When it comes to wireless routers, most users just want to set them up and forget about them. They see the wireless router as a simple device that merely brings Internet connectivity and wireless access to networked devices. However, for those who are willing to do just a little bit more setup and configuration work, a Wi-Fi router can be tweaked to do much more, including boosting performance, tightening security, and giving remote access to internal network resources on home or small business networks.
There are some obvious wireless router settings that most users are aware of and (hopefully) use. Currently, just about all wireless clients can support the highest form of wireless encryption, WPA2, and most users should have WPA2 deployed in their home network. In fact, newer routers, such as the Cisco Linksys EA4500 will, by default, configure the router with strong WPA2 security on initial setup. When shopping for routers, you should make sure that WPA2 is a security option.
Other common features most known to users include firewall and parental controls. Today’s routers come with built-in firewall protection that helps defend against Internet attacks such as DoS attacks and snooping. Parental controls are increasingly being bundled into consumer routers and vendors are making such controls easier and easier for the average user to configure and manage. Parental controls give adults the power to protect their children from accessing the more unsavory content on the Web.
Those are all important features, but there are additional powerful features common to most router management software about which most users know nothing. What follows is a look at ten lesser-known router settings that can help you improve performance and gain more control over security in your network.
1. Channel Width
Think of data being transferred over a wireless signal as vehicles on a highway. The larger the highway, the more vehicles it can handle. However, the more vehicles on one given highway, the greater the chance for accidents and other problems.
Channel width works in a similar way. Setting channel width controls how broad the wireless signal is for transferring data. Channel width can be set for both the 2.4 or 5 GHz bands, and it’s configured in 20 MHz, 40 MHz, or now, even 60MHz for 802.11ac within a router’s settings.
By default, 2.4 GHz uses a 20 MHz channel width. Data doesn’t move as fast across 20 MHz as it does across the broader 40 or 60 MHz channels, but 20 MHz channel width supports legacy 802.11x devices and has typically has better range than 40 MHz.
Most routers’ default channel width configuration will be set to “Auto (20 or 40 MHz)” and lets the router do the heavy lifting in determining the appropriate channel width.
If you want to tweak performance with gaming or high-definition video streaming and have a dual-band 802.11n router, try setting the 5 GHz network’s channel width to only use 40 MHz, instead of the slower 20 MHz channel. You have to ensure that any computers or devices you use for streaming or gaming can support 802.11n, the 5GHz band and 40 MHz and that those devices are connected to the 5 GHz band. Note that you’ll be sacrificing some range at this setting, but then you won’t want to be broadcasting video over great distances. Still, if you have other devices at the edge of the router’s range, you may want to add a repeater, if you find that the 40 MHz channel’s range limitations are too great. Check out some our story 8 Devices That Can Fix Your Wi-Fi Signal Problems if you need hardware suggestions.
Currently, there are no wireless clients for 802.11ac. However, the same principle applies when they do come to market: to get the most performance, place your future 802.11ac devices on the 5 GHz WLAN and try setting the channel to the ultra-wide 80 MHz available with 802.11ac.
2. MAC Filtering
Any device that connects to a network has a MAC address assigned to its network adapter. To help lock security down on a network, use MAC address filtering to deny or provide access to your network.
MAC filtering is a standard feature on just about any wireless router. It can be used one of two ways: to prevent specific devices from accessing a network or to allow specific devices access.
To use it, enable it within the router’s management interface. You then add each device’s MAC address and select if you want to deny or grant that device access. The steps may vary a bit depending on the routers you have, but this is essentially how MAC filtering is configured on home and small business wireless routers. Quick tip: in most wireless devices the MAC address can be found in the network settings. From a Windows client, run the command “ipconfig/all.” The physical address associated with the machine’s wireless card is the MAC address. For OS X, find the MAC address under “Network Preferences,” and in Linux use the “ifconfig –a” command as root user.
3. QoS (Quality of Service)
QoS, or Quality of Service, is a feature that can help increase performance of specific types of network traffic such as video streaming, gaming, or even Skype. Most routers offer some form of QoS although some vendor will market their version of QoS under a proprietary brand name. D-Link at one point had its own QoS for gaming, GameFuel, bundled into some of its routers.
When QoS is enabled, most routers can be set to give highest bandwidth priority to the applications and types of traffic you specify. For example, in the image show here I have enabled QoS to give iTunes traffic high priority. This means the router will use the most available bandwidth for iTunes, giving me a more lag free, peppier iTunes experience.
Some routers allow you even more sophisticated management over QoS. For a detailed look at how to manually set QoS for different types of network traffic check out: How to Set Up Your Wireless Router for Gaming, How to Set Up Your Router for HD Video Streaming and How to Set Up Your Router for Skype. Using QoS and getting maximum performance in your network can take some trial and error, but QoS is worth fiddling around with if you are having performance issues.
4. WMM Support
WMM (Wi-Fi Multimedia) is an automated, built-in QoS technology that is specifically designed to keep the integrity of multimedia: video, voice and audio. Typically, you just enable or disable it in a router with no further configuration.
Enabling WMM on a router is not a guarantee that you will gain any performance improvements. In fact, sometimes WMM can degrade performance, especially if you have QoS already configured. Still, if you are having performance issues, WMM is worth testing out to see there is any effect on performance.
5. Frame Burst
Here’s where we get into slightly dangerous territory. There are some really advanced wireless settings that can be found and tweaked it within a router. Just about every router vendor advises users not to mess with those settings. Playing around with advanced wireless settings can impede or even cut out your wireless signal. However, some of the settings, when configured from manufacturer’s default, can help boost performance. Frame Burst is one such setting.
With Frame Burst enabled, wireless clients are supposed to transfer data at faster speeds. Most routers have Frame Burst enabled by default. You can typically just turn it on or off. Try running your router with it turned on and also off to monitor performance. Typically, enabling Frame Burst can help increase overall network speed, but I’ve seen posts on networking forums where some users lessened connectivity drops by turning Frame Burst off.