If you have more than one computer at home or in a small office and you have a fast Internet connection, (DSL or cable), then you probably have a router box which connects the computers and maybe a printer.
Popular units come from vendors such as Linksys, D-Link, and Netgear, and are available from mail order or office supply vendors for $40 – $90 (US). They are available in wireless versions, (like the illustrations showing the wireless antennae), or wired versions. I buy these at Staples.
Such boxes are themselves a small, embedded computer. You access the configuration via a web page generated by the unit.
I’ve installed about two-dozen of these over the course of the past two years, and was interested to note several points:
1. Quality control is iffy. The price of these units has been driven down so low, that every possible corner has been cut to reduce the cost of the hardware. Like a cheap ink-jet printer, once the hardware goes bad, it is probably just as easy to throw the unit out and buy a new one. Consider that a router with a retail price of $45.00 probably has a wholesale price of $20.00.
2. Software, in the form of the embedded operating system, and the web server inside the unit, is very much a work in progress. You may find that functions that you set up on the web page don’t work at all, and upon further investigation, maybe never worked. For example, the firewall, the virtual private network function, or the porn filter on these units doesn’t work depending on the manufacturer or model. A good source for discussion about these issues is www.broadbandreports.com . There are vendor forums for each manufacturer on this site.
3. A frequent fix for a quirky problem is to “flash the ROM” or “update the firmware” that is, update the embedded program in the router with a new version from the manufacturer’s site. When calling tech support, that is usually the first thing they will ask, as in, “Have you updated the router with version 1.2.xxxx of the firmware?” and that they won’t discuss your problem further, until you have done that. Updating isn’t difficult, but you have to download a new version of the firmware on to a local computer attached to the router, and then run an installation program which will then copy the new firmware to the router, and then reboot the router. The process can also blow away your existing configuration, so be sure that you have documented the old configuration before starting. It is possible (although its never happened to me..) that the update process fails somehow leaving you in a half-updated state, with a non-functional router. In that case you have to attempt to recover the factory defaults configuration, and try again. The upshot here is, don’t do this necessarily when you are in a hurry.
4. Faced with the prospect described above, consider buying a new unit and replacing your older one if you are trying to fix a problem with a unit that is more than 2 years old. If you are only talking forty-five dollars…what is your time worth?
5. Also, if you’ve got something weird going on…switch brands. At least four or five times, I’ve solved a problem by switching from Linksys to D-Link or vice versa.
6. Use the wired version instead of the wireless. Fewer potential problems. If you have a wireless version you can turnoff the wireless part and just use the jacks on the back. You will get higher performance with wired.
7. If you do opt for wireless, be sure to turn on the wireless security function. Even the lowest level security function is better than what about 90% of the world has, which is nothing.
8. For an office, consider moving to a “real” router, like the Contivity 221. This will cost around $350.00 It sounds outrageous, but only a few years ago an office router cost $800–$1400. I solved a very obscure problem with by switching from a $60.00 Linksys to the Contivity. The problem was with an agency attempting to access very long report from a poorly performing state web site. It turns out that the Linksys would drop the connection to the web site after receiving a burst of data that was too large. Thus, the agency couldn’t receive the report, (which was a report on the agency’s performance as evaluated by the state). After some weeks of desperate searching, it turns out that the firmware in the Linksys router apparently was not compliant with a very esoteric provision of some standard or other that was part of the TCP/IP specification. The problem was solved with the better router. Such things probably won’t be an issue 99% of the time and the lower cost units will be fine in most instances.