A step-by-step guide to setting up a home network

Since you're an ITProPortal reader, chances are you got a shiny new tech toy as a Christmas gift. Maybe it was an 802.11ac wireless router, a NAS device, a new laptop, or an iPad Air. One thing all of these devices have in common: They need to be attached to your home network.

The introduction of a new piece of hardware is the perfect time to set up or reorganise your home network. For many people, this is the most painful part of the tech experience. Let's face it, networking a new piece of tech you got for the holidays is the latter-day "some assembly required."

No matter what networking hardware makers tell you, setting up your home network involves more than just purchasing and plugging in a router. But that doesn't mean that it has to be a nightmare, either. You can set up a managed and centrally controlled network in a few (relatively) easy steps – you just have to know what you're doing, and do it the right way.

And it's worth doing it right. It's worth learning how to configure proper IP addressing, lock down the network from intruders, create accounts for everyone who gets access, and set up sharing for files and folders. If you can do those things (and you can) you'll have a centrally controlled, robust network with better security. Plus, having a good handle on your network allows for more efficient control over remote access to devices and data on the network. For parents, the ability to see what children are accessing and control what they access is possible, if you've got a structured home network.

Of course, the wireless router is the central point of a home network. Although hardware vendors are making router setup easier than ever with, you can still burrow deeper into the router's configuration pages to establish security, access controls, and granular management.

At any rate, you can set up a tightly managed, secure home network. All you have to do is follow these five steps.

1. Connect your router

The router is the gateway between the Internet and your home network. It is also the means by which all the devices on your network communicate with one another. If you haven’t already purchased one, our guide to buying the best wireless router can give you the lowdown on how to choose the right router for your home's particular needs. You can go with either an 802.11n router, or one of the newer 802.11ac models. For a discussion of whether 802.11ac will be the right choice for you, see: Is it worth buying an 802.11ac router?

You will also want to ensure that any device that will connect to the router also has an appropriate network adapter. These devices are your network "clients." New laptops will have 802.11n adapters (some will support 802.11ac, even). For older laptops or desktops you can purchase compatible adapters. Once you've got the right router, you have to set it up, and the first step is to physically connect your router to a modem provided by your ISP with an Ethernet cable.

  • First, unplug or turn off the cable or DSL modem.
  • Power up your wireless router and connect the network cable that most likely comes with it into the port on the router that is labelled "Internet" or "WAN."
  • Connect the other end to the cable or DSL modem and power up the modem.
  • Don't attempt to connect any devices such as laptops or tablets until you have a good strong signal indicating a WAN connection on both the router and modem.

2. Access the router's interface and lock it down

The next step involves getting into the router's interface (some companies call this the management console). This is done by connecting a laptop to the router and then accessing the interface via a browser. How do you go about this? Routers ship with a default IP address, administrator account and password. For example, most Cisco/Linksys routers have the default IP address of 192.168.1.1, and the default administrator account is "admin," and the password is also "admin." What you want to do is change your laptop's IP settings to match those of the router's to connect to it for configuration. This allows the laptop to communicate with the router, so you can access your router's software for setup via the laptop.

Connect an Ethernet cable to one of the LAN ports on the router and the other end to the Ethernet port of your laptop. On a Windows 7 machine that's connected to the router by Ethernet, for example, you would go into the Control Panel and click to open "Network and Internet" and then "Network and Sharing Centre."

  • From the left-hand window, click "Change adapter settings."
  • Right click on "Local Area Connection" (not the Wireless Network Connection) and select "Properties."
  • Highlight “Internet Protocol Version 4 (TCP/IP v4)” and once again, click "Properties."
  • Set the first radio button to "Use the following IP address:" and enter the information as shown in the image above.
  • Once you've applied the changes, open up a browser and go the web address of (in our example) the Cisco/Linksys interface by typing http://192.168.1.1 and using the account name "admin" and password "admin." Then you are all set to configure security and other settings.

Most router companies use the same default IP address, admin account, and passwords on all their routers. Your router's documentation will tell you the specific IP address and account login information.

3. Configure security and IP addressing

After you've accessed the router, the next order of business is getting the security, SSID and IP addressing settings right. Getting security right is a must, unless you want a neighbour stealing your bandwidth and possibly your data. IP addressing is important because these addresses are used for devices on your network to communicate with the router. You make all of these changes within the router's management interface. These settings are typically under the "Basic" settings of the interface. They may also be under "Security" or "Wireless Settings." Router interfaces vary, so if you can't find the settings to configure within the router’s interface pages when following the below steps, check with the router manufacturer. Okay, on with the steps:

  • Change the default administrator password. Some networking equipment forces you to do so once you've accessed the web-based interface, but many consumer routers don't. The settings for the admin password are usually under the "System" tab or page of the interface. You can just enter in a new password in the new password field.
  • Change the router's default SSID. The SSID is the broadcasted name of your wireless network. That's the name that shows up as the network's name when you scan for available networks. Use a unique name that your neighbours aren't using for their routers to avoid confusion.
  • Assign security. Newer routers may be set by default to automatically configure security by using WPS (Wi-Fi Protected Setup). Since the goal here is to have full control of your network, switch from "WPS" to "Manual." Once in manual mode, go into the router's wireless security page. There is no excuse, except in very limited circumstances when dealing with legacy technology, to not use WPA/WPA2. WPA security requires clients connecting to it to use a key or passphrase, which you create within the router's interface on the same page you set up security. Some routers allow you to enter a string of 64 hexadecimal digits which provides strong security, but most have you create an 8 to 63 letter passphrase. If you are creating a passphrase (or password) be sure to create a strong password that would be hard to guess. For further advice on generating stronger passwords, check out our article on making sure your passwords are up to scratch.
  • Set up IP addressing. For most networks, the router can be kept at its default DHCP setting. This means the router will dole out IP addresses to clients that connect to the network, leaving you without any IP addressing management to do. For extra security, it's not a bad idea to change the router's default IP, making it more resistant to snooping. Remember, hackers know what the default IP addresses of the most common routers are (even though it's really tough for them to get to, due to the fact that your IP addresses on your network are private). For instance, I would change my Cisco/Linksys router's network from 192.168.1.1 to something like 192.168.1.3.
  • Disconnect the laptop and reboot it. When the laptop comes back from reboot you should see the SSID name of your wireless network and be able to connect to it with the passphrase you created. Congratulations – you're connected wirelessly. But you're not done with your setup yet!

