The Only Thing a Router Is Good For

Like many people reading this, I have a broadband connection in my home that manifests itself as a router — a vaguely futuristic, plastic box attached to a cable that runs into my wall. To that router, I’ve attached an Apple AirPort Extreme, a VOIP router and a switch for additional Ethernet connections. It’s a bit of a mess, and it could probably be simplified, but for the most part it works fine.

I make whatever minor adjustments are needed to these devices through software; either browser-based interfaces or Apple’s own AirPort utility. In fact, the only time I ever have to physically touch the whole setup is on the rare occasion when something goes wrong with the cable connection itself. Admittedly, in recent months that’s been more often than I’d like with my current Internet provider, but for the most part it happens rarely.


One True Purpose

When it does happen, the only thing I do is power the devices down and then power them back up. That’s it. Unplug them. Wait thirty seconds or so. Plug them back in.

So it completely bewilders me why these devices universally place their power supplies in the back. For each of them, and for every such device I’ve ever owned and used, the only way to power cycle them is to reach around to their back — where I can’t even see the connections — and find the power supply cable. And, of course, some device’s power connections are on the right and some are on the left and I can never remember which is which. Once I’ve unplugged them, I wait a half a minute or so, and then I have to blindly try to re-connect the power cable to its corresponding port — again, without the benefit of seeing the back side.

Right: Even Apple’s AirPort Extreme router stashes its power connection at the back.

Are there devices out there that acknowledge this real world use case? It seems to me that it’s a simple enough problem to solve, but more importantly it’s the main problem to solve. The only real purpose driving the design of this hardware at all would be the ability to easily power them on and off. It’s just illogical to me that so many designers could misunderstand this.

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  1. “…but for the most part it happens rarely.”

    Most consumers, and ALL industrial designers, would agree that having the power connections in the front would be ugly. Given the fact that it happens to you, and likely most, rarely, is the trade off of ugly power cable in the front truly beneficial?

    Solution-wise, I can certainly picture a router with a deep groove along the side. The power cord would run from the wall, snap into the deep groove so it is “enbedded” in the router casing, then snap in to an ac port on the front of the router.

    That said, your issue may also be solved by just turning your router 90 degrees, toward whichever direction brings the power connection closer to you.

  2. Just wanted to note that AirPort Utility does actually let you reboot it through software — see the “Base Station” > “Restart” menu. Doesn’t allow for a 30 sec. delay, though.

  3. I think there are two solutions:

    1. build better routers that don’t require power down, rather, just software reboots.

    2. build routers that have a hard power switch on the box.

    I’ve never seen the router management software that comes with the Airport Extreme, but most of the routers I’ve used have a software reset and reboot button that resolves 99% of the problems that come up from time to time.

    Your experience is different than mine, so who knows?.

  4. Back in my network admin days, we had lots of smallish hubs and routers that indeed had the power cable port on the front. I think it’s more common in professional or prosumer grade devices; the consumer stuff is made to look prettier.

  5. I can completely relate to this. It’s the main reason why I haven’t moved away from my older AirPort Express. I keep it out in the open, as if it’s a Glade plug-in and unplug/plug it back in when needed.

    With that being said, maybe the solution we’re looking for isn’t a power button in the back or in the front but none at all.

  6. It could use a simple power reset button on the front. Although, there is also the pen point reset on the back which is different in how it might be used and when it might be used. I’ve found that, in all instances, when I need to reset the Airport Extreme, it is not the AE’s fault but rather a power outage or Verizon mess up. In theory, and that is the theory Apple is counting on, you should never have to touch it!

    Apple thinks design is to be a kind of perfectionism. So they do not place ANYTHING in front that is a function unless it is essential. On an iMac, the power/reset button and various data ports are on the back all in the name of a kind of pseudo simplicity. I don’t think even Dieter Rams behaved this badly in the name of modernism.
    Rams believed good design should make a product useful and unobtrusive but also honest and understandable. Apple makes design too simple for its own good, thinking they are following these otherwise excellent ideals.
    OK, I say Apple but, we really know who we are talking aboutЁ

  7. The Cisco RV042 (a power user/small business appliance with Dual WAN/VPN, etc) has its power cable on the side, as you can see in the picture.

