These days, having access to wireless broadband is an absolute necessity for home offices and small businesses. And after more than a decade of innovations, you would think that the standard wireless gateway/router would be a picture-perfect product by now.
While many routers offer good features, most still come with flaws that can make life a lot harder, such as confounding setups or limited security.
What follows are six router problems that, quite frankly, I find the most annoying. I looked for possible solutions, and while I didn’t find one router that addressed all my concerns, I did discover features — and routers — that could make things a lot easier.
1. Difficult configuration
The problem: How long does it usually take you to set up your router? When was the last time you were able to get it right on the first try? What about when you wanted to add a new PC to your wireless network? And how about getting your wireless printer to connect to your network?
Let’s face it: Each network is different, and getting the right combination of settings can be confounding. For example, even some reasonably experienced PC hands may not understand the differences between security settings or know that WPA-2 offers better protection than WEP and ordinary WPA.
Possible solutions: Various vendors have tried to make things simpler with easy-setup CDs or one-click connection buttons, but they can’t cover every possible circumstance. Buffalo’s and Netgear’s setup instructions go the extra mile by explicitly detailing the order in which you need to you plug everything in before you run the CD. That’s a nice touch — but it assumes you’ve read the printed instructions that came with the router. When was the last time you read the manual before you plugged in your new device?
Almost all routers have Web-based configuration screens, and as long as you remember the device’s IP address, default username and password (which you should have changed when you set it up), you should be able to get into the setup screens and make any adjustments you need. It’s just a matter of figuring out which adjustments are necessary.
2. Enabling file sharing from your router
The problem: Why spend money on a separate network-attached storage unit when you can use your router for sharing files? Many routers come with USB ports to which you can connect an external USB drive for simple backup or file sharing.
Sadly, although plugging in an external drive should be as easy as – well, as just plugging in the drive — getting that drive set up isn’t always simple.
It would be nice to have software that enables the sharing without a lot of setup hassles. It should be easy to connect the computers across your network to this shared storage, by using either the router’s name or IP address. You also need to be able to password-protect your shared drive so that it isn’t open for anyone who’s connected to the network.
Possible solutions: Various routers include USB ports, such as those from Belkin and Netgear.
It’s all a matter of what software is used to configure the USB drive and whether you need anything else on the Windows or Mac client end to connect to the shared drive.
The Netgear RangeMax doesn’t require any additional software and can password-protect the files. It also offers a wide variety of access methods, including FTP and Web sharing, from its setup screen.
3. Performing firmware updates
The problem: Router firmware is an important first line of security defense on your network and needs to be kept up to date. But finding firmware updates on a vendor’s Web site is not for everyone, and many vendors don’t make it easy.
You have to bring up your browser, go to the vendor’s support site and try to track down the current version for your particular router model. You then have to download the file to your PC and upload it to your router in the right place in the router’s Web control panel screen.
To complicate matters, vendors often have several different versions for each router model, because they make frequent improvements to the router, often changing chipsets but keeping the version number the same.
Possible solutions: Make the update automatic or at least easily selectable, so you don’t have to go through the tortured process of downloading and uploading the file.
Check the firmware update section in each router’s Web setup screens to see if the router can automatically upgrade itself.
4. Enabling temporary wireless access
The problem: If you have visitors or needy neighbors, do you really want them to have permanent access to your entire network? Even if you trust them on your network, do you know how good their own security is? If you simply give a visitor your router password, then you probably need to change this information when he leaves your home or office — which is a real pain.
Possible solutions: A good idea would be to grant them temporary guest access that gives them just an Internet connection and nothing else on your network, such as shared drives or printers.
5. Determining who is on your wireless network
The problem: Just because you think your network is secure doesn’t mean that it is. It’s probably a good idea to regularly check to see who is using your router — especially if you haven’t changed your router’s default password. However, in a world where it’s hard enough to remember to back up your computer, it’s unlikely that most of us have the time or inclination to regularly check who has been on our networks.
And even if we want to, it’s not always easy. Typically, most router Web UIs indicate who is currently connected, but finding this out requires digging through many menus. Sometimes the vendors hide this information under a title like “DHCP client list” and/or give you just the IP addresses and hostnames of current connections.
Wouldn’t it be helpful if your router notified you every time someone connected? Even better, how about a historical view that shows you when and who connected to your network over the last week?
Possible solutions: There are lots of enterprise-class wireless monitoring tools, such as AirMagnet but, price-wise, these are typically out of the reach of home and SMB users.
6. Changing your DNS provider
The problem: After you’ve set up your network, you probably don’t give your Domain Name System settings any further thought. If you have a cable or DSL modem, you hook it up and it automatically gets its DNS settings from the cable or phone company’s DNS servers. (If you’re running a large enterprise network, typically you have your own internal DNS server to provide this service.)
Home and small-business users may want to look into finding an alternative DNS provider. Why bother? Two good reasons: better browsing performance and better security against known phishing and malware-infected domains. (Your actual performance will vary widely, depending on your Internet provider and, if you are using a cable modem, how congested your cable line is.)
Possible solutions: Individuals and smaller businesses now have several alternative providers that are worth considering, including OpenDNS and Google Public DNS, among others.
Getting your router vendor to support these servers is sometimes tricky. A few routers, that comes when you order service from AT&T U-verse, don’t even support alternative DNS settings. Making matters more difficult, most of the automated setup routines that routers include don’t allow you to enter your own DNS provider.
So if you’ve decided to go with an alternative, first make sure your netgear extender support alternative DNS settings. If you’re not sure, see if you can enter your own DNS address on your router’s Web-based setup screens instead of just using what your Internet provider gives you.
Then try it out, including installing its software to optimize your individual PC, before messing with any of your router’s settings. After you make the change to your DNS, there is a Java tool that can test your speed to see if it makes a difference. Depending on how you’re connected to your Internet provider, it can help either a lot or not much at all. If it doesn’t help, consider going back to your original settings.