How to set up and optimize your home network
Anthony Mathenge 9th December 2015

Running a home network is pretty essential in this day and age.

Thankfully, modern hardware and software has reduced the complexities of configuring networks down to a few setup screens, and the relevant hardware often comes free with an internet connection.

If you have multiple computers, the chances are they’re already communicating with each other, either through wires or wirelessly. However, while your home network might be up and running, optimizing it takes some work. Follow our simple tips to properly set up and optimize your network hardware.

1. Change channel number

Wireless routers operate on a fixed channel. Since most routers come with a pre-selected channel, the wireless signal may interfere with other routers in the vicinity that are operating on the same channel.

Changing the wireless channel from the factory default is a good starting point if your wireless signal strength is poor.

2. Give the router space to breathe

The biggest advantage of a wireless router is that it can penetrate doors and walls – but that doesn’t mean you can just stuff it next to a wall or cordless telephone, or use it as a stand for your stack of DVDs. Treat it with respect.

Try to keep it in a central location, away from other wireless devices; make sure it’s not in direct sunlight; lift it off the carpet; and ensure its vents and air holes aren’t covered.

3. Improve reception

Try as you might, you’ll find it’s sometimes not possible to put the router in a good spot. One way around the problem is to buy a router with multiple antennas and point them in a variety of directions covering your home.

Alternatively, if you’ve already got a router, check whether it’s possible to upgrade its antennas to something stronger. However, don’t get disheartened if your router doesn’t have any antennas. A wireless repeater compatible with your router is a perfect solution.

4. Use WEP

Running an unsecured network will earn you points from neighbors and hackers, but that’s about it. Wireless routers support a variety of encryption methods, such as WPA and WEP, but these aren’t enabled by default.

WPA2 is the most secure method at the moment, but before deciding on an encryption method, make sure your network cards and adapters support it as well. Bear in mind that older machines don’t support WPA.

5. Restrict access to specific PCs

If you really don’t want to use encryption, you can force your router to only connect to specific PCs. Your router identifies each computer by the unique address of its network gear. Feed it a list of addresses to connect to and you save yourself the trouble of entering a password each time you log in.

The disadvantage is that you’ll have to add the address of any new computer before it can get on your network – which is probably a more annoying way of getting things done.

6. Disable SSID broadcast

All wireless routers have a Service Set Identifier (SSID) that identifies them to network computers. Routers from the same manufacturer generally ship with the same SSID; ‘Netgear’ or ‘Cisco’, for example.

You should first change the SSID to something unique to set your router apart from those of your neighbors. Then, once all your hardware has been set up, it’s better to turn off broadcasting the SSID altogether. This ensures your router isn’t displayed in the list of available networks, and won’t be a target for potential hackers.

7. Keep the firmware updated

Router manufacturers keep working on firmware, even after hardware has been shipped. In addition to tweaks in the user interface, new versions might make better use of the various components in the router, or add extra features.

Just like with an operating system, it’s a good idea to upgrade the firmware of the router regularly – check the manufacturer’s website for a new version. In the good old days, there was the risk of a botched firmware upgrade bricking your router, but it’s a lot safer today.

8. Familiarize yourself with the router manager

All routers ship with a browser based manager. To use many of the tips in this article, you’ll have to log in to this interface – try typing 192.168.1.1 into your web browser for the most common location.

It’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the various options and settings you can tweak from within this software. Many routers also have detailed documentation that’s updated regularly, so hunt out the latest manual online.

9. Check your connections

There’s nothing more irritating than receiving a ‘cannot connect to remote machine’ error. To ensure a solid connection, use Ethernet cables where possible. It’s also a good idea to check the connection between the two PCs with the ping command.

To do this, simply open a command line and type, for instance, ping 192.168.1.2. You’ll need to replace the address given here with that of your target machine. Ping works identically on Windows, Mac and Linux.

10. Change DNS providers

DNS is what fetches you a website by translating the human-friendly address, such as www.systechafrica.com, into a bunch of machine-friendly numbers. It also displays the ‘404 page not found’ error, corrects misspelt URLs and finds the fastest route to a web server that hosts the site you want to visit, along with lots of other cool things.

Generally, it’s up to the ISP to put up a DNS server. However, there are other free services as well, including the likes of OpenDNS and Google Public DNS.

11. Use USB adapters

These days, it’s difficult to find a laptop or netbook without a built-in wireless module, but if you’ve used one, you’ll know that they can’t always be relied upon. Network cards with antennas are the best option, but they’re really only suitable for desktops.

If you really need both mobility and assurance, make sure you get a USB adapter. Most of them ship with a Windows driver, but many work out-of-the-box on Linux as well.