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Summary:

We’ve seen reports from some iPad owners concerning problems with Wi-Fi connectivity, especially with mobile modems. I have seen those problems first-hand, and have tested the iPad extensively to minimize Wi-Fi connectivity problems. I can report the problems can be minimized with just a couple steps.

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I’ve only had the iPad since launch day, but I have logged hundreds of hours on the little slate. I have been exploring the device and its capabilities, along with determining how to best use its strengths. There have been reports from some iPad owners concerning problems with Wi-Fi connectivity, especially with some routers and mobile modems. I have seen those problems first-hand, and I have tested the iPad extensively to isolate Wi-Fi connectivity problems. I have determined the problems can be minimized with just a few simple steps. Note that I am not addressing the problems that have been reported by some universities that have prohibited the iPad from use on their networks.

The first problem I had with Wi-Fi on the iPad was exposed while using it with the Sprint Overdrive 3G/4G modem. This modem connects to the Sprint network and dishes the connectivity out over Wi-Fi. This would be the perfect solution for using the iPad over Wi-Fi to get mobile broadband connectivity. What I was immediately confronted with was the iPad was constantly disconnecting from the Sprint connection, and often having trouble reconnecting. The session would be working as it should and the iPad would suddenly disconnect and then I would have no connectivity at all.

I researched this and tested it and came to the conclusion that the iPad has a tendency to let the Wi-Fi connection go dormant very quickly. A brief lull in data transmission results in the iPad shutting the Wi-Fi down. This is probably by design and likely is an attempt to save on battery life, something the iPad is very good at doing. Unfortunately, while the iPad should automatically reconnect to the Wi-Fi network after such a dormancy, it wasn’t able to using the Sprint Overdrive modem.

I didn’t have this reconnect problem with any other router or network, just the Sprint Overdrive connection. That led me to do some investigation, and I determined that the Sprint Overdrive was using 64-bit WEP encryption for security on the Wi-Fi network connection. The iPad can handle this fine, but it was different than the newer (and better) WPA2 encryption used on all the other networks I use that had no problem reconnecting with the iPad.

I changed the Sprint Overdrive settings to WPA2, and the reconnect issue disappeared. Apparently the iPad was failing to reconnect properly over the WEP encryption, but it has no problem with WPA2. This matches what I see on other modems and routers, so I recommend changing it if you are having a similar problem with your iPad dropping connections and failing to renegotiate a reconnection. It’s easy to do and it worked for me; I haven’t seen a single failure to reconnect since making this change, and using two different Sprint Overdrive units.

The other problem I have encountered has to do with the Wi-Fi radio in the iPad. Let me set the scene for how I discovered this problem and the solution. The big comfy easy chair in my living room is as far from the router in my office as can be. The chair is right on the fringe of the range the router can dish out Wi-Fi, and out of all the mobile devices I have tested I’ve seen several that cannot see the network at all. Some get intermittent signal from the chair, and others none at all. It comes down to how powerful the Wi-Fi radio is in the given device, as that determines if it can see the network consistently.

The iPad is one of those devices that is right on the fringe of the ability to see the router from this spot in the house. This led me to do extensive testing to determine what factors under my control could minimize the bad signal strength the iPad reported, and thus get better bandwidth. In normal circumstances the iPad shows at most one bar on the Wi-Fi signal meter, and it occasionally drops the connection entirely.

My testing indicated that when I hold the iPad in portrait orientation in my two hands, like a book, the signal drops immediately. I can set the iPad in my lap with no hands holding it on the sides, and the signal meter immediately jumps to over 50% and the bandwidth increases accordingly. I verified this by running speed tests in a number of configurations. I can consistently set the iPad in my lap with no hands holding it, fire up the speed test, and see outstanding connection speeds from this remote location. If I do the same while holding it as a book, the speeds are abysmal, if the network is available at all.

I can run the speed test with the iPad in my lap, and after it starts running with fast connection speed I can pick it up and watch the speed drop to near nothing immediately. There is no question in my mind that holding the iPad in the hands interferes with the internal Wi-Fi radio somehow, and setting the device down is a simple solution. It is important to note that it is only holding the iPad in portrait mode that interferes with Wi-Fi. I can hold it in both hands in landscape orientation and the signal strength is not impaired. I’m not sure where in the iPad the Wi-Fi is physically located, but it must be near one of the sides in portrait orientation.

