Six annoying router problems -- and solutions

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. Alas, no.

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.

These and other hitches are why setting up any router can still be vexing, even to an experienced computer user. Some, such as the Buffalo AirStation Wireless-N 300Mbps Cable Router WHR-HP-G300N ($53), have crowded menus with multiple layers that make navigation painful. Others, such as the Netgear RangeMax Dual Band Wireless-N Gigabit Router WNDR3700 ($170), rely on a protected setup that has a long series of instructions that have to be followed to get a new PC on your network.

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. (Cable modems in particular should be powered on before you connect your router to them.) 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.

Best available routers: The Cisco Valet M10 ($100), part of Cisco's recently introduced Valet line, comes with a USB key that has the configuration software on it. Once you set up one PC on your network, you use the key to run the configuration on any other PCs or Macs (the key also includes Mac software) without having to write down the wireless encryption key or other information.

Cisco has also made it a lot easier to set up other devices, such as wireless printers, by providing a summary screen with all the relevant information about your wireless network that you can print out for easy reference when you run the setup program on the USB key.

Buffalo has a nice diagnostic routine that checks to see if you have Internet connectivity and that your router is configured properly. You run it from the Web configuration console.

Apple's AirPort Express ($99) is simple to set up and has some neat features, including the ability to share USB printers and to share audio across the network to a connected stereo receiver. You can also extend the range of your existing AirPort base station, which is something that most Wi-Fi routers can't easily do. But if you've got a Windows PC, you've got to install Bonjour, and adding a new PC to an existing network isn't as easy as it could be.

2. Enabling file sharing from your router

The problem: Why spend money on a separate network-attached storage (NAS) 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. The Linksys WRT610N Wireless-N Router ($200), for example, has a complex setup screen that you need to fill out when you attach a USB drive to it.

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 SSID 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 Linksys, 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.

Best available routers: The Belkin N+ Wireless Router ($120) has a separate software configuration utility that works for both Windows and Mac systems and needs to be run only once to set up the external shared drive. After that, you can connect to the shared drive by entering its IP address, such as \\192.168.1.1\sharename. The product isn't perfect, though: There is no way to password-protect the files on 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 chip sets 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.

Best available routers: Belkin's N+ Wireless and Netgear's RangeMax both have a menu-selectable software switch to enable the updates. Once this is set, you can forget about it and be confident that you will always have the latest firmware.

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? (For example, will your neighbor's notebook end up in the hands of his teenager?) 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.

Vendors have begun to enable this on their routers in a variety of ways. Belkin, for example, has an option it calls "Hotel-style," meaning that users are directed to a Web landing page where they enter a special guest password. Other vendors make it easy to set up separate wireless networks just for guests. (If you use Apple's AirPort Express, on the other hand, you're out of luck -- there isn't any guest access.)

Best available routers: The USB key that you can create with Cisco's Valet can help here as well. You need to run an automated setup routine from the USB key (rather than from the Web UI) on each of your guest computers. Once you do, it will set up a separate wireless network with a different name and password that only allows Internet access.

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 host names 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.

Check out the screens that are usually labeled "Attached devices" or "DHCP client list" to see who is connected and using which IP addresses. Some companies, such as Buffalo, clearly show how various clients have connected and what wireless devices they are using.

Best available routers: When Cisco bought the company Pure Networks, it acquired a piece of software called Network Magic. The Windows version of Network Magic will show you a pretty map along with a more useful network histogram timeline revealing who has connected when.

For some reason, Cisco includes this software in some of its Linksys routers but not the Valet M10 series. You can purchase a license for up to three PCs for $24 that will work with any router. (The Mac version doesn't have the maps or histograms.)

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, such as 2Wire's Home Portal 3000 series 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 router supports 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.

Best available routers: Most of the router vendors allow you to enter this information. If yours doesn't -- well, either change your vendor or just live with the DNS provider you're given.

David Strom is a veteran technology journalist, speaker and former IT manager. He has written two books on computing and thousands of articles. His blog can be found at Strominator.com.

This story, "Six annoying router problems -- and solutions" was originally published by Computerworld.

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