6 annoying router problems -- and solutions

Having problems with your router? You're not the only one.

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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.

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 \\\sharename. The product isn't perfect, though: There is no way to password-protect the files on the shared drive.

Netgear's USB setup allows you to connect to the drive via FTP and Web sharing.

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.

3. Performing firmware updates

The problem: Router firmware is an important first line of security defense on your network and needs to be kept up to date. But finding firmware updates on a vendor's Web site is not for everyone, and many vendors don't make it easy.

You have to bring up your browser, go to the vendor's support site and try to track down the current version for your particular router model. You then have to download the file to your PC and upload it to your router in the right place in the router's Web control panel screen.

To complicate matters, vendors often have several different versions for each router model, because they make frequent improvements to the router, often changing chip sets but keeping the version number the same.

Possible solutions: Make the update automatic or at least easily selectable, so you don't have to go through the tortured process of downloading and uploading the file.

Check the firmware update section in each router's Web setup screens to see if the router can automatically upgrade itself.

Best available routers: Belkin's N+ Wireless and Netgear's RangeMax both have a menu-selectable software switch to enable the updates. Once this is set, you can forget about it and be confident that you will always have the latest firmware.

Belkin's N+ Wireless has a menu-selectable software switch to enable updates.

4. Enabling temporary wireless access

The problem: If you have visitors or needy neighbors, do you really want them to have permanent access to your entire network? Even if you trust them on your network, do you know how good their own security is? (For example, will your neighbor's notebook end up in the hands of his teenager?) If you simply give a visitor your router password, then you probably need to change this information when he leaves your home or office -- which is a real pain.

Possible solutions: A good idea would be to grant them temporary guest access that gives them just an Internet connection and nothing else on your network, such as shared drives or printers.

Vendors have begun to enable this on their routers in a variety of ways. Belkin, for example, has an option it calls "Hotel-style," meaning that users are directed to a Web landing page where they enter a special guest password. Other vendors make it easy to set up separate wireless networks just for guests. (If you use Apple's AirPort Express, on the other hand, you're out of luck -- there isn't any guest access.)

Cisco's Valet provides a separate wireless network for guests.

Best available routers: The USB key that you can create with Cisco's Valet can help here as well. You need to run an automated setup routine from the USB key (rather than from the Web UI) on each of your guest computers. Once you do, it will set up a separate wireless network with a different name and password that only allows Internet access.

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