Functions and Features of Routers for Home Computer Networks

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Everyone talks about broadband routers as being essential for home networks, but few people take the time to look carefully at all the things a router can do. Home routers offer many useful features beyond basic connection sharing. Manufacturers have been adding even more bells and whistles in recent years.

Does your current home network take full advantage of the router’s capabilities? The below sections walk you through their many features and functions. When shopping for a new router, ensure the model you choose supports the features you want, as they don’t all offer the same ones.

Single or Dual Band Wi-Fi

Linksys WRT300N - Wireless-N Broadband Router
linksys.com

Traditional home Wi-Fi routers contained one radio that transmitted on the 2.4 GHz frequency band. 802.11n routers that featured a communication technology called MIMO (Multiple In Multiple Out) changed that. With two (or more) radio transmitters embedded inside, home routers could now communicate via either a wider frequency band than before, or via multiple separate bands.

So-called dual band Wi-Fi routers support multiple radios and operate on both the 2.4 GHz and the 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, while 2.4 GHz generally provides better range plus compatibility with older devices.

For more, see: Dual-Band Wireless Networking Explained

Traditional or Gigabit Ethernet

Many first- and second-generation home routers did not support Wi-Fi. These so-called "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 games 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, better for video streaming and other intensive uses.

IPv4 and IPv6

IP Addresses - Illustration
IP Addresses - Illustration.

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. While 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)

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 make 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" as it effectively blocks malicious traffic like other kinds of network firewalls.

Connection and Resource Sharing

Sharing an Internet connection across a home network via the router is a no-brainer (see - How to Connect a Computer to the internet). Besides Internet access, various other kinds of resources can be shared, too.

Modern printers support Wi-Fi and can be joined to the home network where computers and phones can all send jobs to them. More - How to Network a Printer.

Some newer routers feature USB ports designed for plugging in external storage drives. This storage can then be used by other devices on the network 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 transferred using a device’s network operating system functions or through cloud storage systems. More - Introduction to File Sharing on Computer Networks.

Guest Networks

Some newer wireless routers (not all) support guest networking, which allows you to set up a special section of your home network just for visiting friends and family. Guest networks restrict access to the primary home network so that visitors will not be able to 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.

For more, see: Setting Up and Using a Guest Network at Home.

Parental Controls and other Access Restrictions

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

  • blocking specific Web sites by name
  • restricting the times of day (night) that a child can access the Web
  • restricting the total number of hours in a day that a child can be online

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

Because the same features can be useful for spouses and other household members beside kids, parental controls are better-called access restrictions.

VPN Server and Client Support

Chaos Computer Club 29C3 (2012)
Chaos Computer Club 29C3 (2012).

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, or on mobile devices connecting to Wi-Fi hotspots, but relatively few use a VPN when at home. Some newer routers offer some VPN support, but others do not, and even ones that do may be limited in the functionality they offer.

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 traveling. Fewer home routers additionally provide VPN client support, which enables devices inside the home to make VPN connections when accessing the Internet.Those who consider the security of wireless connections at home a priority should ensure their router can function as a VPN client.

Port Forwarding and UPnP

Linksys WRT54GS - Port Forwarding
Port Forwarding (Linksys WRT54GS).

A standard but a 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 contained inside individual messages. Common scenarios where port forwarding was traditionally used included PC gaming and Web hosting. 

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

Romance of Ranaud de Montauban c.1450
Quality Service. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

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 can often be prioritized higher or lower than others. Administrators typically use these settings to give higher priority to network games.
  • 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 while others have it disabled by default.

Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS)

The concept behind WPS is simple:  Home networks (especially the security settings) can be error-prone to set up, so anything that streamlines the process saves time and headaches. WPS provides mechanisms to simply the security authentication of Wi-Fi devices either by using a push button connection method or through special Personal Identification Numbers (PINs), passkeys that sometimes can be automatically transferred using Near Field Communication (NFC). Some Wi-Fi clients don't support WPS, however, and security concerns also exist.

For more, see: Introduction to WPS for Wi-Fi Networks

Upgradeable Firmware

Linksys Firmware Update (WRT54GS)
Linksys Firmware Update (WRT54GS).

Router manufacturers often fix bugs and add enhancements to their router’s operating systems. All modern routers incorporate a firmware update feature to let owners upgrade their router 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 like 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. See also: Brands of Wi-Fi Wireless Routers for Home Computer Networks.