Know Your Network: Understanding Your Router's Admin Page

Screenshot: David Murphy

Most routers come with some kind of administrative website that you access by typing their IP address into your favourite web browser and entering your login and password—which you changed from admin/admin or admin/password, right? If you’re lucky, you have a “smarter” router that’s a bit easier to configure via an app, but most people (and their older, non-mesh Wi-Fi gear) are probably stuck with a website.

Unless the manufacturer has built an “easy mode” into the experience, a router’s admin page can feel overwhelming at first glance, especially if you’re not used to much of the terminology you’ll find. Our goal today is to help you get your router’s most important features set up and explain all the other details you ought to know about.

Know Your Network: Router Hardware 101

Buying and configuring a new wireless router can be a mind-numbing exercise. You might not need much hand-holding if you’re pretty confident in your geeky skills, but there are plenty of people who know next to nothing about wireless networking. Some boxy device they bought a few years ago lets them watch YouTube on the toilet, and that’s all that matters.

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You may not use every section in your router’s admin page, but knowing what they are—and where to find them—will help you create the best home network you can get.


Naming Your Router

Screenshot: David Murphy

While it may seem trivial, there are actually a few things you need to know about naming your router. To start, the name of your router and wireless network are different. Naming your wireless network is really naming the service set identifier (SSID) that the router broadcasts—what you select on your computer when you want to connect to your Wi-Fi network and get online. If you’re given the option to change it, your router’s name, or host name, is how it identifies itself to other devices on the network. SSIDs? Super-important. Router name? Not important.

Basic Wi-Fi configuration and security

There are a few steps you need to take when configuring your router, and they’re all very simple. First, you need to make a few basic setup decisions. Generally you’ll find these settings in the Wireless tab on your router’s admin page, or something similarly named—look for the the words “wireless” and “setup” and/or “settings” in some combination.

Screenshot: David Murphy

Once you’re there, the first thing you want to do is select an SSID. Pick whatever name you want; it’s your wireless network. You’ll either be asked to use one SSID that will cover all of your wireless networks—and your router will decide whether devices connect on 2.4GHz or 5GHz—or you’ll be able to set separate names for each wireless network you run on each band. We prefer the latter, because it’s good to know what you’re connecting to, but plenty of people go with the former for the extra convenience.

Give each network a solid password and, in the case of this TP-Link router, that’s all you need to do to get the Wi-Fi flowing. However, it’s possible your router might have a few more options to pick from (or an “Advanced” mode), which might look something like this:

You don’t need to worry about adjusting your router’s broadcast mode unless, for whatever reason, you’re not seeing the highest connection type your router could theoretically support (like 802.11ac or 802.11ax). If you aren’t, make sure it’s set to allow connections from these devices.

As for “Security,” you’ll want to use WPA2, ideally WPA2-PSK with AES encryption (if you’re asked to get specific). This will set you up with the latest and most secure security to protect your Wi-Fi network from potential attackers—though the odds someone is out there and trying to brute force their way into your wireless network are very low.

The “Channel” option gets interesting. You can probably have your router automatically pick the best wireless channels to use on 2.4GHz and 5GHz, but you might also want to do a simple scan yourself and make sure its selections make the most sense. We’ve talked about this previously, and it’s easy to do. Similarly, you’ll probably want your router to decide on its channel width itself, but if you see it using fat 40Mhz channels on 2.4GHz—and there are other, competing wireless networks around you, like your neighbours—you might want to be a good person and manually set that to a friendlier 20MHz. You don’t want to be the person that causes grief for everyone else’s connections, let alone your own devices.

Finally, if you’re asked to mess with your transmit power, resist the urge to modify anything.

Is that it?

If you’re just looking to get your wireless network up and running, you’re pretty much done. You’ve wrapped up the basics:

  • Named your SSIDs

  • Set up passwords

  • Picked the right encryption for your network

  • Set your Wi-Fi channels (or told your router to do it for you)

As you’ll see, though, there are plenty more settings you can play with on your router. Let’s touch on a few more that might be interesting to look at (or know about).

Guest Networks

While most people give out their Wi-Fi password to friends, roommates, and guests, you don’t have to. If your router supports guest networks, you can set one up—similar to how you set up your initial Wi-Fi network—which you can then use to isolate these people from devices on your actual wireless network, including each other.

Screenshot: David Murphy

Once you’re tired of offering up free Wi-Fi, changing the password (or stopping the guest network entirely) is easy. And when you do, none of your existing devices will be affected—only your guests’. It’s a great feature to explore if you’re feeling share-y with your wireless connectivity.

USB Sharing

Even semi-fancy routers should come with USB ports, which allow you to plug in a device—like a portable hard drive or a printer—that you can then share with other systems on your network. That said, this is probably a feature that most people won’t bother with. Your printer can probably already connect to your network as-is; and if it can’t, you probably use a single PC for all your printing (or connect your printer via USB to whatever device you need to print from).

