Monday, July 27, 2015

Rube Goldberg lives!


Although I worked in IT-related jobs for my entire professional life, no one would ever call me a computer geek.  I know a little bit about a lot of different aspects of computers, but I'm not really a master of any of them.  That being said, this post will be just a tad geeky. 

It all started with a fantastic 60th birthday present that I got from Marilynn and the kids: a brand new top-of-the-line HP Spectre x360 laptop.  This thing is loaded, equipped with an Intel i7 dual processor, 8GB of memory, a 256GB Solid State Drive, three USB 3.0 ports, an HDMI port, a touch screen, and a 360 degree hinge that allows it to be used like a tablet.  Absolutely sweet!  PC Magazine agreed, giving it a 4 star "Excellent" rating in their March issue and naming it  "Editors' Choice: midrange convertible-hybrid laptop".   
The Spectre x360... in tablet mode!

I've been playing around with it for about three weeks now, and it's absolutely fantastic ... except for one teeny, tiny, itsy bitsy thing. Besides using it as a laptop and a tablet, I need to be able to use it as a standard desktop as well.  That means hooking it up to a scanner, an external hard drive and, most importantly, a large screen monitor.  Doing all of this was fairly easy, but it caused an unexpected and disastrous anomaly: my WiFi speed plummeted.  In particular, download speed dropped from over 75Mbps to under 2Mbps.  I kid you not. 

As a hack programmer, I've always enjoyed debugging my code.  I know that sounds weird, but I find it fun and oddly satisfying to locate my stupid mistakes and methodically correct them.  That's basically the technique I went through to attack this problem. 

I started with the anti-virus software.  I've been a Norton or McAfee man my entire life, so I was immediately suspicious of the Kaspersky anti-virus software that came with the Spectre.  All of the settings, though, looked fine.  Even completely disabling the software had no effect on WiFi performance.

I then reviewed all of the software that I had recently installed, particularly the freeware.  It was all from reputable organizations, but I uninstalled most of them anyway.  Once again, though, WiFi performance did not improve.

I then turned my attention to the ancient Epson scanner that I had just attached.  The installation had been a little bumpy, requiring a new driver.  I couldn't find a Windows 8.1 driver on the Epson website, so I grabbed the closest one they had:  a 64-bit Windows 7 driver.  The scanner worked fine but I decided to uninstall the applications and detach the scanner.  WiFi performance remained dismal.  

It was now way past lunch time and I needed a break.  Preparing to go downstairs, I disconnected the laptop from the large screen display and, instantaneously, WiFi response rocketed back to the 75Mbps level!  Somehow, using the HDMI port was interfering with WiFi communication!  It didn't make much sense, but at least I had something to google.

During lunch -- and in the space of about 15 minutes -- I found a whole host of possible solutions to my problem.  Some of them were absurd (reinstall Windows) but I found three solutions that seemed worth trying.  

Solution #1:  Change the WiFi Channel used by your wireless router.
Apparently, it's possible for the ambient HDMI signal leaking out of the cable to interfere with the WiFi signal.  Changing the channel, I was advised, might provide some relief.  After spending 15 minutes remembering how to connect to my router, I began by changing the channel from "Auto" to channel 1.  WiFi performance remained horrible.  I then changed it to channel 6 and performance improved a bit.  I then changed it to 11 ("these go to 11") and performance got even better, but still nowhere near where it should be.

I was willing to try anything!
Solution #2:  Wrap the HDMI cord in aluminum foil.  
I know you're thinking about the aluminum foil hats in "Signs" by M. Night Shyamalan, but this suggestion actually seemed to have merit.  I was using a fairly inexpensive HDMI cable and it's entirely possible that its shielding material wasn't the best.  Wrapping the cable wasn't a permanent solution, but it could point to the need for a better cable.  I gave it a try and performance did improve a bit more, but not enough.  

Solution #3:  Don't close your laptop lid.
I laughed out loud when I first saw this solution.  How could this possibly have any bearing on the problem?  Then I read other solutions that said the same thing.  No one provided a reason for why this might solve the problem, but I decided to give it a shot anyway. Amazingly, it worked!  WiFi performance zoomed back to the 75Mbps level!  But I didn't want my laptop wide open while I was using my large screen display so, as shown below, I used a pen to prop open the lid about an inch.  This seems to have done the trick.

Rube would be proud
In a few days, I should have a more aesthetically pleasing solution in place.  Although the Spectre x360 is loaded, it doesn't come with an Ethernet port.  So I purchased a USB-to-Ethernet adapter from Amazon for about $20.  Ambient HDMI waves will continue to bombard me while I'm in desktop mode, but I won't be using WiFi.  So it should all be good.

Postscript to the Postscript:
Amazon delivery was faster than I thought.  The USB-to-Ethernet Adapter arrived late this afternoon It took about 2 minutes to install.  As soon as I plugged an Ethernet cable into it, the Spectre automatically switched to it from WiFi.  I then ran Speedtest three different times with the laptop closed and got the following results:

Yep, you're reading that right.  My download speed is now averaging about 126Mbps.  Excuse me for a moment while I consult a thesaurus.  I need a word stronger than "sweet".....
This laptop is now officially stupefying!