35 Easy Fixes for Network Problems

35 Easy Fixes for Network Problems
Illustration: Diego Aguirre
Networks are dandy when they hum along behind the scenes, but all too often they fail. When your printer goes AWOL or your Skype calls break up every time your spouse starts watching YouTube, it's time to get your geek on and learn what makes your network tick. Here are some tried-and-true strategies--and some new tricks--to help you make your network behave.

Nail the Basics

Hands down, the most common network problems are disappearing Internet connections, printers, and PCs.

Lost connections: Usually these can be solved by rebooting your broadband modem, network router, and/or computer. But if you have to do this repeatedly, your router and PC settings are likely culprits.

Start by extending your router's DHCP lease time (the amount of time the router reserves an IP address for a device on the network) to a period of at least a week. You can access this setting through your router's browser-based firmware.

If disconnects are affecting a laptop, check the power management setting for its network adapter. In Windows XP, go to the Device Manager's Network Adapters area, find your adapter, and select Properties. Under the Power Management tab, uncheck the box that turns off the adapter when power saving kicks in. Your battery may run down a little quicker, but you'll have a stable network connection.

Domain-name system (DNS) services are another possible factor that can contribute to lost connections. DNS servers are the PCs on which your ISP stores the databases that it uses to translate individual URLs (like www.pcworld.com) into their corresponding numerical IP addresses on the Internet. If you receive messages informing you that Web pages can't be found or that e-mail can't be retrieved, try using the DNS servers at OpenDNS.com in place of those at your ISP. Start by accessing the wide-area network (WAN) settings in your router's browser-based firmware; then change the IP addresses for DNS to 208.67.222.222 and 208.67.222.220. OpenDNS is free, and it blocks known phishing sites.

Disappearing printers: If your shared USB printer seems to come and go with a mind of its own, make sure the computer it is attached to isn't hibernating. If possible, connect your printer to a desktop PC (as opposed to a notebook), and leave it on. (To cut back power consumption, allow the display--rather than the PC--to go into sleep mode.)

In Windows XP, also verify that 'File and Printer Sharing for Microsoft Networks' is installed for all network adapters so that switching between wired and wireless networks doesn't kill printer sharing. In XP, go to Control Panel, Network Connections, and (for each network adapter) right-click the device and select Properties. If you don't see File and Printer Sharing for Microsoft Networks in the window that appears, click the Install button to add it.

D-Link's USB RangeBooster G Multifunction Print Server supports scanning as well as printing over a Wi-Fi or ethernet network.
D-Link's USB RangeBooster G Multifunction Print Server supports scanning as well as printing over a Wi-Fi or ethernet network.
Better yet, set up a print server so that you don't have to worry about working through a host PC. Some routers have built-in USB printer ports; stand-alone print servers plug into your router. If you use a multifunction device for printing, look for a print server that also supports scanning, such as D-Link's USB RangeBooster G Multifunction Print Server (list price $100).

Invisible PCs: In many cases, network file-sharing problems stem from improper workgroup and PC naming.

Make sure that each computer has a unique name; multiple PCs identified as 'Desktop' or 'Dell' can cause mixups. Don't use spaces in names (Windows ME and earlier Windows OSs don't support it), and don't create names of more than 15 characters. Also, confirm that all PCs use the same workgroup name. The default name in Windows XP Home is 'MSHome'; in older versions of Windows and in Windows Vista, it's 'Workgroup'. To change either the workgroup or the computer name in XP, click Start, Control Panel, System, and choose the Computer Name tab.

The view from Vista: Windows Vista's Network and Sharing Center shows you what's connected and simplifies configuration.
The view from Vista: Windows Vista's Network and Sharing Center shows you what's connected and simplifies configuration.
The Vista difference: Still having major unresolved sharing issues? It's time to consider upgrading to Windows Vista. The new operating system's Networking and Sharing Center lets you know which sharing features are enabled and makes configuring them easy. Vista's Link Layer Topology Discovery automatically detects network devices and allows you to see their locations on a Network Map.

Break through firewalls: Vista's firewall is smart enough to permit sharing within a workgroup. But if that's a problem with XP's firewall, try a free third-party utility. ZoneAlarm's Trusted Zone feature lets workgroup computers communicate.

Or sidestep XP's file and printer sharing complexities altogether by adopting a program such as Network Magic ($30 for three PCs, $40 for five, and $50 for eight). Like Windows Vista, Network Magic (one of our 100 best products of 2006) puts all sharing and networking functions in one place, and it simplifies sharing folders and printers. A special mode even protects shared folders when your laptop is connected at a Wi-Fi hotspot, a major security concern. A free version of Network Magic provides Internet connection repair and wireless network protection, but only the paid version supports printer and file sharing as well.