The iPad is a very small, slim gadget, and it doesn’t surprise me that Apple used what looks to be a low-power Wi-Fi radio. The point is now that you know how to maximize the network performance with the radio, you will get better results as I do.

So to recap, change your router settings to WPA2 if possible. This will minimize any problems the iPad has reconnecting after going dormant. How you hold the iPad can interfere with the Wi-Fi radio in fringe areas. If your signal strength goes really low and speed suffers, try setting the iPad down. You may see the signal meter jump back up, along with the connection speed.

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Hot Topic: Apple’s iPad

  1. The 802.11n WiFi/Bluetooth card is integrated into the dock connector cable, and Apple is using the Broadcom Chip # BCM4329XKUBG 802.11n WiFi + Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR and FM. The antennas are located right behind the Apple logo in the back of the iPad.

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    1. I am questioning why some people are having issues with the WiFi and why most aren’t. Maybe the real explanation is that Apple got a bad batch of Wireless radios installed in their units.

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  2. “…I have logged hundreds of hours…”

    I doubt it. Somehow this seems like a but of an exaggeration, even for you…

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    1. Heh, yeah, I just did the math. I got mine on launch day, and by my math that was about 360 hrs ago. I certainly didn’t spend hundreds of hours with it… not even one hundred.

      Admittedly I don’t get paid for using my iPad, but I’d think 200+ hrs is unlikely even for JK ;)

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      1. Mine is seldom out of my hands. Sure seems like hundreds of hours. :)

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  3. Thanks for this, James, but I can report that I switched my MiFi setting to WPA over a week ago and have seen no noticeable improvement in my iPad’s tendency to drop connections. I’m still hoping for a firmware fix from Apple.

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  4. James,

    Your orientation observations suggest an antenna polarization issue, or that you have some unique signal reflections occuring in your test location. My assumption would be that the antenna is vertically polarized, which from a practical standpoint should mean when held in portrait mode it be optimally polarized (parallel to your APs antennae). Does your AP have external antennas and are they pointing straight up?

    That being said, Apple may have thought otherwise; given the use of multimedia being better suited for landscape mode, they may have implemented the antenna with horizontal polarization. I’m assuming the chassis would facilitate radiation out the back of the unit.

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  5. I set all my devices as static IPs at home. I have zero issues with iPad dropping. Before I did this I would get drops. The network as a whole seems better.

    At the University I work at it’s based on DHCP and drops happen frequently. If it goes to sleep and wakes up problems start. The funny thing is we had two iPads fighting over the same IP address. The dropping WiFi is also more frequent later in the day than at 7am. Not as many devices connected.

    I haven’t tested anything too much but static IP seemed to help mine.

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    1. Your observations coincide with widespread reports of iPad wireless issues at various universities. The issue is related to DHCP and can be replicated, so a static IP ought to help until Apple issues a firmware solution.

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    2. Rick Huizinga Sunday, April 18, 2010

      I can confirm that using a static IP address resolves the WiFi connectivity issue. My iPad’s WiFi connection repeatedly dropped it’s connection and remained unconnected when it was configured for DHCP. Now that I have changed it to use a statically assigned address, the connection still occasionally drops but it always immediately reconnects making it feel like the connection is rock-solid.

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  6. James,

    You didn’t mention the make and model number of your Wi-Fi router that you are connecting to from your easy chair. Perhaps swapping this router out for one with better range would solve the problem.

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  7. The FCC test report on the iPad will tell you how powerful the radio is and which will have pictures showing where the antenna is (and putting your hand over the antenna does impact performance in a bad way) plug the FCC ID into the search engine at:

    https://fjallfoss.fcc.gov/oetcf/eas/reports/GenericSearch.cfm

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  8. Router Rooter Sunday, April 18, 2010

    Is your home router 802.11n with the “n” being most important. N-based routers have twice the range and bandwidth of the ancient G-based routers. Also using 5Ghz cuts through walls like butter compared to 2.4Ghz. Also 5Ghz has less packet re-transmits due to spectrum interferences. In addition for the home using a static IP will yield better results because DHCP has unnecessary overhead. Beware Apple DHCP software stack is known to be Bug City. Just some things to look at off the top of my head.

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  9. Walter Hutchens Sunday, April 18, 2010

    Wow, what a great piece! Thanks!

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  10. another thing to do to use the iPad- dance the Macarena to see which pose has the best wifi reception- this iPad’s an absolute winner, folks

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    1. ^ Post of the day! :)

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