Five easy hacks for your PC and Wi-Fi network

Hacking is really about getting more functionality from the products you own with a little unauthorized tinkering

Hacking isn't just for geeks anymore. In this era of ubiquitous gadgetry and free information, anyone with a screwdriver can do a little unauthorized tinkering. Sure, the word "hacking" has negative connotations. But hacking is really about being a do-it-yourselfer. That means opening a Web browser rather than your wallet to get more functionality from the products you own.

Without spending a dime, you can boost your processor's speed, give your graphics card a performance boost, increase your Wi-Fi range, or add sophisticated features to your old router. You can even beat the rising cost of energy by underclocking your CPU to a more modest, power-saving level.

[ Get the analysis and insights that only Randall C. Kennedy can provide on PC tech in InfoWorld's Enterprise Desktop blog. And download our free Windows performance-monitoring tool. ]

For other great hacks that will help you get more out of the tech you already own, check out "5 Cool Hacks for Your Entertainment Gadgets" and "6 Hacks for Your Mobile Gear."

Overclock Your System's CPU
Difficulty: Moderate
Time: 10 minutes to an afternoon

With a bit of effort, you may be able to ratchet up your system's speed by 10 percent or more. Most CPUs ship with clock speeds set below their maximum possible settings, and they often provide a method for increasing that speed. Overclocking isn't very dangerous to your PC or difficult to do, but it'll likely void your warranty.

While some off-the-shelf PCs can be overclocked, many can't; give yours a shot to see if it can. If your PC supports overclocking, you can bump up the speed in minutes. But to obtain the best performance and stability, set aside an afternoon to test different settings.

Begin by gathering information. Look up your motherboard model, download its manual, and update its BIOS to the latest version. The maker of your motherboard likely offers an overclocking utility that you can run within Windows, but if you choose this method, the utility may need to launch within Windows upon every boot. Alternatively you can adjust settings directly in the BIOS; this approach will keep the system tuned until you change the settings again.

Next, figure out how to access the BIOS and reset the machine to its default configuration if the upgrade becomes unstable (symptoms of which include application crashes and system freezes). Typically you enter the BIOS settings by pressing Delete or F1 as the system is booting; the PC's splash screen will likely prompt you. A reset, however, might require physically changing a jumper switch or pressing a button on the motherboard. Don't proceed without discovering this escape route; otherwise, you could lock up the computer without knowing how to get back to the BIOS.

Additionally, research your CPU model online -- you will likely find its part number listed in the BIOS -- and record the temperature range that it supports. Successful overclocking requires that you compromise between performance and heat; if the CPU grows too hot, the PC will crash. Check the temperature in the BIOS as you progress.

Sometimes the BIOS can overclock the CPU dynamically for you, through an "AI" mode. If you have this option, it's all you need to use. But in most cases you tweak the CPU speed by ad­­justing the frontside-bus speed settings. Within the BIOS, raise that value by 5MHz or 10MHz increments, save the changes, and then reboot.

If your PC fails to boot completely -- that is, into Windows -- go back into the BIOS and return the bus speed to the previous setting. If it does boot successfully, restart it and repeat the process, incrementally raising the bus speed again. After you've made a few increases, run Prime95 for about a half-hour to exercise the CPU. If the system remains stable as this prime-number-generating software taxes the processor, continue to raise the frontside-bus speed slowly.

If you notice performance problems and crashes, or if the CPU becomes too hot, back off the speed until you discover a stable setting. Consider upgrading your CPU's heat sink to keep it cool; a heftier heat sink can allow you to raise the bus speed a bit more.

Overclock Your Graphics Board
Difficulty: Easy
Time: 60 minutes

ATI and Nvidia each offer free tools to overclock some of their higher-end video cards. This tweak doesn't require any BIOS tuning and can boost your system's graphics performance. Gamers will see smoother video as a result of the faster speed. Update your graphics board's drivers before you begin.

In the Nvidia Control Panel, click Device settings under Performance. Click GPU, select Custom, and raise the clock speed by moving the slider, testing the results each time for glitches.

