It’s all too easy to get a new Wi-Fi router, spend a few minutes doing some basic setup, and then ignore it until it’s so old and slow you’re forced to upgrade. Here are some settings and features you should take advantage of now.
Automatic Updates Keep Things Running Smoothly
Not every entry in our list of features worth looking at will benefit everyone, but just about everyone will benefit enormously over time from enabling automatic updates if their router supports it.
Updating the firmware on your router has numerous benefits, including patching security vulnerabilities and overall network optimization. If you read the patch notes on firmware updates, for every security vulnerability that gets patched up, there are dozens of optimizations to improve how your router handles game services, video calls, and more.
But most people don’t read firmware patch notes, let alone take the time to check for updates and manually update their router’s firmware. Automatic updates ensure that your router runs the safest and best-optimized firmware, even if you never give it a second thought.
If your router doesn’t support automatic updates, we recommend bookmarking the support page for your particular model and settings a reminder on your calendar to check it once a month. If it’s been ages since your router has received an update, that’s a good sign it’s time to upgrade.
Quality of Service Rules Prioritize Traffic
If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of Quality of Service (QoS) on network devices, here’s a simple analogy. Your internet connection is a road. All the different apps and services using your network—like your smart TV streaming Netflix, your Windows laptop downloading an update, and your spouse giving a presentation over a Zoom call—are vehicles on that road.
Quality of Service rules function like a traffic cop, identifying and directing the traffic. In our example, the traffic cop clears a whole lane for the Zoom call, giving it the emergency responder treatment, while less critical things (like the Windows update chugging along in the background) don’t get a private express lane.
How QoS rules work varies from router to router. On some routers, you can set QoS rules for devices, prioritizing everything that happens on that device. On others, you can set priority for individual services or download types (so streaming video services always take priority over basic browsing or downloads). And on others, you may find it’s just a general option to toggle on and off. Eero mesh networks, for example, just have the option to turn on “Smart Queue Management,” which automatically prioritizes all your network traffic.
However QoS works on your router, it’s a great feature and one we recommend taking advantage of to improve your Wi-Fi without buying anything.
Guest Networks Keep Things Secure
There are numerous reasons you should enable a guest network on your home Wi-Fi network. It’s an unbelievably simple way to make your home network more secure and protect your privacy. Turning on guest networks is such an easy security upgrade we recommend everyone do it along with the rest of these simple Wi-Fi security fixes.
If nothing else, using a guest network for guests makes it painless to kick people off your Wi-Fi network should the need arise. Otherwise, you’re left resetting your main password and dealing with all the hassles (like typing the new password into all your smart devices) that come with it.
Bandwidth Monitoring X-rays Your Network
Many routers support bandwidth monitoring for the whole connection, at the device level, or both. If you’re laboring under a bandwidth cap and trying to hunt down bandwidth vampires, or you’re just curious, it’s a handy way to see what’s happening within your network.
You might be surprised to discover that it’s not your kid’s video game habit burning through your bandwidth cap but your smart security cameras.
Custom DNS Servers Speed Everything Up
DNS stands for Domain Name System, and, in short, it’s the magic that allows you to type a human-readable domain name like howtogeek.com into your web browser instead of a difficult-to-remember string of numbers. A fast and well-optimized DNS server will give you a much faster and smoother experience online.
By default, your router will use your Internet Service Provider’s DNS server. Maybe that works well enough, maybe it doesn’t. But there are better third-party DNS servers out there that are faster and offer other features, like privacy enhancements, parental controls, and more.
VPN Servers Give You Secure Remote Access
You’re away from home, and you want to connect securely to your home network as if you were there sitting in your living room. Maybe you need a file from your home file server or are in another country on business and want to connect to a service without getting geoblocked. Whatever the reason, a router with a built-in VPN server is the easiest way to get the job done securely.
Do note that this is different than a router with a VPN client (in which all your home network traffic is sent through a VPN outside your home). While there’s a time and place for that, for most people, a VPN router is overkill.
Dynamic DNS Makes Phoning Home Painless
Speaking of connecting to your home remotely, Dynamic DNS (DDNS) is an unbelievably handy tool if you often phone home to your home network or you host anything on your home network (like a Minecraft server) you want to share with friends.
Essentially, DDNS is a service that monitors your home IP address and automatically redirects queries to your personal DDNS address (such as myhomeserver.somedns.com) to your home connection.
Routers that support DDNS make the experience seamless, as the device that manages your home network also sends real-time updates to the remote DDNS host. If your internet is on and your router is powered up, your DDNS entry is up to date.
Parental Controls Aren’t Just For Kids
Many routers have a collection of filtering and restricting tools broadly called “parental controls.” If you have children, especially younger children, they can be useful for automatically disabling the Wi-Fi at bedtime or blocking adult content.
But if you don’t have kids, it’s possible you never even glanced at the parental controls section. If you remove the “parental” designation, though, the options you find within are pretty handy in various situations.
For example, let’s say you have a restrictive bandwidth cap, and you’ve noticed that many devices on your network burn up a lot of bandwidth with idle activities. You can use parental control rules to restrict devices or even toggle internet access off for your home while you’re at work and/or asleep to cut off bandwidth vampires.
You can also use parental controls on yourself as a mental health measure. Trying to break your habit of endlessly scrolling on Reddit or Instagram? Block the domain or service at the router level to force yourself out of the scrolling habit.
Restricting devices from the internet is also a clever workaround hack you can use parental controls for. Want a particular device, like a smart plug, to have local network access but no internet access? Most parental control tools just restrict the device from accessing the internet, not the local network.
Router-Level Speed Tests Are More Accurate
Internet speed tests are handy to check if your internet connection is working as expected and you’re getting what you pay for—though we recommend not getting too fixated on them.
It’s important to conduct the test with as few confounding variables as possible, which is why you shouldn’t use your phone to conduct speed tests. Plugging a computer over Ethernet directly into your router is good, but many routers support onboard speed testing, so you can just run the speed test right on the hardware connected directly to the modem. That takes Wi-Fi conditions out of the equation and helps you troubleshoot where the slowdown is happening.
Ethernet Makes Your Wi-Fi Better
So far, all of our recommended features have been software-based, using some element of your router’s firmware to improve your network security, experience, or both.
This final tip is one that many people overlook: leaning on Ethernet to improve their Wi-Fi experience. Wi-Fi is great, but the more Wi-Fi devices on your network, the more congested the network becomes and the harder your Wi-Fi router has to work to deliver the expected experience across all the devices.
Wi-Fi has improved significantly over the years, and Wi-Fi 6 includes a wide range of improvements for device-dense environments, but every device you get off the Wi-Fi network and directly connected via Ethernet decreases the load on the Wi-Fi network and gives the Ethernet-connected device a better connection.
So if your router is next to your computer, your smart TV and game console, or any other Ethernet-capable device, plug that device directly into the router. And don’t overlook the Ethernet ports on your mesh network nodes, if they have them. You can plug devices into the mesh node’s Ethernet port and remove an extra hop from your home network. The device will still use Wi-Fi, but it will be directly from one mesh node to another without the extra overhead.
Finally, if your router doesn’t support one or more of the features we discussed above and your router is over 3-5 years old, it’s probably time to upgrade. Newer routers are faster and feature-rich—there’s no reason to hobble your network experience with an ancient router.