Print Across Networks and the Net

IP printing allows you to print from a corporate notebook to a home workgroup or remote Internet-connected printer.
IP printing allows you to print from a corporate notebook to a home workgroup or remote Internet-connected printer.
You brought your corporate notebook home, but now you find that you can't print on your home network--or over a VPN connection to a printer in your office. What to do? IP printing, which most newer networkable printers support, is your best bet. You'll need the printer's IP address (get it from your IT staff, or check with your printer vendor on how to find it--by printing a test page, for example). Then run the Add Printer wizard in XP's 'Printers and Faxes' window. Check Local Printer, and under 'Select a Printer Port', choose Create a New Port and Standard TCP/IP Port in the drop-down menus. Enter the printer's IP address, click Next, and you will initiate the usual printer installation routine, where you can pick a driver (either Windows' default driver or the vendor's driver, if you have it).

Beef Up Security

The only way to guarantee the security of your network is to barricade it from the outside world--no Web, no e-mail, nada. But you need not adopt NSA-appropriate tactics to keep your data reasonably safe.

Put up walls: The road to a secure home network begins with a hardware firewall. Most routers have one, but those built into some inexpensive routers rely on NAT (network address translation) alone rather than using SPI (stateful packet inspection) technology--a superior approach designed to ensure that your computers receive only data they have specifically requested. Be sure, however, to change your router's default password when you set it up, and periodically thereafter.

Establish a second line of defense at each computer by turning on automatic Windows Updates, and installing antivirus, antispyware, and personal firewall software. Either buy a security suite (Symantec and McAfee offer ones that cost about $70 each) or use individual best-of-breed utilities like Webroot Spy Sweeper ($30), BitDefender antivirus ($30), and ZoneAlarm firewall software from Check Point (in its basic form, ZoneAlarm is free).

Whichever approach you take, don't rely on Windows XP's Windows Firewall for your protection, because it can filter incoming data only. ZoneAlarm and other third-party firewalls are bidirectional, protecting both incoming and outgoing information. Windows Vista's firewall is bidirectional, too, but you have to configure outgoing filtering yourself in a screen that you reach by typing wf.msc at a command prompt (for directions on how to proceed, see "Windows Vista Includes Two Firewalls?" from the Ask Dave Taylor Tech Support Blog). Vista also comes with Windows Defender antispyware, but not antivirus software.

Keep things simple by using the same utilities on all your PCs (look for economical "family packs"). Then install them while signed in on an administrator account, or--if appropriate--work with the parental controls found in many packages (and in Windows Vista). Keep your password secret: Remember, your network is only as secure as its weakest link.

Cover the airwaves: Firewalls and security suites are futile against packet sniffers that capture wireless traffic on a given frequency. Use the strongest encryption standard your Wi-Fi equipment supports: From strongest to weakest, the options are WPA2, WPA, and WEP.

Intruders armed with readily available software can break into WEP in minutes, rendering it virtually worthless except as a method to prevent bandwidth hogging by your neighbors. We recommend that you invest in new adapters if necessary to ensure that you can make the switch to WPA. To provide both your old and your new adapters with maximum security, choose a router that offers a simultaneous WPA+WPA2 mode.

Regardless of anything you may have heard to the contrary, neither using MAC (Media Access Control, a unique hardware identifier) address filtering nor turning off SSID (service set identifier--basically your Wi-Fi network's name) broadcasting is an effective security measure. Both are easier to bypass than WEP, and they can create connection and administration hassles.

MAC address filtering, for example, requires you to enter a device's MAC address into your router's firmware to authorize it to connect to your network. But anyone listening in can spoof your authorized MAC addresses on their own equipment. Similarly, sniffers can detect even nonbroadcast SSIDs, so turning off broadcasting only makes it harder for legitimate users to connect to your network.

Your odds of picking up malware decrease if you deny automatic connections to unknown networks.
Your odds of picking up malware decrease if you deny automatic connections to unknown networks.
Safe travels: Open hotspots are notorious sources of infection. For true security on public networks, use a virtual private network to encrypt all Internet traffic between your computer and an intermediate server. Companies often run their own VPN servers for employees; or you can sign up for a VPN service such as WiTopia PersonalVPN ($40 per year) or JiWire Hotspot Helper ($25 per year). (Full disclosure: PCWorld.com relies on JiWire to power its HotSpot Finder.)

