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Originally published Friday, July 20, 2012 at 6:23 PM

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How to tame that finicky wireless connection

Checking placement and the settings of your router and your wireless adapter can help, as can a wireless booster.

Special to The Seattle Times

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Q: My wireless Internet has been finicky. It's not Comcast, since my desktop machine, which is hard-wired to the router, has strong and steady Internet. The wireless connection to the Internet on my laptop, however, has started to drop, even though the computer reports a strong signal. And my laptop reports "limited connectivity," though I can't detect any connectivity at all. Disabling and then reconnecting generally fixes the problem, but the process is time consuming. What's going on?

— John Kenner

A: Wireless can be, as you say, finicky. Many things can affect the signal — from distance to metal in your floors or walls, from interference by other devices to competing traffic from neighbors on your wireless channel. And a relatively small drop in signal strength can make a big difference.

Check the settings on your router and your wireless adapter. Most often, they are set to roam channels. The problem with that strategy is that if you're on a channel and it suddenly gets a lot of traffic you could be bumped. Try setting your router to Channel 11, which is rarely used as a default channel.

Next, check the location of your wireless to see if you can do anything to improve it. Can you put it closer to where you generally work on your laptop? Make sure there aren't any devices that may be interfering. And the fewer walls and ceilings the signal needs to penetrate, the stronger will be your connection.

If you're not using an 802.11n router and client adapter, you may want to consider upgrading. It offers a greater range than previous standards.

And if you're already using 802.11n, you may want to consider trying a wireless booster. Most boosters for the consumer market cost a little under $100.

Q: Has anyone ever compared how intrusive Amazon.com, Google, Apple, etc. are? I would like to get an iPad or something of that nature, but I am leery about how much data they each collect. Any pointers?

— Martha Tofferi, Seattle

A: I haven't seen such a comparison. But if you want to explore the issue, I'd refer you to the Electronic Privacy Information Center (www.epic.org). EPIC is a nonprofit group advocating for greater privacy protections in the digital world. You'll find sections on Facebook, Google Streets, search engine privacy, social-networking privacy, etc.

And don't forgot to employ the protections provided via custom settings in your Web browser. To a degree, you can limit that amount of information available to websites you visit.

Q: Could you please help me select a new computer to replace our antique Dell Dimension 2400 desktop? It has a Pentium 4 CPU and 1 gigabyte of RAM. We want to switch to a notebook computer and frankly don't know what we need. We don't do gaming or have tons of photos or music. It is mainly used for Internet access.

We don't know how much RAM or hard drive space we need. We currently have a 33.7 gigabyte hard drive with 4.1 gigabytes of free space. We can't defrag since there isn't enough free space. Could you suggest what we need in terms of RAM, hard drive and processor? What brands are most reliable?

— Frank Lippman, Seattle

A: I can't make specific suggestions without doing an actual review. But I can give you some guidelines.

First, I urge you to follow the "25 percent rule." Figure out how much disc space and RAM you think you need. Then add about 25 percent. Actually, since prices on drives and memory have been so low, I'd suggest making that the 50 percent rule.

If you're not expecting to make heavy demands on your notebook, I'd suggest a minimum of 4 gigabytes of memory and a 250-gigabyte drive.

For most users, picking a processor is pretty much of a nonissue. If you're counting on the Internet and you're expecting to make wireless connections, however, make sure you get a notebook with 802.11n (see above). If your wireless router isn't 802.11n, you'll want to upgrade that, too.

I do suggest sticking with one of the major brand computer makers, since you're less likely to run into difficulties getting service and repair.

But my strongest recommendation is to make sure you try the notebook before you buy it. Each notebook has a different feel and you can't easily replace a keyboard if you don't like it.

Similarly, you'll want to make sure you're comfortable with your selection of screen size.

Questions for Patrick Marshall may be sent by email to pmarshall@seattletimes.com or pgmarshall@pgmarshall.net, or by mail at Q&A/Technology, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.

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