Why is WiFi so much worse on smartphones than on laptops and computers?

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WiFi is great, isn’t it? The power of a local area network without the inconvenience of cables strung all over the place! WiFi seems to come to the rescue whenever our cellular signals can’t get through whether due to distance, over-crowding, or even power failures. WiFi, when used on desktop computers (like the one on which I’m writing this article), lets us place those computers where they’re convenient, instead of close to an Ethernet port. WiFi when used on laptops frees us from our desks entirely, enabling us to venture outside and into nature, the coffee shop, the cafeteria, or the conference room down the hall.

That’s not always the case with smartphones. Cellular data networks have been expanding, their signals have improved, their reach has expanded, and their data rates have increased. With all that improvement on the cellular side we are starting to notice something interesting with WiFi, and it’s got many of us scratching our heads: Why is WiFi performance so much worse on smartphones than it is on laptops and computers?

“Hey, King here; I just wanted to ask you guys about the reason behind (most) computers’ ability to obtain WiFi reception from further away than (most) phones.”

One of the listeners to the Pocketnow Weekly podcast posed that question for us, and we didn’t have time to get into what is a fairly technical response on the air. Nonetheless, it’s a great question, and great questions usually have complicated answers, so let’s dig right in, shall we?

Output Power

One of the primary concerns with our smartphones and tablets is the size of the battery and how much run-time we can get out of them before we have to scamper to find an outlet to plug into. One of those battery-saving measures they employ is limiting the output of our radios. As you radiate more electrical energy, the draw on your battery increases. OEMs attempt to balance this to an acceptable level: too little power and your distance is limited, too much and your battery drains quickly. The less power you output, the shorter your signal can travel, and the “quieter” your device becomes when compared to all the others that are operating on the same frequency.

Desktop computers are plugged into the wall all the time, so they don’t care much about how much power your WiFi is gobbling up. Laptops have much larger batteries than smartphones, but they are still somewhat power conscious.

Antenna Size

The antenna on my wireless router is 8-inches (20 cm) long. And it’s got three of them (more on that in a moment). A bigger antenna isn’t always better than a smaller one, but usually it is. There’s an entire science around antenna theory and design. As a ham radio operator, I know the value of a good antenna!

Now take a look at your smartphone. Where’s its WiFi antenna? Even if it had an antenna run corner to corner, it still wouldn’t be any longer than five, and most OEMs run them up one side or across the top or bottom, resulting in an even shorter antenna. To make matters worse, what little antenna they did include is usually surrounded by fairly dense (and radio-blocking) componentry.

The WiFi antenna in your laptop is significantly longer, and the one in your desktop computer probably has an unencumbered view to your wireless access point.

Number of Antennas

Another feature of WiFi is a bit of technological magic that makes use of more than one antenna to send and receive signals. These signals can bounce off obstructions and take multiple paths from the access point to the device, and back again. Missing parts from one signal are spliced together with the stronger parts from another signal, reducing the need for packets to be resent, thereby speeding up your connection.

Most smartphones don’t have the multiple antenna configuration needed to take advantage of the multi-path technology, resulting in noticeably slower speeds.

Frequencies

WiFi can operate on both 2.4GHz and 5GHz, the former being the part of the spectrum that is most crowded. When many devices (Bluetooth, cordless phones, and WiFi alike) are present in the geographical same area, the background noise gets pretty high. It’s like trying to have an intimate conversation at a rock concert — even when you’re shouting, your message probably isn’t getting across.

Many modern access points enable communication on either or both sets of frequencies, however, not many smartphones are taking advantage of 5GHz today.

WiFi Standards

Last, but certainly not least, is the version of WiFi that you’re using on your phone. 802.11a and b feature the slowest speeds of the bunch. 802.11g is pretty quick, and 802.11n is faster. Most smartphones support 802.11b and g, many support 802.11n, and relatively few support the most recent (and fastest) standard: 802.11ac.

While there are a lot of reasons why the WiFi on your smartphone or tablet may not be quite as fast (or as reliable) as your laptop or desktop, that still doesn’t make it any less awesome! Now that you know a few of the reasons why you might not be getting the performance you expect, you should be able to make upgrades in certain areas, and be a little more patient in others.

Got some tips on how you maximized your WiFi performance? Maybe you’ve got a WiFi router that you’d recommend? Let us know your secrets to getting more speed in the comments below!

Image Credit: (cc) woodleywonderworks

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About The Author
Joe Levi
Joe graduated from Weber State University with two degrees in Information Systems and Technologies. He has carried mobile devices with him for more than a decade, including Apple's Newton, Microsoft's Handheld and Palm Sized PCs, and is Pocketnow's "Android Guy".By day you'll find Joe coding web pages, tweaking for SEO, and leveraging social media to spread the word. By night you'll probably find him writing technology and "prepping" articles, as well as shooting video.Read more about Joe Levi here.