Advanced steps: DHCP reservation

For those who anticipate connecting servers, NAS device or any device that you may access from outside your network, best practice is to configure DHCP Reservation. That may be a scary sounding term for newbies, but all it means is that you are telling the router that a specific device always uses a specific IP address, which is set aside or "reserved" for it.

For example, my router IP is 192.168.1.1. I can give my email server an IP address of 192.168.1.2. I can give a third device, say my NAS server for instance, an IP address of 192.168.1.3, and so on. You don't want to change the first three sets of numbers though, for most basic home networks. IP addressing has specific rules about formatting, so you want to retain the first three sets of numbers, called "octets."

You’ll also want to put in the device's MAC address that you are reserving. The MAC address is usually printed on a sticker affixed to a device. Again, reserving the IP addresses means those addresses will never be distributed to clients via DHCP and are "held" for the devices you specify. Reserving IP addresses is good practice for devices you want to access remotely, because otherwise when the IP address leases expire you won't be able to perform remote access.

Don't forget to assign the reserved IPs as static addresses on the devices for which you made reservations. There are various ways to do this – on Windows servers and machines you can assign an IP address though the Network settings Control Panel. Other devices, such as NASes, have areas in their management console where you can assign an IP address. It really depends on what device you want to set a static address for, so check with the vendor if you aren't sure.

If you are using the router as an access point, bridge or to extend the signal of an existing router on a network, you will want to turn off DHCP completely. Having two routers performing DHCP on the same network can result in a myriad of connection issues. However, for most home networks, having the router set to use DHCP will suffice.

4. Set up sharing and control

Now that you have a network set up, you can set up a way for everyone to access data on the network. With Windows 7 clients, this is achieved by creating a HomeGroup, a user-friendly way to create a workgroup. A HomeGroup is a group of computers on a home network that can share files and printers. Using a HomeGroup makes sharing easier. You can share pictures, music, videos, documents, and printers with other people in your HomeGroup. Other people can't change the files that you share unless you give them permission. You can help protect your HomeGroup with a password, which you can change at any time. Computers must be running Windows 7 or Windows 8 (more about the latter in a moment) to participate in a HomeGroup. HomeGroup is available in all editions of Windows 7. In Windows 7 Starter and Windows 7 Home Basic, you can join a HomeGroup, but you can't create one.

  • When a Windows 7 laptop first connects to the network, the user will be prompted to set the current network location. Ensure that the location is set to "Home network" (you can check it in Network and Sharing Centre) because HomeGroup only works on networks set to the Home location.
  • Open up "HomeGroup" in the Control Panel, and then click "Create a HomeGroup." For every Windows 7 client that you want to give access to the HomeGroup, open HomeGroup in the Control Panel of those machines and then click "Join now" (those machines have to physically or wirelessly connected to the network).
  • During the process of setting up or joining a HomeGroup, you can choose the libraries, printers, or files and folders you want to share (see the next step for details).
  • For Windows 8, you create a HomeGroup by moving the mouse to the top right corner of the screen, then click Settings, then Change PC Settings. Click on HomeGroup, then you can click on Create. As above, you can then select the libraries and devices you want to share with the HomeGroup.
  • If you have a network with an older version of Windows running, then you are going to create a standard Workgroup. Click Start, right click My Computer, and then click Properties. In System Properties, click the Computer Name tab. Click "Change," select "Workgroup," and enter a workgroup name. Click OK to apply the change. Do the same thing for all computers that you want sharing data on the network.

5. Set up user accounts

In most business networks, users access the network by logging in with their user account and password. Corporate IT networks set up user accounts to keep tabs on who is accessing the network and when they are accessing it. User accounts provide a way to establish user access control. Perhaps there's some data on the network some users should have access to and some shouldn't. Maybe some users should only be able to read certain files, while others should be able to change files.

You can establish this same kind of access in your home network, should you wish, especially once you have a HomeGroup or Workgroup defined. It's not something most home network users will really need to do, but we’ll cover it briefly, as it is quite easy to set up user accounts in Windows:

  • In Windows 7's Control Panel, select the User Accounts icon. User accounts will let you configure your account and its settings.
  • To add and configure other users, from User Accounts, click on "Manage User Accounts," and then click on the "Advanced" tab.
  • Under "Advanced User Management" click "Advanced" to open up Local Users and Groups.
  • Right click on either "Users" or "Groups" to add either to your network.
  • If you have a number of people accessing your network and you want to control access to the data on it, you may also want to set up permissions for files and folders. Create a user account for every family member and then right click on the folder, click "Properties" and then the "Sharing" tab. You can add the family members that you want to give access to any particular folder, and exclude the ones you don't. You can also right click on each Library to select the specific users you want to share with. Right click on a printer to pull up the "Sharing" tab to set up shared access.

Unless you have a lot of users connecting to your network, as we mentioned previously you most likely won't need to create user groups, but it's a good idea if you do anticipate a number of users connecting (as is the case for a small business) and you want to give certain groups access to certain files and folders.

If you've gotten this far and performed all the steps that apply to you, you should have a functional, secure, and robust network set up. Congratulations!