  8. Maybe you could just turn the devices around?

    Admittedly, then you wouldn’t be able to see the blinking lights, but you probably don’t look at them anyhow unless you already know something is wrong, and if you already know something is wrong you’re going to reset the devices.

  9. I have the same apple AE and the power/status light is actually in the same relative location as the actual plug. So you just use the light as a guide when reaching back there. The previous (white) appleTV and (white) Mac Mini have a similar plug/LED layout. Unfortunately the new appleTV and Mini don’t appear to have any LEDs so you’ll just have to use the force to find the plugs.

  10. if i was designing this airport, i would put a second status light on the back, so you could choose which way you wish to turn it..

    the sad thing is, 99% of the people would still turn it the other way, to keep it “pretty” (think apple-inspired no-buttons design, people like that kind of stuff)..

  11. Eric: a software reset is probably too slow for the troubleshooting that I do on the phone with the tech support reps from my cable company. It’s much faster just to unplug the wires quickly.

    Jonathan: lots of New York City apartments, like mine, don’t have enough power outlets to devote a power strip exclusively to these devices. But it’s a good solution otherwise.

    Joe: that’s exactly the situation I find myself in. It’s not the router’s fault but the internet service provider’s.

    Daniel: turning the devices around would mean all of the cables would be hanging off the front and would then need to be re-routed to the back, which is messy and inconvenient. What’s more it would make the devices an even more tempting target for my baby daughter to yank on than they are now.

  12. The Apple Time Capsule is even worse. It’s a *hard drive*, which we’ve all been taught NEVER to unplug without giving it a chance to power down and disconnect. But there’s no way to do that. You just have to reach around and yank the plug out of the back. It must be okay, but it always feels awful.

  13. One button to rule them all, this approach works so well for me that I made adjustments to my home layout for this to work (aging Tokyo apartments have the same problem with minimal outlets).

    Oh, and, Apple products that have power buttons on the back show users where the switch is located via the sleep/power indicator on the face. Mini, iMac, Airport, any others?

  14. My solution is surge-protector one. I have everything in a closet where I’ve built a shelf and placed a surge protector in a convenient way specifically for this reason. A few years ago when I had an electrician doing some other jobs, I had him run both cable and phone to the closet so that I can switch from DSL to cable, or back, depending on who’s ticking me off the most.

    But that’s not why I’m commenting.

    Here’s why I’m commenting. Your post reminds me of this classic bit of South Park video.

  15. I’m with Jonathan. I have everything in the wiring closet off a UPS, so I can use the internet during a bit of power outage. And off that, a simple power strip. If something fails, usually it cascaded into confusing other devices, and I power cycle the whole stack.

    Device power switches are usually software controlled anymore. They don’t work, and I unplug my DVD player far too much now.

    Restart thru software is universally useless for lockups. If it locked, I routinely cannot access it via the control panel.

    I vote for Non Crappy Hardware. Lets slow the stupid release cycles and make solid devices for a change.

  16. Remember, this is Apple you’re talking about. Form usually over function… for better or worse.

    But, at least you can change the functionality of the green LED by going to Airport > Base Station > Options. They know what’s _really_ important.

  17. Get a female engineer on the case, and I’ll betcha she’ll figure out how to mix form and function graccefully.

  18. I agree that this is a ridiculous problem which should’ve been solved long ago.

    As others have suggested, putting a power button on the front that, when held for three seconds, completely cuts power to the device seems like it would do the trick. Then you push the button again to turn it back on.

    But, since Steve Jobs isn’t becoming a pragmatist any time soon, for now this seems like a good way to solve the router and limited-outlet problems, Khoi.

  19. @Daniel is absolutely right. And at the same time exposes the reason all of the connections are in the back, even though putting them in the front is much more functional.

    It’s because having them in the front is a visual mess, best kept hidden from view.

