Personal computers, video games, and Internet-connected televisions may get all the glamor in the online age, but they would have no Internet connections if not for an unassuming box in many consumers' homes called a router.
Routers, which form a digital bridge between a home network and the Internet, have gotten faster over the years. According to NPD's Retail Tracking Service, 48 percent of networking products sold in the 12 months leading up to May support the 802.11n standard, which can deliver the fastest access for tasks such as streaming video from a PC to a television.
But because they are the heart of a home network and must interface with network complexity both inside and outside the home, routers have always been annoyingly complex devices to set up.
Recently, two companies have taken a crack at simplifying the setup of the router for the tech doubter.
One attempt is from Belkin, which makes a wide array of accessory products, ranging from iPhone cases to surge protectors. Its new Play router line -- which starts with the $50 Play Surf -- takes a number of steps to shorten setup time.
First, the the router's power cable is already attached to the device in the box, so there's no need to attach it yourself.
Unfortunately, Belkin doesn't also do this with the cable that attaches the router to the cable modem or DSL adapter, but at least the right port is color coded. Second, the router's default name (SSID) and password are printed on a sticker connected to the router. Perhaps in the future, a small LCD or e-paper display could be used.
While the Belkin approach may involve a bit of note taking or running back and forth to enter the right information, it's an effective alternative to having to configure a password via the administration website required by most products.
Using Belkin's shortcuts, I was able to upgrade a wireless network in less than 10 minutes. The Belkin Play routers also come with a CD-ROM to install bonus software on PCs in the home, but many new PCs -- particularly netbooks -- lack optical drives. Belkin could reach more PCs by including a flash drive as opposed to a CD.
In contrast, the new Valet routers from Cisco — which start with the $100 white and powder-blue $99 M10 -- include a USB flash drive, and it's no ordinary one. It includes the new Cisco Connect software, which is a high-tech contrast to Belkin's sticker.
After plugging the drive into a PC or Mac, an application is launched which guides you through the setup with minimal intervention and results in a secure network. The Cisco software worked effectively on a Mac, but didn't work with an older Windows PC with an add-in wireless networking card. Instead, it offered a prompt to call support, which is open 24/7, but so are the support lines of competitors such as Netgear.
Each approach could take a lesson from the other. Whether through stickers or software, though, router companies are making it easier for new home networkers to share their broadband among the devices in their home, and for those who bought years ago to move up to applications that require more bandwidth.