How to Set Up and Optimize Your Wireless Router for the Best Wi-Fi Performance

Looking to update your wireless network for better performance or security? Follow these simple steps for configuring your router and wireless network the right way.

Updated October 12, 2020

While manufacturers have been making installation utilities easier over the years, getting the best out of your new wireless router purchase usually means delving a little deeper than the standard installation routine will go. Just because you've plugged everything in and all the blinking lights have turned green doesn't mean your network's performance or its security are as good as they could be. Follow these basic steps to properly configure your router and optimize your wireless network.

How Do I Connect My Wi-Fi Router?

These steps assume that you've already found the right router for your home. If you're still looking to make a purchase, check out our wireless router buying guide (link above) or if you're looking for something a little cheaper, try our budget routers roundup, which consists of our top players under $100. If you're looking for the fastest possible pipe with which to enjoy video gaming, then check out our gaming routers guide. All these buying guides contain our best and latest reviews in each category with every player completing PC Labs' wireless router testing suite.

As part of router selection, two additional questions you'll need to answer are whether you want a Wi-Fi 6 router or a Wi-Fi mesh system or even both in one. Wi-Fi 6 is an emerging standard that is finally seeing a widening selection of compatible routers coming to market. If you're looking to replace your current router and it's more than three years old, or if you're simply looking for the latest in terms of speed and security, Wi-Fi 6 is what you want, but check out our Wi-Fi 6 explainer for more in-depth information first.

Wi-Fi mesh systems are for folks willing to pay a little more for two primary benefits: easy basic setup and whole-home Wi-Fi coverage. While you can increase the coverage in your home with a standard router and a wireless range extender, that solution tends to make users jump through a few additional hoops to get things working smoothly, notably forcing users to log into different wireless networks depending on where they are in the home. Wi-Fi mesh makes all that go away with a very quick and easy path to initial setup and a series of compatible "nodes" that integrate seamlessly into a single wireless network that blankets your entire home.

Newer Wi-Fi mesh systems, such as the recently announced Amazon Eero 6 and Eero Pro 6, combine Wi-Fi 6 and mesh technology into a single package—and in the case of the new Eeros, add Zigbee smart home technology as well. However, while Wi-Fi mesh is definitely the simplest option when it comes to achieving that basic set of green blinking lights, that still just represents basic router setup, mesh or otherwise. When you start looking to tweak your network settings, for example to improve security with a guest network and parental controls or even to add quality of service (QoS) settings to protect the traffic coming from a specific application or traveling to a specific device, then you're going to need to dig beneath your router or mesh system's basic installation utility. That's when the steps below will come in handy.

Placement and Setup

Before getting started, you need to consider where you'll place your router. Finding an open space toward the center of your residence is the best way to ensure optimal coverage. Be aware that walls and floors will impede Wi-Fi signals, so the more obstructions you have between your devices and your router, the weaker (and potentially slower) the signal will be. Try to avoid proximity with large metal, glass, brick, or concrete objects. Wi-Fi mesh systems get around this problem by letting you place an attractively designed node wherever coverage is weakest. But for those working with standard routers or even wireless range extenders, this will require some patience and testing to see where your optimal placement areas are.

Start this process by connecting your router to your modem. For this you'll need an Ethernet cable, which you'll want to plug into the WAN (wide-area network) port on your router's rear face. This port might look slightly different from router to router, but it will usually have a distinct color from the other ports and be labeled "WAN," "Internet," or something similar. From the WAN port, connect the other end of the Ethernet cable to the Ethernet port on the back of your modem. Ensure your modem is turned on, and you'll be ready to connect to the internet. Then, of course, you need to plug your router into a wall outlet and turn it on.

Photo of typical router's rear port selection

As mentioned above, most mesh Wi-Fi systems and some of the latest standard wireless routers can now be configured completely from your smartphone. Manufacturers will have their own unique setup app, so consult your router's quick-start guide to ensure you download the right one. Not all routers have a mobile app, though, and if you'd rather not use one there's always a backup method. Typically, this is a dedicated website URL that loads the router's internal configuration page. You can find this URL by connecting your computer to any of the router's LAN ports via Ethernet cable and entering or a similar address (as specified by the router's documentation) into your browser search bar.

Screen shot of login box for standard router configuration utility

The first step to get your network up and running will be to set up a username and password. If you happen to have a pre-owned router, the username and password can be reset to factory defaults by holding a recessed button somewhere on the router (usually the back). Often, these defaults are something like "admin" and "admin," which every would-be hacker knows, so make sure to change these right away. Be sure to use a secure password that includes a mix of uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols.

How Do I Configure My Router?

