Why bother with WiFi on FreeviewHD kit?

I’ve been looking at some of the reviews of various FreeviewHD equipment online, and I’ve seen comments – from both readers and reviewers – about it being a shame there’s no WiFi built in.

Personally, I think it’s good thing; that might seem strange – who wouldn’t want to hook up their new recorder to the internet without cables trailing around the room?

Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that. WiFi seldom is.

I wrote a piece for the PCW blog over a year ago called, ‘My Dutch WiFi Hell.’ In that I talked mostly about the problems of getting a decent connection in a couple of Amsterdam hotels, so that I could use VoIP to avoid roaming charges. In one of the hotels, right in the city centre (which is more residential than a typical UK city centre), there were 22 networks visible from my room. It was impossible to connect a lot of the time, and when I could there wasn’t enough bandwidth to make calls.

Now, when you consider that streaming media, whether from a server in your home or over the internet, needs much more bandwidth than a simple voice call, and you’ll see there can be problems, when there are lots of networks in the same area.

What’s in a number?

Of course, most people in the UK won’t have anything like 22 wireless networks in their vicinity; if you live in the countryside, or a nice detached house, you might not have too many problems. But in city areas, where people live in flats, or houses that are much closer together, there can still be several networks visible to your computer – at weekends (presumably some of my neighbours turn their routers off when they’re not using them) I can often see seven networks from my living room.

You might think this doesn’t matter too much – after all, aren’t there 13 channels you can set your WiFi router to? – but clashes are more common than you might think, as each channel overlaps with two above and two below, so channel one overlaps with two and three. Channel six overlaps with four and five below, as well as seven and eight above. And with many people not even knowing how to change the settings on a router that came as part of their broadband deal, it can be hard to find a channel that’s not got too many other networks overlapping at least some of the space needed.

When channels overlap, you get congestion. Congestion slows things down, and means that sometimes I find that it’s not even possible to play standard definition video over the wireless network in my home – and that’s after I’ve selected the channels to minimise congestion. Short of knocking on doors and offering to reconfigure neighbours’ wireless networks for them, there’s not much more I can do.

It’s not just congestion

There are other reasons why WiFi is a bad idea on domestic equipment too. Compatibility is a big one. Sure, it can be more or less ‘plug and play’ sometimes, but not always, and people still find it tricky to make certain equipment talk to certain other equipment. Even something as basic as signing on to a network isn’t always simple; one of my home networks is an Apple Airport Extreme, and other Apple equipment has no problem. But for just about anything else, I have to enter a long string of letters and numbers to make it connect, rather than the password used by everything else. It’s fiddly and unfriendly.

You might say “well, people just need newer kit” and perhaps that would help. But if someone’s just spent £300 on a FreeviewHD recorder, do you really expect them to decide that they’ll replace their wireless network as well, just to make it work with that?

And if someone’s putting WiFi in a unit, what standard do they include? All of them? Or just the latest one? And which frequency? Unless you include all the wireless options, then some people will still need to replace kit. Even those who don’t, and who have a decent wireless network, may still end up with problems streaming, especially high definition video.

When they get those problems, they’ll call the Freeview HD manufacturer’s help line, who won’t be able to offer much in the way of network troubleshooting advice, because that’s not their job, and they can’t be expected to know the intricacies of every wireless router out there. So, the end result will be frustration all round.

WiFi might have seemed like a good idea a few years ago, and might still seem like a neat trick to people who live or test equipment somewhere where there’s no congestion, but for a huge number of people it’s utterly impractical for media streaming. Given that, and the potential for configuration headaches, and associated support problems, I think it’s entirely sensible that people aren’t building it in to FreeviewHD equipment.

No manufacturer wants to see people posting on the internet “This XXX recorder is rubbish, it won’t play streaming media properly and the helpline refuses to do anything” when the real problem is a shonky WiFi network the manufacturer can’t do anything about. But this is the internet, and that’s just the sort of thing people will say.

What to use instead? Personally, I use HomePlug AV, which sends data over the mains cables. I wrote a post about it earlier this year, which you may want to take a look at. And if you really do want to use WiFi, then the best solution is a wireless bridge that can plug into the Ethernet connecton on your Freeview HD box – leaving you to choose the adaptor that works best with your wireless network.

 
 
 
September 2010
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