Screenshot: David Murphy

Nevertheless, it’s worth exploring this functionality if your router supports it, as it can be a handy (and quick) way to share a compatible USB device with everything on your network. It wouldn’t be my first priority when setting up a new router, but it’s good to know that you can do it if you want.

Cloud-based access

This one’s tricky. Some routers come with cloud connectivity, which you can use to access your router’s settings from anywhere with an internet connection. You might even be able to access your network devices, too, in case you need to pull a file from your home desktop to your PC at work (for example).

Most people—even those with mesh routers, which you typically configure with an app that allows you to access their settings from anywhere—probably don’t need to mess with their router much once they’ve set it up. It’s best not to open up your router and your home network to the cloud—that’s an added security risk youdon’t need. (You could even lock down your account with some batshit-crazy password and any kind of two-factor authentication options a particular router manufacturer offers, but most people probably aren’t that security-minded.)

A better option is to use a simpler service like Google’s Chrome Remote Desktop to access your system(s) remotely or transfer files back and forth. (Remote Desktop doesn’t come with file transfers built-in, so you’d have to upload the files you want to access to a cloud service.) Still, it’s a safer option, since it’s tied to your Google account and PIN-locked, than opening up your router to the cloud.

Advanced settings

If you don’t see a bunch of settings that seem mysterious and vague in your router’s admin page, odds are good that it has some kind of “Advanced” tab or mode you can enable to view all that you can do and configure. While most normal people probably don’t need to mess with their router’s Advanced settings (that much), there’s plenty worth knowing about.

DNS

Somewhere in your router’s settings, you’ll likely see an option to either have the router acquire its DNS addresses automatically—from your ISP—or use whatever you enter manually. This option is big. Your ISP’s DNS is probably slower (and potentially less secure / more snoopy) than what you could be using. Switch over to a third-party DNS provider that’s performance- and privacy-oriented; it’s one of the first things we do when setting up a new router.

DHCP server

Your router should also have a list of all the devices connected to it, and this list will include their IP addresses and, likely, their MAC addresses—the unique identifier that might look something like “22-33-44-55-66-47.” If you ever need to track down a device on your network, this section of your router’s admin page is a must-visit.

Screenshot: David Murphy

Similarly, turning off your router’s DHCP server (and disabling its firewalls) is how you transform your router into a dumber access point. This is assuming your router doesn’t already have some kind of “access point” mode that you can easily toggle. Once you’ve done this, though, you’ll be able to extend your network by connecting this router-turned-dumb-access-point to another router—likely something newer and better.

Screenshot: David Murphy

NAT

NAT stands for Network Address Translation. You’re probably aware that you have local IP addresses that differ from the IP addresses out on the internet. On your local network, they usually look like 192.168.x.x or 10.0.x.x but they can essentially be anything because they’re local. NAT is what translates the outside IP addresses to your local network so you can interact with people as far as the wide internet can take you.

Port forwarding relates to this because, by default, nobody on the outside can access your local machines. You can use port forwarding, however, to open up certain ports for certain machines on the network. For example, if you’re trying to get top speeds for your BitTorrents, you might have to forward ports to your downloading device (likely your PC), and then tell your BitTorrent client what ports it should use to make connections.

Screenshot: David Murphy

QoS

QoS stands for Quality of Service. It’s designed to help you set limits for how much bandwidth (outdoing, not incoming) devices on your network eat up. In other words, QoS lets you set rules and throttle users and services when they are monopolizing bandwidth that other devices or services need.

Screenshot: David Murphy

This sounds great on paper, but it might not actually do very much for you in practice. Test the setting out on your router to see if your prioritised devices actually see any speed boosts; if not, feel free to switch it back off.

IPv6

If your router allows you to turn on IPv6—most modern routers should—you should do it. It’s seamless to use, assuming your ISP supports it. You probably won’t see any speed bumps whatsoever, but you’ll be helping to keep your network future-proofed. We can’t all live in IPv4-land forever, after all.

Screenshot: David Murphy

Firmware updates

Finally, you’re going to want to know where you go to update your router’s firmware. For most non-cloud routers, this is probably a manual process: you download firmware from the manufacturer’s site, upload it to the router, and wait while it installs. If you’re lucky, your router can check its manufacturer for firmware directly and let you know if there’s something new to download. Better yet is a router that can automatically update itself, since you then don’t have to worry about this process at all.

Screenshot: David Murphy

Why is this important? Updated firmware can give you new features, fix bugs, and patch glaring security holes that attackers could otherwise use to compromise your network. This is such an important task, you should even set a calendar reminder every three months or so, assuming your router can’t update itself. It takes you almost no time to do, and slightly more time if you have to spend a few minutes installing new firmware, but you don’t want to let this slip.


That’s it for your router’s admin page—at least, the major settings you need to know about. We’ll next tackle your wireless router’s performance. As always, if you’re behind on your lessons, you can find everything you’ve missed in the Know Your Network Complete Guide.


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