6 annoying router problems -- and solutions

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

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5. Determining who is on your wireless network

The problem: Just because you think your network is secure doesn't mean that it is. It's probably a good idea to regularly check to see who is using your router -- especially if you haven't changed your router's default password. However, in a world where it's hard enough to remember to back up your computer, it's unlikely that most of us have the time or inclination to regularly check who has been on our networks.

And even if we want to, it's not always easy. Typically, most router Web UIs indicate who is currently connected, but finding this out requires digging through many menus. Sometimes the vendors hide this information under a title like "DHCP client list" and/or give you just the IP addresses and host names of current connections.

Wouldn't it be helpful if your router notified you every time someone connected? Even better, how about a historical view that shows you when and who connected to your network over the last week?

Possible solutions: There are lots of enterprise-class wireless monitoring tools, such as AirMagnet, but, price-wise, these are typically out of the reach of home and SMB users.

Check out the screens that are usually labeled "Attached devices" or "DHCP client list" to see who is connected and using which IP addresses. Some companies, such as Buffalo, clearly show how various clients have connected and what wireless devices they are using.

Best available routers: When Cisco bought the company Pure Networks, it acquired a piece of software called Network Magic. The Windows version of Network Magic will show you a pretty map along with a more useful network histogram timeline revealing who has connected when.

Network Magic offers a historical timeline of network connections.

For some reason, Cisco includes this software in some of its Linksys routers but not the Valet M10 series. You can purchase a license for up to three PCs for $24 that will work with any router. (The Mac version doesn't have the maps or histograms.)

6. Changing your DNS provider

The problem: After you've set up your network, you probably don't give your Domain Name System settings any further thought. If you have a cable or DSL modem, you hook it up and it automatically gets its DNS settings from the cable or phone company's DNS servers. (If you're running a large enterprise network, typically you have your own internal DNS server to provide this service.)

Home and small-business users may want to look into finding an alternative DNS provider. Why bother? Two good reasons: better browsing performance and better security against known phishing and malware-infected domains. (Your actual performance will vary widely, depending on your Internet provider and, if you are using a cable modem, how congested your cable line is.)

Possible solutions: Individuals and smaller businesses now have several alternative providers that are worth considering, including OpenDNS and Google Public DNS, among others.

Getting your router vendor to support these servers is sometimes tricky. A few routers, such as 2Wire's Home Portal 3000 series that comes when you order service from AT&T U-verse, don't even support alternative DNS settings. Making matters more difficult, most of the automated setup routines that routers include don't allow you to enter your own DNS provider.

So if you've decided to go with an alternative, first make sure your router supports alternative DNS settings. If you're not sure, see if you can enter your own DNS address on your router's Web-based setup screens instead of just using what your Internet provider gives you.

Then try it out, including installing its software to optimize your individual PC, before messing with any of your router's settings. After you make the change to your DNS, there is a Java tool that can test your speed to see if it makes a difference. Depending on how you're connected to your Internet provider, it can help either a lot or not much at all. If it doesn't help, consider going back to your original settings.

It's fairly simple to set up alternative DNS providers with Belkin's router.

Best available routers: Most of the router vendors allow you to enter this information. If yours doesn't -- well, either change your vendor or just live with the DNS provider you're given.

David Strom is a veteran technology journalist, speaker and former IT manager. He has written two books on computing and thousands of articles. His blog can be found at Strominator.com.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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