How to Buy Home Networking Products
If your home or small office has two or more PCs, you'll be pleasantly surprised by how many problems a network solves. Tired of sharing files by ferrying thumb drives or CDs? Exhausted from battling your spouse or a coworker over who gets a new printer or access to a broadband Internet account? These issues go away once your PCs are connected and talking to each other.
The Big Picture Learn the benefits and drawbacks of the different types of wired and wireless networks. more
The Specs Explained Find out how to make sure a network is fast and secure enough for your needs. more
Home Networking Shopping Tips Read our strategies for picking out the best networking technology before you start shopping. more
The Big Picture
A network lets you connect multiple PCs and other devices together so that they can share resources such as printers, files, or an Internet connection. There are three major types of home networks: ethernet networks that make connections over special (Category 5) wiring; power-line networks that use existing electric wiring and outlets; and wireless (Wi-Fi) networks based on components that send data over the airwaves using radio frequencies.
A wireless home network offers more convenience than a wired one--there's no need to install cables, and notebook users can roam untethered. But wired networks are generally more secure and reliable, and those that use existing electrical wiring eliminate the expense and hassle of installing new cables. Depending on your requirements for the location and mobility of networked devices, you might consider combining elements of wired and wireless networks: It's relatively easy if you plan ahead.
Networks based on the IEEE's family of 802.11 standards for wireless ethernet are commonly referred to as Wi-Fi.
Wi-Fi comes in several flavors. The newest and most expensive products are based on the first draft of the upcoming 802.11n standard. They are among the fastest wireless products available, with maximum theoretical speeds of up to 300 megabits per second (mbps); their range of coverage is also dramatically better than that of networks based on the earlier and slower 802.11a, b, and g standards described below.
However, because these first so-called draft-n products were based on an incomplete standard, products from different vendors--or products from the same vendor that use different draft-n chips--may not be compatible, out of the box, at anything faster than 802.11g speeds (draft-n products are backward-compatible with both 802.11g and 802.11b gear, but only at the slower speeds of these older standards).
The good news is that most of these products are supposed to be firmware-upgradable to a second draft of the standard approved in early 2007. Draft 2 is supposed to solve many of the compatibility problems that plagued the initial standard, so if you do invest in draft-n equipment, make sure to check your vendor's site to get the most recent firmware updates. Vendors have said that the updates should appear by midsummer at the latest. Meanwhile, the Wi-Fi Alliance--the industry organization that certifies Wi-Fi gear from different vendors for interoperability--expects to begin interim certification of products based on draft 2 of the 802.11n standard in June. Certified products from different vendors will be able to interoperate at high speed.
When will products based on the completed standard appear? Draft 2 has already received preliminary approval to become the basis for the final spec, but because the IEEE's process for publishing a new standard is so complex, a published, final spec isn't anticipated until October of next year. But again, for practical purposes, Wi-Fi Alliance certification is more important for end users, and certified products should start appearing at retail this summer.
Draft-N vs. Pre-N
The 802.11n standard's superior speed and range derive in part from its use of multipath radio and antenna technology that first appeared a couple of years ago in products (including some labeled pre-n) based on chips from a single vendor, Airgo Networks. Products based on Airgo's latest chips are still sold alongside draft-n products, and in our tests they actually outperformed the initial draft-n products. But they are not compatible (except at 802.11b/g speeds, since Airgo-based products are also backward-compatible with those standards) with draft-n product, and cannot be firmware-upgraded to the standard. At this point we can't wholeheartedly recommend investing in proprietary technology when standards-based gear is about to hit the market.
Another caveat: When shopping for a Wi-Fi network, you will likely run into a number of products labeled "MIMO." MIMO is an acronym for "multiple-in, multiple out," and it relates to multiple antenna technology--but there are several such technologies, so the term isn't particularly helpful in distinguishing between different high-performance Wi-Fi products. For compatibility's sake, you're best off getting draft-n gear from the same vendor, based on the same chips.
You should be able to find the name of the chip vendor on the literature and packaging of draft-n products products (principal chip vendors include Atheros, Broadcom, and Marvel).
