Home networks can be great or they can be a huge pain in the butt. Set aside some time this weekend to fix your annoying network issues, boost your Wi-Fi reception, and add some great new features. Here are a few ideas to get you started.
Before we get started, it's important to have a good grasp on basic networking skills like how your router works and what you can do with it. If you need to brush up your knowledge, check out our Know Your Network Night School lessons. It'll help you pick out a great new router (if you need one) and teach you how to use its basic functions or even go as far as installing custom firmware to do even more.
Wire Your Home Effectively
Wireless isn't all it's cracked up to be. Networking with Ethernet cables is still a lot faster, so going completely wired in your home is a great way to improve network efficiency and speed. Most people like to avoid additional cables running throughout their house because it involves a mess or the difficult work of fishing those cables through their walls. That doesn't have to be the case, however, as you can often hide your cables alone the edges of the wall, cover them with tape, and then paint over that tape to make them appear flush. Alternatively, you can buy FlatWire and just paint over the wire that will lay flush on any surface, or not hide your cables at all and create an attractive design instead.
Improve Wireless Reception
When you've got a bad wireless signal, there's only so much you can do but we have a few suggestions. In general, placement is paramount. If you're router is in a drawer, under a table, or obscured by anything you are hurting your signal. Your goal needs to be to place your router as high up in the room as possible and ensure its antennae are unobstructed.
If you have a lot of ground to cover and happen to have an extra router lying around, try turning it into a repeater. (Just don't use a repeater in a smaller space because it can often hurt your signal rather than help it.) You also want to make sure you're using the wireless channel with the least interference. You can do this by using Wi-Fi Stumbler, a Java web applet that'll survey your network and help you find the best channel for you. Finally, you can actually boost your router's transmit power. Some standard firmware will allow you to do this, but in many cases you'll need to install something custom. Just read on for information on how to do just that.
Install Custom Firmware For Better Features Or Easier Use
If you want to put custom firmware on your router to get more out of it, you have two popular choices: Tomato, a powerful but very user-friendly option and DD-WRT, a powerful and extremely comprehensive upgrade. But why would you even want to mess around with your firmware?
Well, routers are not particularly easy to use in general, so if your focus is simplicity then Tomato is a good choice. It offers a no-nonsense interface to help you manage your network and, in the case of some routers, even offers some useful additional features. DD-WRT, on the other hand, is not particularly user-friendly but provides you with near-total control over your router. If you have any features missing from your router's admin panel, such as tools that help you easily serve media from home, bandwidth statistics, in-depth access restrictions, additional security options, the ability to boost your signal's transmit power and much more, DD-WRT can add them.
Both custom firmwares only support so many routers, so be sure to check compatibility on their respective pages before you attempt to install.
Share Files And Stream Media
One of the best things you can do with your home network is easily share media from computer to computer and other devices. If you enable port forwarding you can even share that media outside of your home. One of the best ways to do this is to turn an old computer into a network-attached storage device and media server.
If you don't have an old machine, you can always build one from scratch. If you plan to create a server running OS X or Windows, Plex is a great option for serving up your media at home or on the go. It can send movies and music to pretty much any OS X or Windows computer and mobile devices as well. In the event your media is too big to stream or just won't play on the mobile device you're using (here's looking at you, iOS), Plex will convert it for you in real time. (This, of course, will require a reasonably powerful machine.)
However you go about it, media and file servers can be the best part of your home network.