For ATI cards, launch the Catalyst Control Panel. Click Auto-Tune in the Overdrive section. This option gradually increases the clock speed and tests each one in sequence. When it detects instability, it backs off, settling on the previous rate.

Save Energy by Underclocking Your PC
Difficulty: Easy
Time: 20 minutes

I like getting faster performance out of a system for free, but two compelling advantages can make underclocking your hardware an even better idea: energy savings and heat reduction. Sure, the energy savings is small, but it could make a real difference if everyone did it. You might also underclock a system for a home theater, where silent systems are ideal; a slower CPU means lower temperatures, and that translates into quieter fans.

To underclock your system, follow the overclocking tips discussed earlier, but reduce your chip's speed rather than increasing it. Or visit the Power Options control panel in Windows and change the advanced settings. Click Processor power management, and click the minimum and maximum processor states to change their value. Set the values from 5 percent to 100 percent in order to let the CPU speed up when needed, or play with a lower maximum if you use the PC primarily for e-mail and other basic tasks.

Boost Your Wi-Fi Network's Range With an Antenna Add-On
Difficulty: Easy
Time: 45 minutes

Fitting a simple, passive, parabolic reflector around your wireless antenna can focus the signal exactly where you want it. Your network will reach farther, and the addition can even improve your network security.

Download Parabola Calculator to help you figure out the correct antenna shape. Enter a diameter and depth to represent the maximum size of reflector that your router's antenna(s) can physically accommodate. The software will create a table of points for you to plot onto graph paper. Cut out the inside of the parabola shape on two pieces of cardboard. Then cut a smooth piece of metal to serve as the reflector. Curve the metal into a U-shape around the guides, and glue it in place. Cut small holes into the guides at the focal point, and mount the reflector.

Add Advanced Features to Your Wireless Router
Difficulty: Moderate
Time: 45 minutes

Your wireless network may be growing, but that doesn't necessarily mean you need to purchase new networking hardware. As your network expands, you can use third-party firmware to add features to your existing wireless router, matching or (in many in­­stances) exceeding the abilities of a new device. With this hack, you can boost antenna power, configure a repeater to blanket a bigger Wi-Fi area, improve your wireless security, isolate Wi-Fi traffic from your wired network, set up a VPN, and much more.

The X-Wrt firmware supports many Asus, Buffalo, Link­sys, and other routers; check the Web site to determine whether yours is listed. (If you don't see yours, search online for "your router model firmware hack," in case a similar hack could work for your device.)

Connect the router directly to your PC, using an ether­net cable, and log in to the router's configuration page. Check for a system settings menu and scan it for a firmware option. Use the buttons there to select the new firmware file and upload it to the router. Don't unplug the router before the update finishes, or you'll risk permanently damaging the hardware. The process can take up to 15 minutes.

After the update is complete and the router restarts, use your browser to reconnect. The X-Wrt interface will replace the default design, prompting you to set a new password. You can now reestablish your wireless connection, but it's best to perform most management tasks through ethernet.

In the updated firmware menus, change your broadcast power by clicking Network, Advanced Wireless Settings, Transmit power. Tune the number upward to reach longer distances or downward to keep the network from spilling over to neighbors' houses. Under Network, QoS, enable the de­­fault quality-of-service settings that give certain peer-to-peer programs less priority, so you'll always have the most possible bandwidth for immediate tasks. Under the Graphs tab, you can see real-time charts that show bandwidth usage and other details. Be sure to click Save Changes on each page in the lower-right corner and click Apply Changes when you're ready to make an update. And if you ever want to go back to your stock firmware, download it from your router manufacturer and then upload it on the System, Upgrade page.

The modular nature of X-Wrt permits you to add and remove specific features. Click System, Packages to browse through other upgrade packages that you can add to the router. You don't have to use any of them, but their presence means that you might never outgrow your router.

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This story, "Five easy hacks for your PC and Wi-Fi network" was originally published by PCWorld.

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