Older and Slower Standards
If high bandwidth and especially coverage range for a wireless network are not of paramount importance, products based on older 802.11 standards may provide all the connectivity you need for a lot less money--if you can find them. The older standards are 802.11g, which has a theoretical maximum throughput of 54 mbps, and 802.11b, which has a theoretical maximum off 11 mbps.
You may also see 802.11g gear promising speeds of up to 108 mbps, but these products use proprietary technologies, and you probably won't achieve those speeds if you mix and match 802.11g products from different vendors.
Note that if all that you're sharing on your network is broadband Internet access, you might not notice any performance boost from faster network gear because most cable or DSL hookups top out at 1.5 to 3 mbps. While Wi-Fi connections never approach their theoretical maximum speeds, even 802.11b Wi-Fi networks can keep up with the fastest broadband.
2.4 GHz vs. 5.4 GHz
Prices are also dropping, albeit not as quickly as those for 802.11g and b gear, on products using the 802.11a standard. Like the 802.11g standard it predated, 802.11a has a theoretical maximum speed of 54 mbps. But because it uses the 5.4-GHz frequency range--which has a dozen non-overlapping channels compared with just three for the 2.4-GHz range that 802.11b and g use--802.11a is less prone to interference.
Note, too, that 802.11b and 802.11g devices must compete not only against other nearby 802.11b and g networks, but against Bluetooth devices, some cordless phones, and other household electronics equipment that also use the 2.4-GHz range. An 802.11a adapter won't work on an 802.11b/g network, and vice versa.
While the first draft-n products also operate in the 2.4-GHz range, a couple of brand-new draft-n routers offer support for both 2.4- and 5-GHz bands, and are therefore compatible with 802.11a, b, and g gear. If you want support for network components that use both frequencies, make sure to get a router that can handle them simultaneously (some dual-mode routers may be configured to support only one frequency or the other).
For more details about each wireless networking standard and other related terms, see "Get With the Lingo."
On the wired side, power-line technologies that transfer data over your home's existing electrical lines are becoming increasingly attractive alternatives to ethernet, which requires special wiring that can be expensive to install.
HomePlug 1.1, the HomePlug Powerline Alliance's original, 14-mbps technology, delivers speeds on a par with those of 802.11b Wi-Fi. But it is in the process of being eclipsed by a newer and faster successor, called HomePlug AV. With theoretical maximum throughput of 200 mbps and technology to optimize streaming multimedia, HomePlug AV is shaping up as a strong competitor to 802.11n as the best standard for moving video and music throughout a networked home. Zyxel and Linksys are among the U.S. vendors that have released HomePlug AV products.
However, HomePlug AV itself faces competition from other power-line technologies. One is the Digital Home Standard, based on 200-mbps technology from a Spanish company called DS2 and promoted by the Universal Powerline Association (the trade group backing Power Line Communications technology for delivering data services over electrical distribution lines). Netgear and D-Link are already shipping products based on DS2 technology. Panasonic has also introduced its HD PLC power-line adapters, based on the company's own technology.
The Ethernet Option
Ethernet remains the gold standard for network connectivity because of its speed and reliability. But it requires special wiring between all network components, and installing ethernet cabling can be an expensive and messy proposition. Most PCs support 10/100-mbps ethernet, but 1-gbps (1024-mbps, or "gigabit") ethernet is becoming increasingly common in desktops.
No matter which technology you choose, you'll need a network adapter or a network interface card for each PC you want to connect to the network. You'll also need a router--a kind of switchboard that directs all data traffic between PCs on your network and between your network and your Internet connection.
If you're installing a wireless network, you will need either a router with a built-in wireless access point, or--if you already have a router--a separate wireless access point to plug into it. Wireless access points connect wireless networks to wired ones (such as your Internet connection). The access point communicates with Wi-Fi adapters, sending and receiving the data in radio signals to and from the wired network, and then the Internet. All wireless networks involve one adapter connecting to one access point, and most wireless home gateways have built-in access points.
Network type: Wireless networks lack messy cord tangle, and they are especially convenient for notebook users who don't want to be confined to one physical location. Most notebooks now come with built-in Wi-Fi adapters that let you connect to public 802.11b and g Wi-Fi "hotspots" for Internet access. (Most hotspots don't support 802.11a, and it's doubtful they ever will.) A few notebooks now have integrated broadband wireless adapters, which let you connect to the Internet via a cellular broadband network.
