PC World - We're at an awkward stage as the age of network-streamed multimedia matures. Broadband and cell providers have only recently realized the public's enormous appetite for streaming video, VoIP, and the combination of both.
Most of the home and small-office routers out there are up to the task; unless they're brand new, however, they may not be optimally configured. Fortunately, you can take steps to improve the quality of rich media on your network.
At the end of this article you'll find tweaking specifications for six of the most popular high-end routers. If your model doesn't allow the tweaks we describe on the next page, it may be time to run to the store.
Basic Router Tricks
Routers handle traffic among many devices. If you're not getting the type of performance you want from an application or device such as an IP phone (VoIP), you may need to manage that traffic to make sure there's enough bandwidth for your desired application.
QoS and ports: Contemporary routers manage bandwidth through a technique called Quality of Service. If you're lucky, you'll be able to adjust QoS via the router software simply by selecting a category (such as voice, applications, or gaming) and assigning it a priority (such as highest or normal). This method is by far the least painful, but it isn't always available.
If that method isn't an option, generally you can set the QoS priority for devices by their Media Access Code address--a string of hexadecimal numbers unique to the device--as well as by the network name (such as "MyPhone" or "MainPC"), or the IP address (such as 192.168.1.100).
A MAC address is best, as IP addresses assigned by the router's DHCP server may change. Your router may or may not be smart enough to track a device with a changed IP address. A device name is also constant--assuming that you don't change it yourself. If you want to use an IP address, it should be static, meaning fixed and set on the device, or reserved, meaning set in the router.
Routers perform QoS by analyzing data through packet sniffing and noting which Transmission Control Protocol/User Datagram Protocol ports the data travels through. They then give priority to the types of traffic you specify.
What is a port? You can think of a port as something like an extension number on a landline phone system. Similar to the way a call arrives at a main phone number, data arrives at your router via your broadband connection's IP address. And in the same way a phone call is forwarded to an extension assigned to someone in the company, data is forwarded to the port assigned to a particular protocol or application. You can find a complete list of official port numbers at the home of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority. Alternatively, check the documentation on the device or application.
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