How to Buy Home Networking Products

Small office and home networks make simple work of printer and file sharing, Internet phone calls, and streaming media. But getting the right products can be confusing. We'll show you how to get the most for the money.

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What if you want to network a mix of devices—for example, laptops that support wireless and media centers that could benefit from a wired hookup? Creating a hybrid network isn't that difficult. You could, for instance, buy an 802.11n router to connect wirelessly with the notebook, and plug power-line adapters into the router and your media center to enjoy a smoother streaming-media experience.

Speed and range: If you plan to use your network primarily for sharing broadband Internet access, the speed limitations of your networking technology won't matter much: Even poky 802.11b significantly exceeds the top speed (1 to 6 mbps) of residential DSL or cable service in most regions. But if you intend to stream multimedia or move large files between PCs and other networked devices, you'll appreciate the difference between a fast network and a slow one.

Today's 10/100-mbps ethernet networks are the fastest in widespread use, but gigabit ethernet is becoming more common. Power-line products based on HomePlug AV, Digital Home Standard, or HD PLC technology aren't quite as fast as 10/100 ethernet, but they are reliable and generally maintain better speed over a much wider range than wireless networks can support.

The fastest current wireless products are based on draft 2 of the upcoming 802.11n standard—be sure to look for Wi-Fi Alliance interoperability certification. Prices for draft-2 gear have come way down in the last year or so, and though some 802.11b and g products are still available, we recommend spending a little more for 802.11n technology. For the fastest and best coverage, seek out 802.11n products with three receiving and three transmitting antennas; they will cost more than models with two antennas, but will perform better.

If money is tight, and speed and range aren't huge concerns (in a small studio, for example), you might go for some older 802.11g products at fire-sale prices. Lagging considerably behind are 802.11b Wi-Fi (11 mbps maximum) and HomePlug 1.0 (14 mbps maximum) products; remember, for any of these devices, you should expect real-world throughput of less than half the theoretical maximum speeds. Most vendors aren't even making products based on these early-stage technologies anymore.

It's also important to note that speed on wireless networks deteriorates rapidly as distance from the access point increases or as obstacles such as doors, walls, metal objects, and ceilings intervene. Though many Wi-Fi vendors claim a range of up to 300 feet, you shouldn't count on a range of more than about 100 to 125 feet for 802.11b or g Wi-Fi in a typical office, and somewhat less in a home, depending on the layout (and the potential obstacles) in the environment. The range for pre-n and draft-n networks should be significantly greater.

For tips on improving your wireless network's range, read "Give Your Wi-Fi Network Wider Range, More Speed."

Wireless range extenders, which improve the strength of a wireless access point's signal and increase the distance from which you can connect to a wireless network, may help. Extenders cost approximately $60 and up, and they appear to your wireless adapter as a separate network. Be sure, however, that an extender is compatible with your Wi-Fi flavor.

Security: Because would-be intruders don't have to plug in to a physical port for direct access to a wireless network (as they do with a wired network), such networks are generally vulnerable to attack. Designers intended the encryption algorithm built into the 802.11x spec, called Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP), to provide the same level of protection as the physical barrier in a wired network. Unfortunately, encryption experts have shown that WEP is vulnerable to attack.

Fortunately, most Wi-Fi products introduced in the last couple of years support an improved encryption scheme called Wi-Fi Protected Access, or WPA, and 802.11n products all support the even more stringent (but more efficient, since it's hardware-based) IEEE 802.11i standard known informally as WPA2. However, a Wi-Fi network's security is only as strong as the weakest scheme that all of the networked devices support, so if you are using older products that support only WEP, all components on the network will be vulnerable to attacks that circumvent WEP.

If you're stuck with equipment that supports only WEP security, you can improve your odds by purchasing network adapters that support 128-bit encryption (versus the 40-bit encryption possible with basic wireless cards). But if security is vital, take additional precautions, such as using a virtual private network (VPN) and/or a sturdy firewall, whether your network is wired or not. Also, consider upgrading to faster and newer gear that does support WPA2.

Hardware support: Not all types of network components are available for each network technology. For example, if you want to share a single broadband Internet account over a wireless network, you can find several Wi-Fi routers that combine the components you need—basically an access point for the wireless connections and a router to manage network traffic. (Most wireless routers also provide a few wired-ethernet ports, as well.)

Wi-Fi client gear can be trickier to find for the format you want. Locating PC Card adapters for laptops in all Wi-Fi flavors used to be easy; but with so many notebooks now shipping with built-in Wi-Fi, some manufacturers are skipping the cards in favor of USB adapters. Some vendors also offer PCI Wi-Fi adapters for desktops.

Firewall features: If you use a router or gateway to connect your network to the Internet, it will typically have a built-in firewall to ward off intruders. But the configurability of such firewalls varies widely. Some make it easy for authorized applications to connect directly to a designated PC on your network, which is useful for certain videoconferencing and messaging applications, not to mention online games. If you have a static IP address, some gateways will even help you set up a Web server. Others offer parental controls, allowing you to block access to Web sites by URL or even by certain keywords. In addition to turning on your router's hardware firewall, it's a good idea to install a software firewall, which can protect you from Trojan horses and other PC malware.

The Specs Explained

Several major types of network technology compete for your investment in dollars and hours. They fall into two major categories: those for networks that use wires and those for networks that don't.

