Getting online today is easier than ever. Many people have even ditched their computer for a tablet or phone which only requires a monthly subscription to keep them running, without any additional hardware. For those of us who still use a computer with a physical internet connection, there comes additional risks and equipment to battle those risks.
When you first get connected to the internet, you may think that you can just plug in your computer to the gateway and go. Technically that’s correct. But you’d be missing one important piece of hardware: the router. Even if you’re not planning on using more than one computer, or using the wireless capabilities of the router, it is a valuable component in your system.
In its basic form, a router simply splits up your internet, so you can share easier. You can use it to broadcast a wireless signal to any devices around you, or you can run cables from it to any hardwired computer or printer. It’s an obvious necessity if you have these extra devices, but its additional functionality may not be obvious if you only have one computer.
The other function that a router provides and arguably the most important one is that it acts as a hardware firewall, in essence keeps the bad guys out. The router has a built-in computer which filters network traffic, straining out harmful code and viruses that target unprotected systems.
Whenever you open a webpage, your computer sends a request to a server over the internet for information. It is then designed to receive any information from that server, regardless of whether or not it is the specific information that you asked for. This is where a router comes in. The router will check outgoing as well as incoming data, and make sure that the incoming data matches what you requested. There are viruses which look for networks without routers so that they can attach themselves to legitimate data and infiltrate your system that way. A router will foil these.
All internet traffic travels over ports. There are thousands of these, and only some have a designated function. Port 80 for example is designated for basic web page traffic. And that’s what the computer expects to come over that port. But if a program sends information over an unmonitored port, it could enter your computer without your knowledge. A router makes sure that all ports are being closely watched regardless of activity.
Many ISPs these days offer a combined modem and router, which is good for most consumers. If you have one of these, you’re good to go. But if your system is plugged directly into the internet, whether through a modem only or another way, you should buy a router to keep your system protected.
Choosing a router can seem to be a complicated process, but it doesn’t have to be. For most people, basic functionality will be more than enough. The less expensive the router, the simpler it will probably be. Unless you have a specific reason for paying more than the base price, you don’t need to. Make sure to choose a reliable brand like D-Link, Cisco, Netgear or Linksys. They all start at around $50. CNet recommends the Cisco Valet Plus, calling it “the easiest-to-use wireless router that we’ve seen.” It’s available on Amazon.