With the username and password set, you can proceed to configure your router's settings. As with cooking a dinner, there's no "right" way to install a router, and every model is likely to have its own unique steps, depending on its features. Because of this, trying to describe every possible configuration path here would be exhausting and pointless. We recommend consulting your router's manual for specifics.

That said, we do have a few points of advice:

Use the easy setup wizard. Most routers provide some form of brief setup routine that asks for little more than the SSID and password. If in doubt, start with this. (The SSID is your router's Wi-Fi name. It might be something like "asus" or "netgear" out of the box, but feel free to change this to something creative, like "FBI-surveillance-van.") Yes, this utility only gets you as far as that abovementioned set of blinking green lights, but even for those looking to go beyond that stage, you need to get there first. Following the router's documentation and using its own setup utility is always the shortest path to that destination.

Basic network settings entry box

Use the WPS button to connect Wi-Fi devices. If you've ever paired two Bluetooth devices, such as a smartphone with headphones, then you already have the basic understanding of how this works. Let's say you want to connect a Windows 10 laptop to your router. On your laptop, you'll see your router's SSID pop up on the list of visible wireless networks in Windows. When you select the SSID and attempt to connect, Windows will prompt you to enter the network security key, which is a needlessly technical way of saying password. If you've done a proper job with your security and made a password with randomized uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols, you'll have utterly forgotten it and not want to mess with typing it in ever again. Instead, press the WPS button on your router. You should allow at least a minute for the router and laptop to find each other and successfully pair. Keep in mind that WPS only works with Windows and Android devices.

When in doubt, let the router do it. "Auto" configuration tools are your friend. For example, while you can certainly go to the trouble of building your own internal IP address range and assigning static addresses to all your devices by hand, simply checking the Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) box in your router's settings will take care of that immediately since this is a protocol that automatically assigns IP addresses to devices. The lesson here is that just because you can change something doesn't mean you should. At least during the setup and early-use stages, go with the auto settings as much as possible.

Connect to the 2.4GHz or 5GHz Band?

On the client device side, all other things being equal, 5GHz connections will provide better performance at short ranges than 2.4GHz. This is because 5GHz, while somewhat faster, can't travel as far or transmit through some objects due to that band's shorter wavelengths. The 2.4GHz band tends to have more congestion and fewer channel options. That said, if you want to keep using 2.4GHz, consider experimenting with the channel selection. "Auto" usually does a decent job of hopping around the channel options and finding the best one, but if you're struggling with client connections, try manually setting the channel to 1 or 11. The 2.4GHz band has a total of 11 channels you can switch between to avoid interference, with channel 6 usually being the default. When you select a given channel, there's usually some signal spillover. So, selecting channel 2, for example, will often spill traffic onto channels 1 and 3. Thus, switching to the extremes of 1 or 11, the farthest points from the default of 6, can sometimes ensure the best-performing connections.

After the "easy" setup, some routers will walk you through a few extra steps, such as establishing parental controls (features that allow you to filter certain types of content) and automatically updating the router firmware. After these preliminaries, proceed to "wireless setup," or a similarly named tab/screen to activate your Wi-Fi network. Once your network is activated, you can connect any device to it and start browsing the web.

Taking It To The Next Level

With most routers, simply activating your network and connecting to the internet is only scratching the surface of what you can do. While a tab name like "advanced settings" may seem a bit intimidating, the menus contained here often allow you to control some of your router's most helpful features. We'll cover some of the most compelling items below.

Quality of Service (QoS)

As mentioned above, QoS is one of the most useful features for online entertainment. It allows you to select and prioritize the upstream and downstream traffic on your network, which can provide a performance boost for your favorite streaming service or online game. Most routers will have a tab in their app/configuration page dedicated to traffic monitoring. Navigate to this and find the QoS tab. Turn QoS on, and then you can prioritize certain services, such as online games or video streaming. You can also prioritize devices on the network. Years ago, this was usually done by supplying the device's unique MAC address and setting a priority level for that device. These days, vendors like Netgear are increasingly supplying more intuitive, graphical approaches to the same idea, as in the Manual Prioritization screenshot below.

Manual Prioritization configuration view

QoS options can also allow you to see how your total bandwidth is being distributed by device, so you can spot anyone grabbing more than their fair or desired share.

QoS bandwidth utilization breakdown

These days, most traffic is download in nature, especially with multimedia streaming. If you find your streaming services pausing to buffer every so often, try using QoS to prioritize their traffic. However, in general, only gamers need to worry about upstream prioritization.

