In every household sharing a single Internet connection, the router is the linchpin of the network. It’s also a piece of equipment that is easy to neglect after initial setup–many people configure LAN and Wi-Fi and never touch their router settings until a problem arises.But while configuring new network equipment can be a frustrating experience, we’re here to make sure hooking up your new router is all blessing and no curse.
With some smart tweaks, we’ll have that new router running with rock-solid stability while outputting a better signal than ever before. No matter what brand and model router you’ve got, our step-by-step walkthrough will offer some helpful tips.
The everyman's first step in setting up a new router would be inserting a CD and running through the manufacturer's automatic installation. We're telling you to forget about that--your first step is to go to DD-WRT and TomatoUSB and see if your router is compatible with either custom firmware alternatives. These will be key in our quest to deliver a powerful, stable router. A great many routers from big names like Linksys, Belkin, Netgear, Asus, and D-Link are DD-WRT compatible, and Tomato supports a similar--but smaller--range as well. Check DD-WRT's router database and Tomato's build types to see if your router is supported--and make sure you take the version number into account. A Linksys WRT54G v.6 may use a different firmware than a Linksys WRT54G v.8, for example.
Is your router supported? Good deal. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to pick one of these firmwares and learn the installation procedure. Done properly, you'll be outfitted with a powerful router. If you mess up, things could get a bit sticky, but you're not likely to completely brick your router. Note: make these changes over a wired Ethernet connection. Don't want to risk a wireless connection drop while you're flashing new firmware!
There's an enormous volume of helpful material in the DD-WRT wiki and likely a page dedicated to your specific router. DD-WRT is my personal preference due to the sheer amount of documentation and advanced router configuration options, but Tomato is a popular choice as well thanks to its user-friendly interface. Refer to the original Tomato project for help on installing it.
If your router isn't supported by either option, or if you simply don't want to install custom firmware, keep reading--many of the following steps will be beneficial even if you aren't running Tomato or DD-WRT.
With access to the router secured away, it's time to get that sucker online. This step will vary depending on the type of Internet connection you have. In most cases, you'll want to configure the router for Automatic DHCP to let the router handle passing out IP addresses to attached devices. If you're a DSL user, you may need to choose the PPoE setting and input your DSL username and password information.
If you have any issues, start by power cycling everything--unplug the modem, router, and turn off your computer, give them 30 seconds, then power on the modem, router, and computer in that order. You may also need to clone the MAC Address of your modem or computer if the ISP already has a registered MAC on file for your account. If you have further issues connecting to the Internet, log into your modem's access page (you have have to Google the model to find its IP) and look into switching it to bridge mode so that the two devices don't clash in trying to hand out IP addresses.
Got Internet? Good! Throughout the installation process the Wi-Fi capabilities of your new modem may have mostly gone to waste; it's time we remedy that by configuring the Wi-Fi basics. Find the basic Wireless settings page and configure your wireless network name (SSID) to something fun and recognisable. Now it's time to lock that signal down. While there are quite a few Wi-Fi security modes available, there's not much of a reason to go with anything but WPA or WPA2. Only legacy Wi-Fi device that lack WPA support could hold you back to a WEP configuration. DD-WRT notes that WDS, Wireless Distribution Service , does not work with WPA2. Keep that in mind when picking a security type--and after you enter your passphrase, make sure to record it somewhere in case you forget!
Continuing with Wi-Fi configuration, our next step is to find a wireless channel with minimal interference. First, let's install a free utility called InSSIDer that Will and Norm demonstrated in a great video earlier this year. InSSIDer can display the range and power of your Wi-Fi signal and all the competing access points out there. That's the feature we're really interested in for this step: figuring out what channels your neighbours are broadcasting on. As soon as you boot up InSSIDer you'll be able to see the channels of nearby wireless networks--you'll likely encounter a number of devices broadcasting on channels 6 and 11. Switch to a channel no one else is broadcasting on to ensure your router is the dominant device.
You may also choose to alter your Wireless Network Mode from its default Mixed setting. Mixed ensures backwards compatibility with outdated 802.11b connections which you likely don't use. If it's a 802.11g router, setting the Network Mode to G-Only could provide you with modest speed gains. We wouldn't advise an N-Only setting if you have a wireless N router--odds are you'll have 802.11g devices to connect to the network.
With the wireless basics down, it's time to sit back and pipe some connections into your router. Your next task is to determine if ports are forwarding properly. Port forwarding issues often crop up for online games--if you've ever encountered the dreaded NAT issues on Xbox Live, you know how annoying they can be. Try out a variety of services like Xbox Live, VoIP, and chat clients to see if everything's running properly.
