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Tech Tips

A look at Home Network Routers

By James Wise
web posted April 27, 2009
TECH TIPS – Recently, we talked about how to secure a network router. Today, we’re taking a step back to talk about what routers do, how beneficial they are, how to add one, and how to test your network security. If you have more than one computer in your house, a router can make networking them very easy. With a network, you can share files, printers, and an Internet connection. Even if you only have one computer, adding a router can help secure your computer from attack over the Internet.

A router is basically the central device in a network. For example, if you have three computers and you want to access files on one computer from the other two, you could run a wire from each computer to a router. Many routers also support a wireless connection to a computer. You can establish a network in other ways as well but routers usually make the process easier and offer extra functionality.

If you have a printer, you can share that printer with your PCs as well. If the printer is a “network printer” it can be added to the network like a computer and then “installed” on each computer. If the printer is directly connected to a computer, you can share it and set it up on the other computers. Then (as long as the computer the printer is attached to is turned on), you can print from another computer to this printer.

Most routers can also accept an Internet connection. Routers offer a few key advantages related to an Internet connection:

  (1) Security: A router provides a hardware “firewall” between your computer(s) and the Internet. A firewall blocks people outside your local network from accessing your computer. There are hardware and software firewalls. A router provides a hardware firewall for maximum protection. Software firewalls are also good (and can be used in addition to a router) but a hardware firewall gives you an extra layer of security/protection.
  (2) Routers make sharing a connection very easy: While it is technically possible to share a connection in other ways (like Windows Internet Connection Sharing or Proxy Server software), a router tends to be easier and doesn’t require the PC with the Internet connection to be turned on.
  (3) Parental Control: Some routers also support things like content filtering (blocking material that may not be appropriate for children) and scheduling (for restricting when computers can use the Internet)

You can even have things like video cameras connected to your router for security purposes when you are home OR away (just be sure remote access to them is secure).

Okay, I want a router. Which one should I buy? There are a few key points to consider here.

Wired or Wireless
Unless all your computers are close to one another (or your home is wired for a network), you probably want a wireless router (as most are). Note that wired connections are faster but wireless connections are generally good enough. With a wireless router, there are several different network types (B, G, and N for example). N is the fastest (typically twice as fast as G) but not many computers have “N” capable network cards. Generally, I would suggest “N” or “G” (if your computers don’t have G and N is more expensive). Note that routers are “downward compatible” so an N router would work for N, G, or B (all of which are faster than Internet connections). If you go with a wireless router, I would try to make sure it supports WPA encryption (see http://www.edgefielddaily.com/wisetechtips042009.html) but I think most do.

Internet Connection Type
If you use a cable or dsl “modem” and it has a network port, almost any router will work. Just look for something like “Broadband” on the label or an Internet/WAN network port on the back of it. If you have a cellular Internet connection, there are some router options for you as well such as CradlePoint Routers (see the April 2 column). There used to be a few router options for dial-up users but I’m afraid those may not be around anymore (perhaps on ebay).

Other Features
Routers can have a wide range of options from available connections to various software features. If you are interested in certain features (like parental control for example), keep that in mind when making your selection.

One thing to remember is that your computers also have to support a network connection. Most computers come with a network card for wired connections and many include wireless cards. Still, you want to consider this. Generally, this is an easy to add option (using network adapters connected to a USB port).

I’ve got a router, now what?
Most routers come with pretty good documentation to make the process simple. Unfortunately, the actions required will differ from router to router so no one set of instructions can be published here for everyone. To start with, think about where you want to place your router. Normally it will need to be near your cable/dsl modem if you are sharing an Internet connection. If it is wireless, you should also try to place it in a location where you can reach it from everywhere (i.e. towards the center of the home).

Also make sure you secure your router (see last week's column). I realized after the fact that I should have mentioned two more things there:

1)    If you see an option for “Universal Plug and Play” (or UPnP), I would suggest disabling this.
2)    If you see an option for “WAN Management”, I would disable this.

Lastly, make sure the firewall is turned on within the router setup (though I think this is the default for most or all routers).

If you need assistance setting up a router, please email me (edgefieldtechhelp@gmail.com) and I’ll try to help.

Is my network secure?
One quick and easy way to see if your network is secure from intrusion attempts is to use the free “ShieldsUp” check from http://www.grc.com/default.htm. After scrolling down and clicking “ShieldsUp” (under “hot spots”), click on the proceed button, then click “all service ports” for a complete scan. You want to see a “passed” status when the scan completes. 

You could try this before installing the router as well to check your current security (and possibly compare this to after installing the router).

Note that I might still recommend running a software firewall on your computer. Windows XP includes one (under control panel). This is pretty good and I would definitely use it if you were using a public access point (like a hotel). However, the XP firewall is probably not really helpful if you have a router with a firewall. Neither a router’s firewall nor the Windows XP firewall would block malicious software on your computer from getting out of your network (only inbound connections are blocked). There are options for this that we might talk about in future articles. Software firewalls can be intrusive though and might alert you to problems which aren’t really problems. Also, generally if you get to the point where you have malicious software, you’ve got bigger problems than whether or not you have an outbound firewall. Still, a software firewall with outbound protection is probably a good idea and we’ll talk about that in the future.

Do you have a tech question you would like answered or a program you would like to recommend? Email me at edgefieldtechhelp@gmail.com. For computer questions, please include your operating system version (e.g. Windows Vista) and sorry, but I don’t do Macs.

Disclaimer: Software, tips, and links provided are used at the risk of the reader.


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