Face it, every school wireless network has its share of dead zones, where no signal penetrates. Either it’s an office that’s surrounded by brick or stone walls or one at the end of a hallway or even a basement room that was never meant to be a classroom. While teachers, administrators and IT people throw up their arms in exasperation, there are a few things you can do to bring those dead spots back to life.
It may sound simplistic, but the reason for a dead spot is that the WiFi signal is that the signal that carries the data is just too weak to sustain an Internet connection or access to local server resources. In other words, the signal strength meter has no bars filled in, and it is essentially unconnected.
It’s actually easy and inexpensive to raise that to one or two bars and plug most of those holes in your network. The first step is to perform a site survey. In a systematic manner walk the floor, taking signal strength or throughput readings every few feet with a notebook. If you record the numbers on a floor plan of the building you can create a crude, but effective, contour map of your wireless network’s reach, and where it dies.
Getting Passmark’s Wireless Mon can help with all the info you need as well as a way to log the data. It’s free for 30-days and costs $50 to use forever. On the other hand, if you listen to the complaints of teachers long enough, you’ll hear where all the dead spots are, generally with an expletive or two attached.
Once you’ve identified dead areas, it’s time to get down to work. My preferred method to get rid of dead spots is to use special antennas that either boost the signal or can aim it to where it’s needed – or both.
This technique attacks a key flaw in most routers and access points: they come with the cheapest antennas available. The stubby antennas that come with most WiFi transmitters are omnidirectional and typically rated at 2-, 3- or 3.5dBi, which is a measure of their sensitivity to grabbing and signal.
That’s why the typical piece of WiFi equipment has a range of only between 75- and 100 feet, when a school’s walls are taken into account. If your equipment has removeable antennas, it takes just a few minutes to do the trick and there’s no software to load. If your gear has internal antennas, you’re out of luck, but in two weeks I’ll show you a different way to plug WiFi holes.
For the dead spot that has a near-by access point, Linksys’s 7dBi Hi Gain Antenna can help get the signal to where it needs to be. Like the stub antennas that came with the router, it is an omnidirectional antenna. This means that its signal is transmitted in roughly a sphere around the antenna. The difference with the Linksys antenna is that it is much more powerful and three-times bigger. It screws right onto the router and spreads its signal out evenly in all directions.
The antennas were able to increase the range of my router from 75- to 100-feet. More to the point, the antennas were able to fill in a dead spot with a signal strength of 21 percent, up from essentially zero. This was perfect for viewing videos, grabbing files and having a live Web connection. It costs about $60 for a pair of antennas with a clip that holds them together.
Another approach is to use Trendnet’s TEW AI77OB Omnidirectional antenna set. Like the Linksys antennas, it includes two long stalk antennas, you can screw them right into a router. But, they come with a stand that has a 3-foot cable so they can be set up away from the router. Just put the stand anywhere or screw it into a wall and then point the antennas where you want the signal to go.
The antenna pair was able to send a 10 percent signal to the former dead spot, giving it access to files and the Internet, but video was choppy and some Web pages took a long time to load. It increased the router’s range to 105-feet.
When that doesn’t work, it’s time to call in the heavy artillery and start using a directional antenna. Rather than sending the signal out in a sphere, directional antennas create a zone of connectivity along a straight line from the antenna. It’s not perfect, but a great way to aim where you want the signal to go.
A white metal rectangle that’s 8.5-inches long, Hawking Technology’s Hi-Gain Corner Antenna couldn’t be more different than the router’s stock stub antennas. The $50 antenna lacks mounting hardware, but it can be attached to a wall or ceiling with adhesive Velcro tape, and as the name implies, it’s perfect for fitting into the corner where two walls meet.
Happily, it comes with adapters for most routers in use. It outdid the Linksys omnidirectional antennas by boosting the router’s range to 125-feet, a two-thirds increase. The former dead spot now has a signal strength of 21-percent, plenty for a variety of online uses.
By contrast, Trendnet’s TEW AI86DB antenna is smaller and not as powerful but it has a base that includes mounting hardware on the back. Just put a small screw in a wall and hang it there. A bonus is that it is on an articulated arm that lets it be aimed.
The key is the device’s 3.5 by 4-inch active antenna that is rated at 8dBi. Not as powerful as the Hawking antenna, it still does much better than stock antennas. It was able to raise the router’s range to 120-feet, but in the area that was previously a dead spot it provided an ample 23 percent signal. This is a big step up and more than enough for Web browsing, downloads and video. In other words, it’s a big step forward from no connection.
Using these antennas is a great way to turn a dead spot into a vibrant zone of connectivity and digital education. But some dead zones don’t respond to antennas. For them, I use a repeater or extender that is like an access point that re-broadcasts the WiFi signal to new areas of the school. I’ll show you how to set one up in two weeks.
