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How to fix common Wi-Fi problems with the macOS built-in Wireless Diagnostics app

There’s no reason to turn to third-party tools for solutions to your Wi-Fi woes. macOS has a built-in tool that can scan your wireless network and make all the recommendations that a paid tool does.

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Image: Andrii Panchyk, Getty Images/iStockphoto

If you work from home you know how important a good Wi-Fi connection can be. You also know that the rapid expansion in remote work due to the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in some serious internet slowdowns and potential Wi-Fi problems, too.

If you live in a neighborhood where more people are working from home, children are going to school remotely, or neighbors are stuck in place it’s entirely possible that you’re experiencing Wi-Fi problems. The good thing is that some of them may be within your control.

SEE: Future of 5G: Projections, rollouts, use cases, and more (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Troubleshooting and fixing W-Fi problems can be done right from your Mac, but wait before you run to the internet to search for the best Wi-Fi troubleshooting software for macOS. There’s no need to pay for a premium product when Apple has built a Wi-Fi analytics tool right into macOS Catalina.

To be clear, not all common Wi-Fi problems can be addressed using Wireless Diagnostics in macOS. Some problems with Wi-Fi have to do with your local internet being congested by the number of users in the area, and there’s nothing you can do about that besides switching providers in the hopes that things improve. 

As for problems with your connection that you can control, Wireless Diagnostics has you covered. 

You can find Wireless Diagnostics on a Mac in a couple of ways: Use Spotlight Search (the default key combo to open it is Command + Space Bar), or by holding down the Option key and clicking on the Wi-Fi icon on the menu bar, which reveals several hidden options (Figure A), among them the Wireless Diagnostics tool.

Figure A

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How to find macOS Wireless Diagnostics from the menu bar by pressing and holding the Option key.

Troubleshooting Wi-Fi problems with macOS Wireless Diagnostics

When you open Wireless Diagnostics you’re greeted with the screen shown in Figure B. From here you have a couple of options: Let macOS go through its automated diagnostic routine, or open up one of the other tools contained in Wireless Diagnostics to make a manual diagnosis. 

Figure B

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The first screen you’ll see when opening the macOS Wireless Diagnostics app.

The easiest way to get an idea of how to fix your Wi-Fi using Wireless Diagnostics is to let the app make determinations by clicking Continue, at which point the app will start scanning your network. You may be told your network is behaving as expected, but it’s still worth doing the test in order to get actual recommendations from the app.

Once the scan is complete you’ll be prompted to enter additional information about your network, but that’s purely for record keeping. Click through those options and Wireless Diagnostics will generate a report (Figure C). This can take some time, and one it’s complete macOS will store the report in the /var/tmp directory. 

Figure C

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What you’ll see when macOS Wireless Diagnostics has finished scanning and is generating a report.

You may not ever need to go looking for the report, which is a whole bundle of text files detailing minutiae of the scans’ Wireless Diagnostics runs. In most cases, the summary screen will be enough to tell you what’s going wrong and how you can fix it (Figure D).

Figure D

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The summary screen that shows after the report has been generated. In most cases you’ll find all the solutions you need to address common Wi-Fi issues here.

Clicking on one of the blue i buttons on the summary screen will provide more information about the particular issue, and provide steps on how to fix the problem as well (Figure E).

Figure E

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A closer look at one of the suggestions displayed in Figure D. 

Getting more details from macOS Wireless Diagnostics

You don’t have to use Wireless Diagnostics in the way discussed above. The app contains several different tools that can be accessed by clicking on Window in the menu bar when the app is opened (Figure F).

Figure F

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Where to find the different tools included in the macOS Wireless Diagnostics app.

The tools can help visualize the status of your network, give you real-time feedback about network conditions, and help you determine what to do to fix problems. 

Assistant: This is the automated diagnostic tool that automatically launches with the app, discussed above.

Info: This shows you a full rundown of your Wi-Fi network: Name, MAC address, quality, channel, IP address, and more are all displayed. This is a decent way to get a quick summary of your network and its status, displayed in real time. 

Logs: Here you can choose to turn on active logging for Wi-Fi, EAPOL, and Bluetooth.

Scan: The scan tool is one of the most valuable in the Wireless Diagnostics app. It shows you details about all Wi-Fi networks in range of your Mac and provides recommendations about which channels are the best for 2G and 5G networks. As shown in Figure E, rebooting a Wi-Fi router can make it automatically select a better channel, or you can use the information provided here to set the channel yourself (refer to your router’s documentation to learn how).

Performance: This is a visual representation of the speed, quality, and signal strength of your Wi-Fi connection displayed in real time, and can be very valuable for determining which areas of your house have the best connections.

Sniffer: The sniffer captures Wi-Fi traffic for as long as you leave it running. When you stop it it creates a report in the same directory as the automated Wireless Diagnostics report.

Sidecar: This is another visual representation of Wi-Fi data. It displays things like latency, failure, and channel congestion.

How to fix signal issues without the Wireless Diagnostics app

The most common Wi-Fi problems are channel congestion and a weak signal, and to solve the problem of the latter you don’t even really need to open the Wireless Diagnostics app.

Take note of the information shown about your connected Wi-Fi network displayed in Figure A, and look for two values: RSSI and Noise. 

RSSI is an indicator of Wi-Fi signal quality and ranges from 0 dBm (the strongest) to -120 dBm (the weakest). Acceptable RSSI is in the -40 to -80 range. If you go much lower than -80 your Wi-Fi is going to be practically unusable. 

Noise is a measurement of interference your computer is receiving, and can be due to a variety of things. Noise is expressed using the same scale as RSSI, but in this case you want it to be as close to -120 dBm as possible. Once you get above -80 dBm you’ll probably start experiencing problems.

If you notice unacceptable values in either of these categories try moving closer to your Wi-Fi router to see if problems persist. If so, you’ll probably need to continue on to the Wireless Diagnostics app to get some more in-depth analysis. 

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