plenty of devices send data back and forth using another standard, like Bluetooth, Zigbee, or Z-Wave. Still, Wi-Fi is important enough for us to want complete coverage.

To get things where we wanted them, I enlisted the help of CNET Technical Editor Steve Conaway, the mind (and muscle) behind most of our test environments at CNET Appliances HQ. Our first step: map out the home's existing signal strength to help identify which areas need improvement.

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CNET Technical Editor Steve Conaway Tyler Lizenby/CNET

There's a lot of software out there that'll get the job done, but we went with a free program called NetSpot (available now for both Mac and PC). To get started, we surveyed the property to make a map of the grounds, then imported the data into the program. After that, we spent an afternoon wandering the yard with laptops in hand, taking measurements every couple of meters. Before too long, we had a heat map showing the positional strengths of our existing Wi-Fi network, both inside and outside of the CNET Smart Home.

The obvious weaknesses were the yard and the basement -- particularly a room which sits totally underground. The router sits in the living room, right inside the back wall of the house. That meant that coverage was strong in the back half of the house and actually not terrible in the back yard. The front of the house showed a couple of dead zones, though -- particularly upstairs.

And then there's the front yard. On the heat map of our signal strength, it basically looked like a blue ocean of nonexistent coverage. The garage, which juts out from the front of the house, wasn't looking good, either. Not only was the Wi-Fi signal forced to travel a greater distance, but it was also travelling through a greater number of walls, creating extra interference.

All that blue on the right half? That's the front yard, and we needed to boost its signal strength. Steve Conaway/CNET

Hitting the hardware

With a much better understanding of our needs, we turned to CNET router guru Dong Ngo for some hardware guidance. He pointed us in the direction of the Asus RT-AC87U , recommending it for its wide, reliable coverage. We picked up two -- one to replace the router we already had, and another to act as a repeater in the opposite corner of the house. We also picked up a few smart power strips that claim to double as Wi-Fi range extenders -- they'd help fill in any potential coverage gaps.

To get started, we replaced the existing router with one of the new ones, then made a new map of our coverage. Dong's pick paid off. The improvement was striking -- almost enough to cover the whole property on its own. The only problem was that the router wasn't sitting in a central location on the overall map of the property.

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The Asus RT-AC87U, the CNET Smart Home's router of choice. Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Fortunately, we had the second router ready to go. The only question was where to put it. We needed a spot that would complement the first router's coverage and fill in the weak spots, but we'd also need a spot that wasn't too difficult to wire back to the modem with an Ethernet cable.

All in all, we tested six different spots for the second router, then ranked them according to how much each one helped fill in the gaps on our coverage map, and also by how preferable they were, location-wise. One spot stood out, ranking #2 for coverage quality and #1 for its location: a small, semi-hidden room off of the master bedroom's walk-in closet. It's essentially an attic, and it sits directly over the garage,which extends further into the front yard than any other part of the home. It also features easy access to the inner walls of the rooms downstairs, which would make it relatively easy to thread an unseen Ethernet cable down to the modem.

On the left, the heat map for the main router. On the right, the heat map for the second. Put them together, and you're looking at comprehensive coverage across the entire property. Steve Conaway/CNET

The results

With our two routers in place, we generated a new set of heat maps, seen above. Put the two of them together, and you're looking at a map that's green or yellow across the wide majority of the property, with none of those blue dead zones from before. The only exceptions are those two front corners of the yard, which still come up as a light shade of blue with the second router in place.

After running some speed tests, we found that inside of the house, we're averaging between 35 and 50 megabits per second for downloads. In those front corners of the yard, the speed is closer to 20 mbps -- and that's when the house is registering 35. When it gets up closer to 50 mbps, they each score even higher. We'll call that a success -- definitely fast enough for our purposes. We didn't even need to use those smart power strips; the strength of the routers overpowered their ability to boost a signal, making them more or less irrelevant.

Here's the map of the basement. Coverage is pretty decent -- but we have plans to make it even better. Steve Conaway/CNET

The only other area of question is the basement. All in all, the heat map looks like a decent mix of yellow and green, but we think we can still do better -- especially since we have big plans to build it into the ultimate smart home theater.

That'll require some additional planning on our end, along with plenty of elbow grease, so stay tuned for updates on that front. For now, though, the CNET Smart Home has solid, reliable Wi-Fi across the entire property.

Bring on the Internet of Things.

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