We all know that the goal is one computer per student and a projector for every classroom, but schools that can’t afford this can do just as well by putting them on wheeled cart, like Balt’s Adjustable Laptop Utility Cart. With sturdy 4-inch casters, the all-steel cart has a pair of pull out shelves that can hold a notebook or projector. It costs about $190, is available in black and includes a non-skid mat for the top shelf so nothing slides off.
Want a good way to teach kids about the value of money and the power to grow a small nest egg into a small fortune? The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which insures bank deposits, has a nice curriculum called Money Smart that can increase the financial literacy for eighth graders and older. It’s aligned with standards in all 50 states and goes beyond teaching about thrift and saving. Based on 8 modules, from Setting Financial Goals to Paying for College and Cars, the modules run about 110 minutes long. Teachers can order the Money Smart material for free, disproving the economist’s maxim that there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
Because of their enviable size and price tags, most schools are understandably very interested in getting netbooks for their students and teachers. They’re also wary about the longevity of these tiny computers because these computers need to last for at least four years and most just don’t seem well-made enough to stand up to rigors of school life. HP’s Mini 100e stands apart from the crowd by having been designed for schools and built to stand up to daily abuse.
With a rounded white case and handle coming out of the back, the 100e looks more like a flat lunchbox than a mini-notebook. It weighs 3.2-pounds and is only 1.6-inches thick, making it one of the smallest and lightest netbooks available. Its handle makes it easy to take from class to class.
With its tiny AC adapter, the system weighs only 3.6 pounds. Unfortunately, to charge its battery, it needs a three-prong grounded plug, something that can be in short supply in older schools or repurposed rooms with antiquated infrastructure.
The gray and white color scheme is neutral enough to fit into any school. As a bonus, HP will put a school logo or any image on the screen lid of the system for a small price. By identifying the system’s origins, it’s much harder to resell a stolen 100e system.
Unlike others, the 100e is a netbook that can stand up to the expected punishment at schools, like desktop drops and cafeteria spills. The 100e has a sturdy frame, metal alloy hinges and a water resistant keyboard with responsive 17.9mm keys. While they should be fine for most elementary and secondary students, I think the keys are too small for teachers and administrators to comfortably use.
The system’s touchpad is excellent. I really like its textured surface that makes highlighting precise areas or whizzing through a long document much easier.
Like other netbooks, the 100e’s configuration is underwhelming, but adequate. The system proved to be more than enough for basic tasks like writing, working on spreadsheet data and even watching videos. It comes with an Intel Atom N455 processor that runs at 1.67GHz, up to 2GB of memory and a 160GB hard drive, which are the best components that HP can use and still be able to include Microsoft’s inexpensive Windows 7 Starter Edition. There’s an optional external DVD drive.
The 10.1-inch display is bright and uses Intel’s GMA graphics accelerator to produce Wide-XGA resolution images. Its video should me fine for most school uses and there’s a Webcam above the display for videoconferencing or remote teaching.
Unfortunately, the 100e cuts too many corners when it comes to connecting with the world. There’re only 2 USB slots available, one less than on other netbooks. It has the expected external monitor connector and a modem jack, and I really like that there’s a flash card reader, but the 100e has neither an HDMI connector for a big screen TV nor an E-SATA jack for an external hard drive.
As far as networking goes, the system has a wired LAN connector and a unique light on the screen lid that shows it’s been activated. This way a teacher can scan the room to see that everyone is online. On the other hand, the system’s WiFi radio is restricted to 802.11b and g networks and not the newer and faster 802.11n gear that increasingly schools are using.
The software that comes with the 100e sends it to the head of the class. On top of Microsoft’s Starter version of Office 2010, which includes basic versions of Word and Excel but not PowerPoint, the system comes with the company’s Security Essentials antivirus software. My favorite is that rather than Adobe’s standard Acrobat Reader, the 100e includes PDF Complete, which lets you view, change and save Acrobat files.
It all adds up to a middling performer. The 100e that I looked at had 1GB of RAM, barely enough for Windows 7 on its own. It scored a 231.6 on Passmark’s Performance 7 benchmark, slightly behind a similarly equipped Fujitsu MH380 that costs $150 more than the 100e.
The system that I looked at came with 1GB of RAM and was able to run for 3 hours and 2 minutes on a charge with its stock 3-cell battery, not quite enough for a day of school. An optional 6-cell power pack should be good for about 6 hours but adds 8 ounces to the system’s heft.
Don’t bother looking for a page on HP’s Web site to buy one or two 100e models because they can only be purchased through the company’s education sales division at (800) 888-3224. With pricing starting at under $300, I applaud HP for finding an equitable balance between ruggedness, performance and price in a netbook that will be at home in any school.
HP Mini 100e
+ Excellent rugged design
+ Carrying handle
+ LAN indicator
+ Included software
- 2 USB ports