However, range limitations can make a wireless network impractical in spaces that are very large, occupy several floors, or contain lots of obstructions such as doors and walls. Plus, wireless networks have inherent security drawbacks; see the security section below for more.
If any of these issues apply to you, several wired choices are available. Ethernet remains the fastest, cheapest, and most secure networking technology, but you must connect all network components using Category 5 cable--and installing Cat5 cable can be a challenge.
Depending on the layout of your house or apartment, home users who want a wired network may be better off with a power-line network that lets you connect your PCs and peripherals using existing electrical circuitry. Power-line adapters typically connect to ethernet ports in PCs and other networkable devices on one end, and to standard wall outlets on the other end. You also need to plug a power-line adapter into an available ethernet port on your router (and a wall outlet).
Which power-line network technology should you get? HomePlug 1.0 is cheap, but the speeds it supports are roughly on a par with that of the slowest (802.11b) Wi-Fi. All of the newer high-speed technologies (HomePlug AV, DS2's Digital Home Standard, and Panasonic's HD PLC) transfer files quickly and support streaming standard-definition video. But in our preliminary tests, network adapters based on the HomePlug AV specification were best able to transmit high-definition video content, even with interference from another electrical device.
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: All of the popular standards significantly exceed the top speed (1 to 3 mbps) of residential DSL or cable service in most regions. But if you plan 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. New power-line products that are 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 either on an early draft of the upcoming 802.11n standard or on nonstandard third-generation chips from Airgo Networks. However, Airgo products can't interoperate with draft 802.11n products. Draft 802.11n products should become fully interoperable--if they aren't already--after firmware upgrades, due this summer, to draft 2 of the standard.
Components based on the 802.11a and 802.11g standards--both rated at 54 mbps--typically cost less than pre- and draft-n products, but more than 802.11b counterparts. But because 802.11g products are generally targeted at consumers, they are cheaper than comparable 802.11a devices, which are used mostly in corporations.
Lagging considerably behind are 802.11b Wi-Fi (11 mbps maximum) and HomePlug 1.0 (14 mbps maximum)--and for any of these products, you should expect real-world throughput of less than half the theoretical speeds.
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, don'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 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 some also support even more stringent security (based on the IEEE's 802.11i standard) called WPA2. However, a Wi-Fi network's security is only as strong as the weakest scheme supported by all networked devices, 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.
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 802.11b and 802.11g 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.) And 802.11b or 802.11g adapters--ones that connect via USB or PCI cards for desktops, and PC Cards for notebooks--are widely available, too. But because 802.11a's primary appeal has been to businesses that want to offer their notebook-wielding employees fast wireless access to an existing ethernet network, adapter options are far more limited. In general, notebook cards are easier to find than desktop adapters, since many people simply park their broadband hookups and routers near their desktop, which they then connect to the router via ethernet.
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--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. Ethernet 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.
With wireless networks, the vast majority of buyers will choose either 802.11g equipment for moderate speed and coverage at relatively affordable prices, or--if high bandwidth and wide coverage requirements justify greater expenditures--pre-n or draft-n gear. See "Wireless Routers: The Truth about Superfast Draft-N" for our review of six fast Wi-Fi product lines. The arrival of draft 2 of the 802.11n spec has changed the landscape, however: The firmware on almost all of the products we reviewed should be upgradable to the new spec, which promises vastly improved interoperability.
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. In our tests, 802.11b wireless and HomePlug 1.0 power-line networks were the slowest, with real-world speeds of 4.5 to 5 megabits per second. Networks based on 802.11g Wi-Fi can move data at speeds ranging from 11 to 27 mbps--but you can achieve the higher speeds only at close range with equipment from the same vendor that uses proprietary technology.
Similarly, 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 only between devices based on the same high-performance chips chips (though a firmware upgrade to the second 802.11n draft should address interoperability issues). And with Wi-Fi, 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 fastest Wi-Fi networks, and they maintain those speeds even at distance. In our tests, straight file transfers were fastest--about 42 mbps--with a Netgear product based on DS2 technology, approaching ethernet's tested 52 mbps real-world speed. But HomePlug AV proved significantly better at streaming high-def video, especially on a circuit with another electrical device plugged in.