Next, in your Wi-Fi settings, turn off ad hoc (computer-to-computer) networking and prevent automatic connections to nonpreferred networks. In XP, you can change both of these settings by clicking the Wi-Fi icon in the system tray and selecting Change advanced settings. Under the Wireless Networks tab, click Advanced, followed by Access point (infrastructure) networks only. Also, uncheck Automatically connect to non-preferred networks.

In Windows Vista, turn off the Vista Network Discovery feature (which allows other computers to see you on a network) when you're at hotspots. Vista will switch it off automatically if you designate a connection as 'Public', but alternatively you can disable it manually in the 'View Network Status and Tasks' control panel.

Add a Second Network for Safety

Second network for safety.
Second network for safety.
If your kids open lots of ports on your router for games and video chats, or if you want to run a home Web server or public Wi-Fi network, consider setting up a second router to isolate these risky activities from the rest of your network. In a nutshell, you plug one router into the other, and assign each a different starting IP address (such as 192.168.1.1 and 192.168.2.1). Then you attach your servers--or the at-risk PCs--to the router that's directly connected to your broadband modem, and all your other computers to the second router. Internet traffic to and from the unsafe area will not reach your secure subnetwork at all.

Speed Up Transfers

If your Wi-Fi downloads take forever, network backups bog you down, or your Slingbox won't sling, give these tips a try.

Use wires whenever possible: A wired network (ideally one based on wired ethernet) is inherently more reliable and usually much faster than the open airwaves. There's generally no reason for you to locate a network storage drive at a distance from your router, so instead plug it in to an available ethernet port. The same goes for a network printer.

Get gigabit: Most recent PCs have built-in gigabit ethernet, which means that they can transfer data at a whopping 1000 mbps--but only if your router also possesses a gigabit switch. For network backups, the extra throughput can mean the difference between an all-night operation, and one that completes itself in a fairly short amount of time. Wi-Fi gigabit routers run about $150.

Buy matching Wi-Fi gear: To achieve the top speeds promised by the latest Wi-Fi standard, draft-802.11n, every wireless device on your network must have a draft-n adapter (price: about $100 each). Be sure to update the firmware on any draft-802.11n devices regularly, as vendors are now bringing the first products into compliance with the second draft of the standard, and this should help with interoperability.

Change the channel: The biggest obstacle to good Wi-Fi reception is no longer distance (since most MIMO and draft-n routers provide whole-house coverage), but interference resulting from nearby networks: In any urban area, you'll probably see a long list of available networks. And because the 2.4-GHz band that 802.11b, g, and most new n gear operates within has only three nonoverlapping channels, networks neighboring yours are likely to degrade your throughput. In fact, the latest 802.11n draft effectively mandates a 50 percent reduction in performance when your network is in the presence of other active Wi-Fi networks.

To minimize interference, install and run a utility such as the free NetStumbler to determine the signal strength and channel of each available network; then set your router to the channel that is farthest from those of the strongest nearby networks. (A router's automatic channel selection feature does this for you.)

Buffalo's Nfiniti Dual Band Router can support 2.4-GHz and 5-GHz traffic at once.
Buffalo's Nfiniti Dual Band Router can support 2.4-GHz and 5-GHz traffic at once.
In addition, you might consider getting a dual-band draft-n router, such as the Buffalo Nfiniti Dual Band Router ($299), which supports draft-n traffic on both 2.4-GHz and 5-GHz bands. This lets you keep older 802.11b/g devices on the relatively crowded 2.4-GHz band, while using the uncluttered 5-GHz band (consisting of some 20 non-overlapping channels) for your high-bandwidth apps such as video streaming, as new 5-GHz draft-n products arrive.

Get Media-Ready

When it comes to smooth video playback and voice-over-IP phone calls, speed alone isn't always enough.

Try powerline: If you can't install ethernet, consider adopting powerline (rather than Wi-Fi) gear. Several powerline technologies support near-ethernet speeds; in our tests with streaming high-definition video, HomePlug AV was the least susceptible to interference from other electrical devices.

Products such as Linksys's PowerLine AV Ethernet Kit ($180) move data over your home's electrical wiring. Adapters plug into standard wall outlets; to set up the network, begin by connecting one adapter to an available ethernet port on your router. Then add other devices by running cables from their ethernet ports to other plugged-in adapters. You will not have to worry about overloading your wireless network with high-definition video streams, and performance will be far more reliable than on a wireless network, especially in a large home.

