You probably don't pay much attention to that little blinking box that sits in the corner of your home office, but chances are it's a lot more versatile than you realize. Here are five ways you can soften life's little edges by coaxing your router to do more for you.
Many routers let you set up two wireless networks that can run simultaneously: one for you and the other for guests in your home. The benefit of this is that you can use a security password to protect the primary network and all household devices that connect to it, while still offering visitors Internet access via the second—a guest network that doesn't require a password. (Some routers also let you set a password for the guest network if you want to restrict access to it.)
Depending on your router, this feature may be turned on right out of the box, or you may have to read the instructions to turn it on yourself. Here's how to tell whether this feature is enabled: Using a Wi-Fi capable phone, tablet, or laptop, search for the list of active wireless networks in your home. If you see two similar names, but one of them ends with the word "guest," the feature is enabled and anyone can connect to that network without a password.
Be careful, though: Your neighbors may have routers with the same feature enabled. Before connecting to a "guest" network, check the network's full name and signal strength to make sure the one you're connecting to is yours, not a neighbor's.
In large homes, obstacles such as walls can keep a router's signals from reaching distant rooms or patios. A repeater (sometimes known as a range expander or signal booster) is a device that brings the router's Wi-Fi signal to hard-to-reach places in the home.
After you set the repeater up to communicate with your existing router, you place it in a favorable location between the router and the rooms that need coverage. In other words, find a spot where there aren't many thick walls between the router and repeater or between the repeater and the rooms that need service.
To do so, you may need to move the repeater a few times, each time checking the signal in the target room. (A repeater typically reduces the transmission speed of a wireless Internet connection by about half to the rooms it services.) Repeaters typically cost less than $100.
For more tips on staying safe online, visit our guide to Internet security.
You need not use a big commercial cloud service, such as iCloud, Dropbox, or Google Drive, to get the benefits of cloud storage, such as the ability to access your data files, photos, or music collection from outside the home. Many routers let you connect an external USB hard drive to them and use it as a personal cloud.
Once the drive is installed, you can usually access any data you store on it from virtually any Internet connection using a smart phone, tablet, or laptop. Numerous models are available, with varying storage capacities and features, starting from about $100. Before choosing one, figure out how much storage you'll need, check out which types of routers it's compatible with, and find out what types of remote access it permits.
If you have the right equipment, your router can help you avoid having to buy a wireless printer in order print from your laptop. You need a router with a USB port, print server capability (check its user manual), and a printer with a USB port. First connect the printer directly to the router's USB port. Then change some of the computer's settings so that it can find the printer. That process doesn't take very long (you can find instructions online), but unless you're handy with computers, get a computer savvy-friend to do it for you.
To keep hackers (or nosy neighbors) at bay, your router should always be configured to use secure encryption with a strong password. You can tell encryption is enabled if you are required to enter a password the first time any new wireless device accesses your network. (If not, enable encryption as soon as possible—you may need to consult the router's user manual for instructions)
If encryption is enabled and the security password is at least 10 characters long and includes a variety of numbers and letters, you're probably pretty secure. If not, consult the router's user manual for instructions on how to change the password to a stronger one.