Somewhat Important: Rated Speed
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.
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-$50 for 802.11b, $20-$90 for 802.11g, and $70-$100 for pre- and draft-n) and HomePlug ($60 to $100). But an ethernet network also requires Category 5 cables to all networked devices. If your home or small office doesn't already have Cat 5 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 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. Costs range from as little as $30 for an older 802.11g router (very few retailers carry 802.11b-only routers) to $100-$150 for a draft-n or pre-n 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, 802.11e. However, not all Wi-Fi devices support it--and Wi-Fi gets particularly problematic for media playback if you happen to 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.
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.
Try the best of both worlds. If elements of different networks appeal to you--for example, you like the speed and security of wired networks but would like to be able to wander freely with a notebook--consider a hybrid approach. Many wireless gateways (a general term for a router that connects your network to the outside world) contain both a wireless access point and one or more ethernet ports for connecting to a wired network.
Buy a network with room to grow. Your networking needs may increase as new applications (such as connecting to home entertainment devices) arrive. Look for gear that allows you to add devices or network types. If you decide to buy a wireless residential gateway, for example, choose one that has multiple local area network (LAN) ethernet ports--in addition to the wide area network (WAN) port you'll hook up to your broadband modem. This will allow you to create a hybrid network that lets you connect multiple computers or devices, whether they're wired or wireless.
If you'd like to provide network access to your printer without having to hook it up to a single, always-on PC, look for a gateway with a built-in print server (you connect the printer to a parallel or USB port on the gateway or, if the printer has a built-in network card, to an ethernet port). Some new routers even support multifunction printers, enabling you to copy, scan, fax, and print over your network.
Wireless Network Tips
Wireless 802.11g networks offer the best combination of convenience and price for many people. Different 802.11g products made by different manufacturers should be able to work together, and a growing number of public places like hotels, airports, and coffee shops are offering wireless Internet access via 802.11b or g.
However, if range is a major concern--as in a larger home or office, or because you want to work on a notebook in your backyard--or if you can really use additional bandwidth for large file transfers within your network, then consider products based on a draft of the upcoming 802.11n standard (for example, Netgear's RangeMax Next or Linksys's Wireless-N line). Both are backward-compatible with 802.11b and g gear. Whichever vendor you buy from, make sure to check its Web site for firmware upgrades--due this summer--that will bring the equipment into compliance with draft 2 of the 802.11n standard.
If you're currently using older 802.11b products, consider upgrading to 802.11g (or newer) gear that supports stronger WPA or WPA2 encryption. You'll have better security at home and still be able to take advantage of public hotspots that use 802.11b.
Although 802.11a products are primarily limited to enterprises now, the technology may resurface as interference problems increasingly plague 802.11b/g users in areas where multiple Wi-Fi networks exist in close proximity--apartment buildings in large cities, for example. Products using the 802.11a standard provide more non-overlapping channels and operate at the higher 5.4-GHz frequency range, qualities that make them less susceptible to signal interference. Initially, using the 5.4-GHz frequency limited the range of 802.11a products to about half that of their 11b and 11g counterparts, but vendors have enhanced the range of their newer 802.11a products so that their range is comparable with their 11g and 11b equivalents. You can do a little future-proofing by looking for an 802.11n router that works on both the 2.4- and 5-GHz frequencies; these so-called dual-mode routers will support legacy 802.11a, b, and g gear, but you can expect to pay a premium for one.
Finally, consider the distance you need. Wireless network transmission is limited to about 125 feet, and walls and doors limit transmission even more; expect improvements if you switch from an 802.11b or g network to one based on the newer and faster wireless technologies. Wireless range extenders can double the range of an older network; they cost about $60.
Wired Network Tips
If you don't mind wires, use ethernet. It's fast, it's secure, and it's cheap. Pulling cable through walls and crawl spaces isn't for everybody, but it's not all that difficult. Plus, a wired network can add resale value to your house, like any other improvement. If you're building a new home, the relatively low cost of parts and the ease of installation in unfinished walls make adding ethernet to every room worth considering.
If you don't want to lay new wires, try a power-line network; you won't have to string new cable or install new network ports in your walls.