Problems with wireless networks top the list for calls to both Best Buy's Geek Squad and Hewlett Packard customer service. And frankly, it's no wonder. Even after your network is up and running, most of us have experienced problems where we're told our computer can't find an Internet connection, or our wireless network can't seem to connect to our wireless printer. Add the proliferation of wireless devices such as tablet computers, smart phones, wireless music and home theater systems; you're left wondering if these will ever work in harmony.
Photo by Ocean/Corbis
To find out what's needed to set up a wireless network, we first turned to the Geek Squad, and then we unpacked and plugged in four routers to see how tough this really is.
What Kind of Hardware Do You Need?
Geek Squad Agent Derek Meister says his team's approach is to look at the setup in layers.
1. Determine the wireless needs for where you live and where your router and computer will go.
- An apartment or small house will probably need a basic router
- Having thick walls or locating your router one or two floors from your computer may require either a more powerful router or another device called a “range extender” to carry the signal further
- If you have trouble using a wireless phone or a cell phone, you may need to use a router that runs its signals onto your electrical system (powerline router)
Older homes with plaster and lathe may suck up the radio waves. Try walking around with a cordless or mobile phone. If you have problems getting reception, then you may have issues with standard networking. For many of us, our connections to the outside world such as a phone company DSL line or a cable modem may reside in the basement. But that’s also where furnaces, water tanks and air conditioning systems also live, big items that can interfere with radio waves. In apartment buildings where there may be dozens or even hundreds of other users you may get the data equivalent of a busy signal. In that case you may want to look at a dual band router that offers more channels.
2. Purchase the router
- Make sure you understand the setup instructions before you leave the store.
- Most routers will do the trick technically, but there’s considerable variation in the setup process.
3. Installing the router
- Power off your cable modem or your phone company DSL modem Use an Ethernet cord (looks like a fat phone wire) to connect the modem to your router. If you already have a wired modem attached to your computer, now’s the time to disconnect it.
- Next, turn your cable/DSL modem back on. The on-off process tells the modem to look for new devices. At this point, the wireless program on your computer can probably find your new router and start using it. But don’t until you’ve added some security.
4. Setting up Security
- Until you set up the software and security for your new router anyone within range (that could be hundreds of people in an apartment building) can see what’s on your network including all of your files.
- If your router came with a CD, you’ll want to pop it into your PC and following the instruction.
- Change the name of the network. Very often the network is the name of your router, like “Netgear”. Change it to something that you’ll remember, but not something that will identify the network to others nearby. So, for example don’t use something like “Davis Family net”. Instead pick something you might remember like “Blue Rhino”.
- Most routers also come with a program that controls who can change settings. For the most part the user name is “admin” and the password is also “admin”. Change those too.
- The next thing you’ll want to do is add an encryption key. That’s a password that will protect the data on your network from prying eyes. Many people don’t bother. That’s a mistake. It’s a little like broadcasting your credit card numbers and hoping no one hears it. Set that key. Most of the routers either start with a suggested key, or let you set your own. If you use the manufacturer’s key, be certain to write it down and put it someplace you’ll remember. Resetting a lost encryption key is a real pain.
Now you’re ready to use your network. Go to your computer and look for network connections on the home screen for either Mac or Windows. In Windows it’s a tiny icon on the bottom right, or you can find it in the Contol Panel. On the Mac, it’s a fanlike icon on the top right, or you can find it in “settings”. By clicking on it, you should see your network, then it will give you the opportunity to join it, and enter your password. You should check the box that says “connect automatically” so you don’t have to re-enter the password every time you log on.
Next: Take a trial run. >>
A Trial Run
To see how easy this process is, we tried out four wireless routers from Cisco, NetGear, Asus and EnGenius. Cisco's Valet Plus was hands down the easiest to set up. You just plug it in. There's no programming needed. Cisco provides you with a little thumb drive to set up and remember your security key. Then you can use that same thumb drive to get any other desktop or laptop on to your network. From the time we opened the box, until we were up and running, it took about 10 minutes.
All of the others required a little more work. Even though these are all wireless routers, each wanted you to connect your new router with an Ethernet cord directly to your computer to set up the security software. For many people, that's not really practical, since their cable or phone connection may be in the basement. The NetGear router came with its own suggested network name and security key. Alternatively all three will allow you to set a security key wirelessly, but it will require more work, usually going into the default Internet address for the router's security page. That means in the URL line of your Internet browser you'll have to enter something like: http://192.168.1.1 . Yours may be different, but the address should be in the included setup disk or manual. Again, this could take a little time and effort, and if you get stuck, don't be afraid to call the customer support number that came with your router. Or you can always make a new friend with the Geek Squad.
|Router Name/Model||Price||Installation Time with Security Key||Wirelessly Setting Security|
|Asus RT-N56U||$114-155||25 minutes||Needed to use installation CD|
|Cisco Valet Plus||$60-130||10 minutes||Uses thumdrive; no CD required|
|EnGenius ESR 98556 Gaming Router||$66-145||40 minutes||Short on documentation, but doable|
|Netgear N600 Premium Edition||$150-167||25 minutes||Needed to change from supplied encryption key to user selected key|
If you have a larger home that can't be covered by a normal router, both EnGenius and NetGear offer wireless range extenders that are like repeaters. Cisco's Valet Plus is designed to cover more square feet than the entry level Valet. .
If you do run into problems during setup, you can often solve them simply by powering off and on your cable or DSL modem, your router and your computer. This will give all your devices an opportunity to find one another. If your computer finds your new wireless router, say you call it Blue Rhino, but you can't connect to the Internet, then it's possible (but not likely) that your cable company or phone company equipment may be the issue. Bottom line is that the setup process for your router may be every bit as important as the device itself. If you buy one in the store, make sure it's going to meet your needs, and that you can follow the setup instructions without having to learn a foreign language – Geekspeak.