Functions and Features of Routers for Home Computer Networks

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Broadband routers are essential for home networks, but its uses aren't limited to basic connection sharing. Manufacturers have been adding even more bells and whistles in recent years.

When shopping for a new router, ensure the model you choose supports the features you want; these vary considerably by manufacturer and model.

Single or Dual Band Wi-Fi

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Until recently, home Wi-Fi routers contained one radio that transmitted on the 2.4 GHz frequency band. Then came 802.11n routers, which feature a communication technology called MIMO (multiple in multiple out). With two or more embedded radio transmitters, home routers can now communicate via a wider frequency band than before or multiple separate bands.

Dual-band Wi-Fi routers support multiple radios and operate on both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands. These routers effectively allow households to set up two wireless subnetworks and get the benefits of both kinds. For example, 5 GHz connections can offer higher performance than 2.4 GHz connections, and 2.4 GHz generally provides better range plus compatibility with older devices.​

Traditional or Gigabit Ethernet

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Many first- and second-generation home routers did not support Wi-Fi. These "wired broadband" routers offered only Ethernet ports, designed for hooking up a PC, a printer, and perhaps a game console. To take maximum advantage of the technology, some homeowners looked to prewire their houses with Ethernet cable run to various rooms.

Even today, with the popularity of Wi-Fi and mobile devices (many of which do not support any wired connections), manufacturers continue incorporating Ethernet into their home routers. Ethernet offers better network performance than wireless connections in many situations. Many popular broadband modems connect to routers via Ethernet, and hardcore gamers often prefer it over Wi-Fi for their gaming systems.

Until recently, routers all supported the same 100 Mbps (sometimes called 10/100 or Fast Ethernet) technology as their original ancestors. Newer and higher-end models upgrade that to gigabit Ethernet, which is better for video streaming and other resource-intensive uses.

IPv4 and IPv6

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All home routers support Internet Protocol (IP). All newer routers support two different flavors of IP: the newer IP version 6 (IPv6) standard and the older but still mainstream version 4 (IPv4). Old broadband routers supported only IPv4. Although having an IPv6-capable router isn't strictly required, home networks can benefit from the security and performance improvements that it provides.

Network Address Translation (NAT)

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As one of the basic security features of home routers, network address translation (NAT) technology sets up the addressing scheme of a home network and its connection to the Internet. NAT tracks the addresses of all devices connected to a router and any messages they send to the outside world so that the router can direct the responses to the correct device later. Some people call this feature a NAT firewall because it effectively blocks malicious traffic as other kinds of network firewalls do.

Connection and Resource Sharing

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Routers enable network users to share resources such as printers. Most modern printers are network-ready; they support Wi-Fi and can join the same home network as computers and phones, which can then send jobs to them.

Some routers feature USB ports designed for plugging in external storage drives. Other devices on the network can use this storage for copying files. These drives can also be unplugged from the router and transported to other locations if a person needs access to the data while traveling, for example. Even without USB storage features, a router enables network file sharing among devices in other ways. Files can be shared using a device’s network operating system functions or through cloud storage systems.

Guest Networks

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Some wireless routers support guest networking, which allows you to set up a special section of your home network just for friends and family who are visiting. Guest networks restrict access to the primary home network so that visitors can't snoop around any of the home network’s resources without your permission. In particular, a guest network uses a separate security configuration and different Wi-Fi security keys than the rest of the home network so that your private keys can stay hidden.

Parental Controls and Other Access Restrictions

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Router manufacturers often advertise parental controls as a selling point of their products. The details for how these controls work depend on the model of router involved. General features of router parental controls include:

  • blocking specific websites by name
  • restricting a child's access to the internet
  • restricting the total number of hours a child can be online per day

A router administrator configures parental control settings through the console menus. Settings are applied individually per device so that a child’s devices can be restricted while others are not. Routers keep track of the identity of local devices by their physical (MAC) addresses so that a child cannot simply rename a computer to avoid parental controls.

Because the same features can be useful for spouses and other household members, too, "access restrictions" is a more accurate term than "parental controls."

VPN Server and Client Support

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Virtual private network (VPN) technology improves the security of internet connections and has become increasingly popular with the growth of wireless networking. Many people use VPNs in the workplace and on mobile devices connecting to Wi-Fi hotspots, but relatively few use VPNs at home. Some routers offer some VPN support, but this functionality is generally limited.

Home routers with VPN typically provide only VPN server support. This allows household members to set up a VPN connection to home while they are away. Fewer home routers provide VPN client support, which enables devices inside the home to make VPN connections when accessing the internet.

If the security and privacy of wireless connections at home are a priority, ensure that any router you're considering can function as a VPN client.

Port Forwarding and UPnP

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A standard but less understood feature of home routers, port forwarding gives an administrator the ability to direct incoming traffic to individual devices inside the home network according to the TCP and UDP port numbers in individual messages. Common scenarios for this have included PC gaming and web hosting.

TCP stands for transmission control protocol and UDP, for user datagram protocol.

The universal plug and play (UPnP) standard was developed to simplify the way computers and applications use ports to communicate with home networks. UPnP automatically sets up many of the connections that otherwise would require manually configuring port forwarding entries on a router. All mainstream home routers support UPnP as an optional feature; administrators can disable it if they wish to maintain full control over the router's port forwarding decisions.

QoS

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Typical home routers offer several options for controlling quality of service (QoS) on a home network. QoS allows an administrator to give selected devices and/or applications higher priority access to network resources.

Most broadband routers support QoS as a feature that can be switched on or off. Home routers with QoS may provide separate settings for wired Ethernet connections versus wireless Wi-Fi connections. Devices to be prioritized are normally identified by their physical MAC address. Other standard QoS options:

  • Traffic on individual TCP or UDP ports often can be prioritized higher or lower than others. Administrators typically use these settings to give higher priority to network gamers.
  • WMM (Wi-Fi multimedia) QoS automatically detects and prioritizes video streaming and voice traffic on Wi-Fi connections. Many routers feature WMM as a selectable option; some models keep WMM enabled by default.

Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS)

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The concept behind WPS (Wi-Fi protected setup) is simple: Home networks (especially their security settings) can be error-prone to set up, so anything that streamlines the process saves time and headaches. WPS provides mechanisms to simplify the security authentication of Wi-Fi devices by using a pushbutton connection method or special personal identification numbers (PINs). These are passkeys that sometimes can be transferred automatically using near-field communication (NFC). Some Wi-Fi clients don't support WPS, however, and security is a concern.

Upgradeable Firmware

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Router manufacturers typically fix bugs and add enhancements to their router’s operating systems on an ongoing basis. All modern routers incorporate a firmware update feature to let owners upgrade their routers after purchase. A few router makers, most notably Linksys, go a step further and provide official support for their customers to replace the stock firmware with a third-party (often open-source) version such as DD-WRT.

The average homeowner might not care much about it, but some tech enthusiasts consider the ability to customize firmware as a key factor in choosing a home router.