The ranks of wired networks include the granddaddy of networking technology: reliable old ethernet. Such connections create the fastest, most secure, and cheapest (at least for components alone) network. But installing the technology requires running special cables, which can be expensive—and an eyesore-producing hassle.

Power-line networks don't require running any new wires, because they piggy-back on the electrical wires already installed in your home or office. But they don't afford users the mobility of wireless—and with three different fast but incompatible power-line technologies on the market (Digital Home Standard, HD PLC, and HomePlug AV), you must take care to buy compatible products.

With wireless networks, the vast majority of buyers will choose equipment based on draft 2 of the fast 802.11n standard. Routers come in a wide range of features and prices, as we saw in our most recent review of draft-n routers. Key differentiators include gigabit ethernet support, the number of transmitting and receiving antennas, and frequency band support (most support 2.4 GHz; you'll pay more for 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz support together).

Important: Tested Speed

All networks are fast enough for sharing Internet access and printers. But if you want to transfer large amounts of data—for example, to back up to a networked hard drive or file server—you should consider one of the faster wired or wireless technologies. Draft-n and pre-n Wi-Fi networks can move data at speeds of 30 to 50 mbps, or even faster at close range, but speed declines dramatically as the distance between the networked device and the router increases, especially if obstacles such as walls and ceilings intervene.

The newest power-line devices can transfer data at speeds comparable to those of the swiftest Wi-Fi networks, and they maintain those speeds even at distance. In our tests conducted when these power-line products first appeared, straight file transfers were fastest—about 42 mbps—with a Netgear product based on DS2 technology, approaching ethernet's tested real-world speed of 52 mbps. But HomePlug AV proved significantly better at streaming high-def video, especially on a circuit with another electrical device plugged in. Newer power-line products are due later this year, and we'll report on any changes in test results; but since the basic standards haven't changed, we don't anticipate dramatic differences.

The rated speed is the theoretical maximum speed of the network under ideal conditions. While rated speeds might be useful in comparing the relative performance capabilities of different network technologies, tested speeds are much better indicators of what kind of real-world performance to expect from your network.

Ethernet is the most secure networking method. Because older homes or apartments may share power circuits, it's possible (though unlikely) that someone else on the same circuit could sneak onto your HomePlug network, especially if you don't change the default settings of your equipment. For HomePlug AV, newer products are expected to make adjusting the settings easier, by eliminating the need to do so via desktop software.

Wi-Fi networks are the most vulnerable to intruders because no physical connection is required to access them. Also, the basic WEP encryption in all Wi-Fi devices has been shown to be fairly easy to penetrate. However, if all of your network equipment can support the more recent and more effective WPA or WPA2 security, your Wi-Fi network will probably be reasonably secure.

Somewhat Important: Cost per Network Adapter

At $10 to $40, ethernet adapters are generally cheaper than those for Wi-Fi ($10 to $50 for 802.11b, $20 to $90 for 802.11g, and $70 to $100 for pre-n and draft-n) and HomePlug ($60 to $100). But an ethernet network also requires that you run Category 5 cables to all networked devices. If your home or small office doesn't already have Cat5 wiring, you will also have to factor in the cost of installing such wiring, which may be significant.

Somewhat Important: Cost per Router/Access Point or Bridge

Routers direct traffic between networks—for example, between devices on your home network and the Internet. Simple home network routers typically have a wide-area network port that connects to a cable or DSL modem, and an ethernet switch with several local-area network ports into which you plug ethernet cables connected to PCs, printers, or other networkable devices. You can buy one of these basic routers for $30 to $70.

Wi-Fi routers include a built-in wireless access point through which Wi-Fi devices connect to the LAN. You can buy a 802.11n router now for as little as $40 (for a two-antenna router without gigabit ethernet support), or spend as much as $180 to $200 for a dual-band router. No vendors offer routers for the newer power-line technologies; to set up a power-line network, you simply plug a power-line adapter into an available LAN port on a standard router. You can, in fact, use a single Wi-Fi router with an ethernet switch to support Wi-Fi, ethernet, and power-line-connected devices.

Somewhat Important: Multimedia Optimization Features

While many people initially install a home network in order to share Internet access, printers, and files, the up-and-coming application for such networks is the ability to stream media. A growing number of new set-top boxes, digital video recorders, and living-room PCs have built-in networking support so that you can access their content on other networked devices—for example, to view a show recorded on your living-room DVR on the HDTV in your bedroom. But to do this, your network needs more than just sufficient bandwidth to support the media stream; it also needs technology that can prioritize the packets to ensure smooth playback.

There's actually a Wi-Fi standard for this, known as 802.11e. However, not all Wi-Fi devices support it—and Wi-Fi gets particularly problematic for media playback if you live in a crowded urban environment with lots of nearby Wi-Fi networks. If multimedia playback is important to you, you should investigate a network technology's support for this feature and consider using a wired network technology if possible.

Home Networking Shopping Tips

Shopping for networking products can be confusing. Our tips can help you simplify the process before you plunk down a big chunk of cash.

General Networking Tips

Plan your network on paper: Figure out how many computers and other devices you plan to network, which rooms they're in, and how far apart the rooms are. Evaluate how easy it would be to run cables among the devices. Take into account whether each of the rooms has an electrical outlet or ethernet port close to the device you plan to connect. Also consider other rooms where you may want to add network connections later, such as a conference room at a business office, or the living room or family room at home. This planning will help you decide which technology will work best now and in the future.

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