    It seems to me that the real design challenge is to make a visually beautiful cabling system where everything is exposed in the front.

    Industrial designers have focused on the shape of the device itself under the assumption that the device’s ugly appendages will be hidden. Treat the appendage system with the same thoughtfulness as the device and you will solve the problem.

    No small task

  20. Jared: I don’t know which @daniel you’re referring to (several Daniels posted here), but if it’s the Daniel just above who says “turn them around,” in my opinion he’s not “absolutely right.”

    As I said in my comment above, turning the devices around creates a visual mess, requires me to rewire the cables (and these cables often have an inherent ‘pull’ to them so they can’t just be turned around easily), and they would then pose an even greater temptation to my young daughter to pull. It might be a good solution for some people, but not for me.

    I actually don’t think this task is that difficult. Ethan and others above are closer to the ideal solution, to my mind, when they suggest a simple button, accessible from the front, that powers the device down.

  21. I guess my suggestion was more pragmatic than elegant Ё

    The thing is, this problem HAS been resolved. I’ve never owned a router that doesn’t have an easily accessible power button! It surprises me that Apple would completely omit it. I’m sure they have their own sinister reasons.

    (Actually, as well as a power switch, my router also doubles as a photo frame. This function isn’t referred to at all in the accompanying literature. I didn’t need a picture frame. They weren’t selling it as ‘featuring a picture frame’, but there it is. Very odd.)

  22. Daniel: I might have been misleading in my comments. I didn’t mean to suggest this is an Apple-specific problem. This is a problem I’ve seen on every router I’ve owned — and I’ve had routers from Linksys, Netgear and Vonage as well as Apple. None of these have had easily accessible power buttons.

    So I’m surprised to hear you’ve had the opposite experience where every router you’ve owned has a power switch. I wonder if we’re talking about the same thing. What I have in mind was best articulated above by Ethan Resnick:

    “As others have suggested, putting a power button on the front that, when held for three seconds, completely cuts power to the device seems like it would do the trick. Then you push the button again to turn it back on.”

  23. Just had a scour for a decent picture of it, unfortunately this is the best one I can find:

    Link

    You can see the power switch is on the side. Whenever there’s a problem, I just click it to power off, click it to power on. Then wait a couple of minutes for it to pick up a connection again. Simple.

  24. A power button on the front is not a valid solution.

    Simply turning off a piece of electronics with a power button does not cut power to the equipment. Electricity continues to power the device until the power source is cut off. The only way to cut complete power is to unplug the power source.

    Using a power on off button is akin to putting your computer in ‘hibernate’ or ‘sleep’ mode. The computer is still being powered, just more silently. Same as when you turn your tv off. A small amount of power is still being used to wait for the power button to be turned on again.

    The goal of unplugging your router is to do a complete reset of the device. This can’t be done without completely cutting power.

    See my first post (the first comment) for what I still feel is the most reasonable solution.

  25. Sam: I think your solution is a good one. But I find it hard to believe that today’s level of engineering couldn’t create a switch that would completely cut off power. My guess is that the behavior you describe of ‘hibernate’ or ‘sleep mode’ that’s associated with most power switches is a choice of design, not a constraint of electrical engineering. I could be wrong of course.

  26. @Sam Everything you say makes sense, but the proof is right there every time I use the power button on my router: it works. If that isn’t a solution, I don’t know what is!

  27. @Daniel I’m glad the solution works for you, as it may for many others. This doesn’t change that the goal in unplugging power is to completely cut power, and that a power button won’t do that.

    @Khoi, I’d bet there is an electrical engineer of some sort that follows your blog. My understanding has always been that when a circuit board accepts ac power, the power source is always present, ottherwise there’d be no current present to switch on when a signal to power on is sent. If I am wrong in that, I’d love to know.

  28. Sam, just curious, but isn’t a switch (mechanical) that cuts the power current doing exactly that? I’m sure there’s a simple way of creating a mechanical switch that triggers on and off by pushing a button. Instead of using an electrical switch, make the power button mechanical.