Upgrade your Wi-Fi: If you still want to use wireless for streaming media, make sure that you get draft-802.11n gear: Not only is it fast, but it has so-called quality-of-service (QoS) technology that prioritizes media streams, VoIP phone calls, online game play, and other particularly time-sensitive applications. And don't forget to upgrade your firmware to Draft 2.0 of the standard; practically all of the biggest Wi-Fi vendors are expected to be posting free firmware upgrades to Draft 2.0 by the time you see this.

Linksys's Wireless-N Gigabit Gaming Router prioritizes time-sensitive multimedia and VoIP data.
Linksys's Wireless-N Gigabit Gaming Router prioritizes time-sensitive multimedia and VoIP data.
Invest in a gaming router: Does World of Warcraft rule your house? For advanced gaming, a specialized router helps deliver maximum performance for both Internet and local multiplayer game play; this is especially important if several users access the network in your household simultaneously. Gaming routers have QoS prioritization, are tuned to reduce network latency, and usually have faster processors, all of which increase the responsiveness of PCs on the network. Linksys's Wireless-N Gigabit Gaming Router ($200) supports draft-802.11n Wi-Fi, gigabit ethernet, and game tuning.

Make Better Backups

Too often, people plan to use a network drive for regular hard disk backups, but never actually do so. Maybe the network share isn't mounted (visible to your backup program) when backup time rolls around (add it to My Network Places to avoid this situation). Or the system to be backed up is turned off, asleep, or on the road. Or the backup is interrupted. Here's how to increase your odds of success.

Choose network drives carefully: Shared network storage drives come in two basic types: regular external USB drives designed to attach either directly to the USB storage port included on some routers or via an ethernet adapter such as D-Link's $80 Express EtherNetwork DNS-120 Network Storage Adapter; and network-attached storage (NAS) drives that have built-in ethernet.

If you go with a USB drive, you can usually detach it from your router and plug it into a PC (say, at another location) if you like. USB drives tend to be easier to set up, and you may use an old USB hard drive you already have as your storage device.

True network drives, in contrast, have their own processor and OS, and can be attached only to your network. They generally have many more features, and they normally allow setup of private user accounts ("shares") as well as public areas of universal access. The models topping our Network-Attached Storage Devices chart are the Infrant ReadyNAS NV (about $900) and the Maxtor Shared Storage II (about $750).

For best security and performance, use a NAS drive that has gigabit ethernet (buy a gigabit router if you don't have one) and RAID 1 or 5 redundancy. Don't risk losing a 500GB music collection stored on a NAS drive without any backup; the best way to maintain a copy of your NAS drive is to mirror it using a RAID array.

Whichever type of drive you choose, make sure that it's large enough to accommodate future growth. Backups often fail because the backup drive is full. We recommend setting aside 1.5 to 2 times the storage capacity of your current network for your backup drive; double that if you intend to mirror your network drive.

Perform incremental backups: By copying only files that have changed since the most recent previous backup, you'll vastly reduce the load on your network, and the length of time it takes to do a backup. Cobian Backup (free) can perform full or incremental backups with or without compression, and can encrypt your data for better security on shared network drives.

Keep your PC awake: The need to ensure that your PC is up and running at backup time may seem obvious, but offline computers are the most common cause of failed backups. Don't turn off your computer at night--just let it hibernate. And make sure that your backup software can wake up your computer. If it can't, use XP's Scheduled Tasks wizard (under Programs, Accessories, System Tools) to wake it up at backup time; for more on how to set this up, see "Schedule Your System to Start Automatically."

Multiplatform Network Backups

If you have several PCs running different operating systems that you plan to back up on one network drive, you may run into a problem with file names that work fine on one system but are illegal on another. If you truncate or change the names when you back up the files, the backups won't be useful. So instead of using USB-attached storage devices, which usually can be formatted only as Windows drives, purchase a NAS drive that offers specific support for each platform you use; afterward you can designate shares as appropriate (for instance, Windows or Mac).

Add a Mac

Okay, you've networked your Windows PCs. But now a new Mac is in the family. How will it fit in? Will it work with your printer? Will you be able to share files with it the way you can with your PCs?

In most cases the Mac OS X operating system provides everything you need to connect your Mac to your Windows network and share files and printers. You can plug your new Mac into your wired network or access your wireless router, just as you would with a new PC, by selecting your SSID from a list of available Wi-Fi nets and then entering your wireless encryption key. All recent Macs support WEP, WPA, and WPA2.

