What routers do

The lowly router has become almost an afterthought.

December 30, 2012
TP-Link TL-WR1043ND Wireless-N Gigabit Router

Notebooks keep getting smaller, smartphones keep getting more powerful and even televisions are getting connected to the internet. In all the fuss, the lowly router has become almost an afterthought.

But these ubiquitous boxes can do a lot more than just transmit data and facilitate internet connections, helping Mom catch up on television in the living room while Dad checks the news on his tablet and junior is upstairs playing an online game with friends.

“The router is the distribution centre, the junction for data transfers and the internet connection,” says Bernd Schwenke from Stiftung Warentest, a German consumer products tester. But the router can do a lot more.

It can protect its users from data thieves if set up properly, for example. The safest is a wi-fi setting using WPA2 encryption. Keep the password long and confusing, since users shouldn’t have to enter it too often.

Also be sure that the network’s name doesn’t have too many links to the user’s name, otherwise you might be giving up too much information.

Configure the router using its built-in menu. To access it, type its address into the browser. Usually it is a chain of numbers like 192.168.0.1. Find out your unit’s number by typing ipconfig into the command panel of a Windows machine. The number you want comes after the phrase Standardgateway.

The number is usually listed in the router’s guide book, along with the password for access.

Routers tend to come with a firewall built in.

“This makes sure that all unexpected packets and inquiries from the internet are thrown away and never make it into the local network (LAN),” says Holger Skurk of Bitkom, a German technology industry association. It helps keep out attackers and hackers.

But sometimes, like during online games, it’s necessary to shut down the firewall.

“To keep from completely shutting down the firewall, you can open up individual ports,” says Skurk. Set up those in the router menu, but use caution. Open the wrong ports and outsiders will find it easy to get into your system.

A lot of routers come with extra functions, which also have to be set up via the menu. It’s possible to set up special guest privileges for users who aren’t supposed to find out the password, allowing them access to wireless gadgets if they use the Wireless VPS standard.

It’s also possible to set up a home cloud, to allow users to manage their music, videos and pictures from every device in the house – and sometimes even remotely via the internet.

Once set up, routers don’t need a lot of attention. But Schwenke says to make sure they’re accessible. “That makes it possible to do a quick reset or to monitor control lights,” he says.

It’s also necessary to upgrade routers every now and then, to make sure there’s no problem communicating with newer devices.

When setting up new devices – and their new functions – it’s possible to get overwhelmed. Bear in mind, a reset can usually help undo any problems that have been created. If there’s a problem setting up a connection, just disconnect everything and reattach them, one at a time.

Routers shouldn’t cost too much money, a basic one will cost about 30 euros (40 dollars). But it’s possible to spend a lot more if extra speed and functions are important, with prices reaching up towards 150 euros.

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