Even if everything seems to be running smoothly, you should make sure UPnP is enabled in your router's NAT/QoS settings. UPnP should automatically handle port forwarding across your network. If you still encounter problems, it's time to roll up our sleeves and get it done manually.
When multiple people or devices are logging onto your wireless network simultaneously, Quality of Service settings can be one of your most valuable assets. QoS allows you to to prioritise traffic flowing through your router, so feel free to use its power for evil--giving your MAC address bandwidth priority over a roommate's, for instance. No matter what firmware you're running, read up on QoS on DD-WRT's wiki . The information there will give you a good grasp of how QoS can benefit network performance.
The online control panel of your router is only accessible while you're connected to the network. What if you want to log in while you're away from home to monitor traffic or reboot the router for a not-so-tech-savvy roommate? The solution is Dynamic DNS , a system that ties the fluctuating external IP of your router to a custom URL with a dynamic DNS service.
The implementation of this system will vary by router and firmware--DD-WRT and Tomato both include a number of presets that use the various DDNS services out there on the web. Once you pick one of those services and register a username and password, you can plug it into the DDNS page on your router. If you ever plan on running a server from your home network, dynamic DNS is practically a requirement.
At this point, all the basic functionality of your router should be in place; you should be chugging along nicely with secured wireless on an uncrowded channel, and your QoS settings should make all the traffic on your network play nice. Let's delve into a few more advanced tweaks to make the most of that router. These may seem mighty familiar to those of you who read Ryan's guide to boosting Wi-Fi signal and watched Will and Norm's Wi-Fi video .
Amidst your wireless settings you should find an entry for sensitivity range (ACK Timing). As Will pointed out, this number governs the maximum range (in meters) your router will look for client signals from. This is set to 2000 by default in DD-WRT, which is much longer than we need--we'll never connect to the router from that range. A lower setting of around 200 should decrease the amount of time your router waits for a return signal, but will keep the window open long enough to make sure you aren't prematurely cutting off incoming packets.
Now head into your advanced settings. DD-WRT recommends lowering the beacon interval to 50 in the face of poor reception. You can also raise the TX power of your router to boost signal. While this value goes all the way up to 251 mW, DD-WRT recommends not raising it much higher than 70; doing so could burn out your router (without adequate cooling).
We hope by now you're experiencing excellent wireless coverage in all rooms of your house and have no need for further signal-boosting tweaks. If that's true, consider this step skippable. But if you're still struggling to get a good signal somewhere, build a pair of Windsurfer parabolic reflectors . It's a super easy DIY project that should only take about 20 minutes. The Windsurfers use aluminium foil to focus the wireless signal from your router's antennas in a specific direction. That means you won't want your router placed in a centralized area of your house--you'll want to be able to angle the parabolic reflectors in a direction that will work in every room.
That's it for internal tweaks and settings; your router should be exhibiting rock-solid speedy performance at this point. That means it's about time you decide where to keep the thing. If it's tethered to a desktop via an Ethernet cable, you may not have much choice. But if you have more freedom, consider mounting the router to a wall so that the wireless signal encounters less interference from electronics and furniture closer to the ground. If you attached a pair of parabolic reflectors, factor that into your location.
Your Wi-Fi network is complete. . . so why do we have three steps left, you ask? It's evaluation time. Now that everything's set up properly, take some time to monitor the bandwidth on your router. DD-WRT and Tomato both offer built-in bandwidth monitoring graphs to show you how much data you're using in real time. That's neat, but not super useful. Monthly charts, though--those could come in handy. On DD-WRT's WAN Status tab and on Tomato's Monthly Bandwidth page, you can see how much data you've uploaded and downloaded each month. This could be an extremely handy tool for anyone on an ISP that imposes monthly bandwidth limits.
Are you confident your network is operating at its full potential? Then put it to the test! You should know the theoretical maximum upload and download speeds of your connection, so run a few wireless devices through Speedtest.net to see how your router performs. If you're getting close to your maximum speeds, you should be proud of the quality of your setup. Additionally, test out how your QoS settings are working by using VoIP and P2P services at the same time. Ideally, the VoIP data should take precedence, and you shouldn't notice any dips in transmission quality. If it's not working perfectly, you can always go in and tweak your settings to work towards better results.
This is it. The end of the road. If everything's working as it should, there's only one thing left to do: back it up! If you ever need to perform a hard reboot on your router, restoring all your settings in a few minutes is far more convenient than manually working through the entire process once again. DD-WRT has a Backup option under Administration that will save a small .bin file to your computer. You can restore your settings with that file from the same page anytime you like. Back up your custom settings and you won't have to go through this hassle until you buy a new router--and hopefully this one will last you for years to come!