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. (click on image to enlarge)
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. (click on image to enlarge)
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.