    I completely agree with this article… I’d even like better solutions that combine the modem and router because I see no real reason to have two separate devices. I remember Linksys making a combined product a while back, but it was incredibly buggy.

  29. This reminds me of the Nokia 2110. You could disconnect and reconnect its battery without even looking at it, and be sure it was powered off. It gave a reassuring click for confirmation. It was not what the designers intended, but it was what people wanted. So you would see businessmen in airports, theatres, etc. reach for their phones and do the lift-battery-attach-battery sequence.

    As Sam pointed out, many on/off buttons let you just send a request to the device to power itself on or off. They are soft switches. Like the one on an iMac or my Siemens mobile, which when I switch it off shows a movie about fish before apparently hibernating. Seriously.

    Many permanently-on devices benefit from being treated like lamps. Really. Cut the power cord and put in an in-line cord switch. I did that for my cable-modem-router thingy (which I switch off when I leave the house for more than a day) and a Sonos S5. You save some electricity and you actually get to walk a few feet now and then.

    I use RC-switches for things I want to switch without getting out of my bed/chair.

    I say take back the power from the little buggers.

  30. As well as this, a power switch or something would make it easier to have the device switched off when not in use, saving (a perhaps negligible amount of) electricity. Some have an option to trigger a “low-power mode” at certain times of day, but that’s not always predictable, and certainly won’t properly cut off the power supply.

  31. Joshua: In general that would be very smart for other kinds of devices, though in fairness, routers are almost exclusively intended to be ‘always on.’

  32. I don’t actually mind having a power switch in the back on a router since you really don’t need to turn it off very often. My problem with the Airport Extreme is there is in fact no power switch!

    Like the TiVo, you have to unplug it to power it down and plug it back in to power it back up. That seems stupid.

  33. @Sam / @Paul For me (and for Khoi by the sounds of it) the goal is to get the router working. Simple as that. I really don’t care if there’s power running through it or not! If a button works, then a button works — no need to reinvent the wheel.

    @Ian Again, the router+modem solution is pretty much standard here in the UK — it surprises me to hear that a lot of you are still using seperate devices. I have one small, not-too-unattractive white box (with a button on it) plugged into the wall. Job done.

  34. …and the older I get the less I see down, back, around and beyond there. I guess that is why they say the blind man cries.

  35. @Daniel: I agree, this is about getting the thing working. Saving some energy might be a nice side effect though.

    Your 5 Watt router is not a problem. 500 million 5 Watt routers are a problem.

  36. Agreeing with Daniel: The discussion brings me back ten years ago, when cable confusion began to slither away. My oldest son and his friends began directing me in appropriate outlet placement on any new gagets coming home. All video and audio input lines had to be on the front of the tv’s for easy access to their playstations and Xboxes.

    They were more of mobile gaming unit then. It made sense. Since I have this same router with everything in the back and a cable as thick as a rope and unwilling to cooperate with the design of my room of tech needs, I am doing the yoga moves to flush that baby out.

    Again, Daniel…separate devices? Exactly! I don’t miss the days of the pile up different kinds media players in the house one bit. I really hate the look and mound of gagetry and all the pieces, but love the ability to RIP that modem wire out of the wall when I need to.

    In the end function and form might come together. I do have my white SLR! That’s one piece of tech in the mess I can locate!

  37. Please don’t encourage device manufacturers to go back to the bad old days where boxes would have cables sticking out on multiple sides! Having cables sticking out of more than one side of a device profoundly limits the way you can position and locate the device in your house. This is not an aesthetic issue, it’s a special issue (though it is aesthetic insofar as a one-side approach permits the device owner to put other stuff on the shelf/surface around it, whereas having additional cables on the front or sides force them to dedicate more shelf space to accommodate the cables. Cables on one side (the back, usually) as a device design constraint is non-negotiable. As described above, there are much better solutions for solving the power-cycling problem.

  38. I think we’re all going about it the WRONG way. Why have a switch on the “front” when the orientation of the device may change based on application? The best location for a switch would be the top of the device–surely no one will place their router up-side down?!