The Mac operating system carries all the software it needs to join a Windows network and use a network-connected printer.
The Mac operating system carries all the software it needs to join a Windows network and use a network-connected printer.
In order to share files and printers, the Mac cleverly assumes the guise of a PC. It does so by implementing the SMB/CIFS Windows file-sharing standard and using Windows workgroup naming. The default workgroup name for any Mac is Workgroup; however, you can change this name to MSHOME, for example, by running the Mac's Directory Access utility, which also supports the Windows Active Directory (used by corporate servers).

Next, turn on 'Windows Sharing' in the Mac's Sharing Preference Pane and enable each of the user accounts that you'd like to be able to share. The new Mac should appear as a member of your workgroup when you browse your network.

After selecting it and entering your user name and password, you'll be able to navigate the Mac drive and copy or upload files by dragging and dropping. This works in both XP and Vista.

Similarly, you can print from your Mac to shared Windows printers via SMB, though the setup process is not obvious. In the Mac's Printer Setup Utility, click Add. If your Windows printer does not show up in the resulting list of available printers, choose the More Printers button, which brings up the Printer Browser.

Now select Windows Printing and Network Neighborhood from the drop-down menus. Your local workgroup will appear in the window; when you select it, you'll see a list of shared printers to choose from. Thereafter, the Windows printer will appear in the Mac's Print dialog box.

If all of this sounds like too much of a hassle, consider buying Pure Networks' Network Magic for Mac ($30 for three Macs, $40 for five, $50 for eight). A preview version is available for download. It promises to do for the Macs on your network what its Windows counterpart does for PCs.

Online Resources for Networking Problems

Are you looking for help with a networking problem? Chances are you'll find the advice or instructions you need at one of these sites.

Practically Networked: The leading home and small-business networking site, with tips and tutorials on everything from setting up file sharing to using dynamic DNS services. The troubleshooting guides are invaluable, and an active peer-help forum is another great resource.

SmallNetBuilder: A bit more techie than Practically Networked, with articles dedicated to such specialized topics as how to set up LAN parties and how to crack WEP encryption. You will also find very good FAQs and tutorials on general networking issues.

Wi-Fi Planet: The place to go for truly deep wireless tutorials and testing. Don't miss the site's articles discussing SSID spoofing and the use of VPNs at public hotspots. Has an active discussion area, too.

CERT Home Network Security: A comprehensive and unbiased guide to home network security, maintained by the Carnegie Mellon-based Computer Emergency Response Team, a federally funded Internet security research and development center. The guide also serves as a fantastic primer on networking terms and technology. It's required reading for the network administrator in your home.

SecurityNow: Great network security resource, with transcripts of Steve Gibson's and Leo Laporte's weekly SecurityNow podcasts, which translate complex security issues into plain language for a broad spectrum of visitors.

Shields Up: Also from Steve Gibson, a very popular free Internet security test site. Go here to find out about holes (such as open ports) in your network that potential hackers could exploit, as well as useful tips on how to close them.

Port Forward: Need help removing roadblocks obstructing desirable traffic to and from your network? At this site you can examine a comprehensive list of ports used by Internet games, streaming video, and other applications, with port-forwarding setup guides for most popular routers.

DynDNS: Most ISPs assign IP addresses dynamically, meaning that yours is always changing. But if you need a fixed IP address for your Web server, Webcam, or media streamer, DynDNS's Dynamic DNS service will provide it--and will do so free of charge for home users.

MacWindows: Your best resource for cross-platform problem solving, including details on how to connect Macs to Windows servers and vice versa.

Security Checklist

  1. Use a hardware router, even if you have only one computer.
  2. Change your router's default password to ensure that intruders can't fiddle with your settings.
  3. Use a bidirectional personal firewall, such as ZoneAlarm.
  4. Turn on automatic updates to keep your Windows OS secure.
  5. Use both antivirus and antispyware utilities, and make sure that you keep them up-to-date.
  6. Configure file sharing carefully if you're sure you need it--and if you don't need it, turn it off.
  7. Use the strongest Wi-Fi encryption scheme that all of your wireless equipment supports.
  8. Turn off ad-hoc Wi-Fi networking and automatic connections to networks you're unfamiliar with.
  9. Install a second router to isolate at-risk PCs on your network (for details, see "Add a Second Network for Safety").
  10. Use a VPN when traveling, to avoid picking up a virus that could otherwise spread to other PCs on your network when you get home.

For more tips on secure computing, visit the Spyware & Security Info Center at PCWorld.com.

Becky Waring is a Berkeley, California-based freelance writer specializing in wireless technology and digital media.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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