Kim Komando, Special for USA TODAY
A sluggish wireless network is frustrating. It's no fun when an exciting movie suddenly starts buffering or an important Internet video call breaks up.
A few years ago, families didn't put much demand on routers. All they did was browse the Web and read email. The average home had one or two PCs.
Today, a family might have several computers, a wireless printer, a game console, a streaming video gadget and a variety of smartphones and tablets. A router can really bog down when everyone wants to surf, download files, play online games and stream music and movies at the same time.
Fortunately, there are a few simple ways to tune up your router and get it running like a sports car again.
Before you dive into that, however, double-check your Internet connection to make sure you're getting the advertised speed that you are paying for. Even a blazing fast router seems slow with a poor Internet connection. Speedtest.net is a great service that will give your Internet connection a quick speed test.
Once you're sure the slowdown is the router, take an inventory of all the computers and gadgets that use your home network. If you bought your gadgets within the past few years, they probably support the now-common wireless-N standard. You'll also see this written as 802.11n. Check your manuals to be sure, or use manualsonline.com to look up manuals if you've lost them.
If a gadget uses the older 802.11g or b standard, there isn't much you can do to speed it up. If your computer is using 802.11g, consider upgrading to 802.11n using an external USB wireless adapter.
Of course, your router needs to support 802.11n as well to see any benefit. If your router is an old 802.11g (or a really old 802.11b) model, it's time to upgrade.
One of the many perks of new routers is that they can simultaneously operate on two separate bands - the older 2.4GHz band as well as the faster 5GHz band.
The 5GHz band is less prone to interference from other Wi-Fi networks and Bluetooth signals, which makes it more suitable for streaming and gaming. Some of your newer gadgets can probably operate on this band.
If your router already supports 802.11n, you might want to make sure your router's firmware is up to date. Instructions for checking the firmware will be in your router manual.
Firmware is like your router's operating system. Most updates fix minor bugs, but sometimes a major update significantly boosts performance or offers features that didn't exist when the router was first sold.
Next, it's time to tweak your router's settings, which is done through an Internet browser.
Open your browser of choice, type in the router's IP address and hit Enter. Common IP addresses are 192.168.0.1 for D-Link and Netgear routers, 192.168.1.1 for Linksys routers, and 192.168.2.1 for Belkin routers. Refer to the manual for other routers.
You'll have to enter a password. If you don't know what this is, check your manual for the default option. Usually, it's something simple like admin or password. That's why it is important to change the password to something less well-known.
Check your network settings first to see if you're running at "802.11n only." There's no reason to operate at the combined - and slower - 802.11g/n setting if you don't have to.
If you change to n-only and one of your gadgets gets kicked off the network, it's probably not n-compatible. Switch back to the mixed setting or upgrade the gadget.
With a dual-band router, you can effectively split your home wireless network in two. Have family members connect to the 2.4GHz band network for Web browsing and file downloads; reserve the 5GHz band network for gaming, video streaming and Internet voice/video calling.
If you're feeling adventurous, dive into your router's advanced QoS (Quality of Service) settings for more adjustments (not every router will have QoS options).
QoS allows you to assign priorities to certain types of traffic so they aren't interrupted. Some routers prompt you to simply enable various QoS features, and then they automatically assign a higher priority to audio and video streams over other kinds of data.
Other routers will let you assign high priorities to specific applications, such as Skype or World of Warcraft. You can also give high priority to a specific gadget. That's handy if you use a game console to play online games and also stream HD movies.
It's a balancing act to get the right combination of high-, medium- and low-priority settings. But with a little trial and error, you should be able to put buffering and lagging woes in the rearview mirror.
Above I told you to change the default password for security. Well, another common security measure people fail to do is to encrypt their wireless signal.
An encrypted connection will keep criminals, snoops and neighbors off your network. In fact, a suddenly slow network could indicate someone outside your home is downloading illegal movies - or worse - using your router. Trust me; you don't want the legal hassle that could cause.
Kim Komando hosts the nation's largest talk radio show about consumer electronics, computers and the Internet. To get the podcast, watch the show or find the station nearest you, visit www.komando.com. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.