Guest Networks

A guest network is handy to have if you'd prefer to keep all the data and files on your personal network out of unapproved hands. To set one up, go to your router's app/configuration page and navigate to the wireless settings. Most routers have guest networks disabled by default, so there will usually be a page to set one up here. Confirm the network's name and password and the network will be set up.

Guest network configuration

We strongly recommend applying at least WPA2 encryption to your regular Wi-Fi network, but you may want to leave your guest network "open" for easier access. While convenient, this might also encourage connections from neighbors and stray people parking on your curb. Make extra sure to limit guest network access privileges, such as which band they can use or what hours the network is active. You may also want to limit the guest network to either the 2.4GHz or the 5GHz band, but not both.

Monitoring Traffic

It can be useful to know how to see what traffic goes through your network, as is the ability to put a limit on said traffic. If either of these two features interests you, navigate to your router's advanced settings menu. There will usually be an option called traffic monitor, traffic meter, or something similar. Enable this feature and you'll be able to observe your router's traffic. In some routers you can also choose to limit incoming traffic (downloads), outgoing traffic (uploads), or both. Not all routers have a traffic-monitoring feature, but there are a plethora of services online that can do it for you, including Solarwinds RTBM or PRTG.

If you're setting up a wireless network for a business, even a small business can benefit greatly from monitoring traffic on a regular basis. From tracking security breaches to ensuring that key applications (like your phone or video conferencing system) always get the bandwidth they need, traffic monitoring can help. Most businesses opt for a dedicated network monitoring tool, but if a wireless network is your business' primary LAN, a dedicated Wi-Fi management tool, like Ekahau Pro, is your best bet.

FTP Servers

Internet oldsters might remember the days before Dropbox, when transferring large files between systems required jumping through several hoops with dedicated file-transfer protocol applications. FTP apps may have fallen out of common use, but the technology can still be a handy way to transfer lots of files without dealing with cloud services.

FTP servers are only available to routers that have at least one USB port. The first thing you'll need is a USB storage device, such as an external hard drive, plugged into your router. Next, make your way to the advanced settings on the app/configuration page and find a tab called USB Storage, USB Settings, or something similar. Once in that tab, click the checkbox for "FTP via internet" or similar. Your USB device will now be available to users on your network. If you would like to be the only one to access the USB device, you can modify the read and write access to be admin-only.

Some routers will have you configure read and write access for specific folders. Simply click "new folder," "select folder," or something similar, and navigate to the desired folder on your USB device. Select the folder and click apply changes.

Asus FTP server configuration utility

MAC Address Filtering

Think of a MAC (media access control) address as a universally unique name for any network device. The address is tied to the device hardware. Some routers allow you to set a list of specific MAC addresses that can (or can't) access your network. It's like blacklisting or whitelisting what devices can access your LAN.

Netgear device settings configuration

To do this, find the MAC filter under the advanced settings tab. Dual- or tri-band routers will typically have you select which band the filter will apply to, and some routers will have you select whether the entered MAC address will be the only one accepted onto the network or the only address rejected from it. Once you've set your preferences for those options, the last step is to find the MAC addresses on the devices you'd like to filter and type them in.

For mobile devices such as phones or tablets, the MAC address can be found by accessing your device's settings and navigating to the About Phone tab. From here, some devices might have a tab titled Status, where the MAC address can be found, while others have it readily available in the About Phone section. On a Mac or PC, navigate to your device's network settings page and open the network and sharing center. Click on your Wi-Fi connection and look for Details or Properties. This area will display a myriad of information, including your device's "physical address," another term for MAC address. (On a Mac, it's called "Wi-Fi Address.")

Parental Controls

Parental control, at a minimum, lets you establish time limits for when each allowed device (identified by MAC address) can be on the network. So if your kid has a bad habit of using devices long after bedtime, but you don't want to constantly play the bad cop who has to police where and when devices get turned in every night, no problem.

First use MAC address filtering to make sure that only approved devices can connect to your router. Then use parental controls to make sure that those allowed devices can only connect within approved hours. It only takes a few minutes to set up, and, like having a well-configured router in general, will cure innumerable headaches and make sure your household runs much more smoothly.

Parental controls configuration

Next Steps

Anybody can get an internet connection up and running in a few minutes by using your router's quick start guide, but most models hide lesser-known treasures in their setup menus. If you want to get the most value possible out of your router investment, take the extra time to explore these advanced options. And if you're still in the market for a new router, consider going beyond the box's features list and the product's spec sheet. Download the manual, dig into these advanced options, and see which features will deliver the most value in your environment. Once you're up and running, test your internet speed. And if you need more guidance, check out our advanced hacks: 10 Tips to Speed up Your Wi-Fi and 12 Tips to Troubleshoot Your Internet Connection.

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