How To Put Together A Good Home Network (Part 2)

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Step 3 - Choose Your Connection Type

It's a common misconception that wireless networks are in some way superior to a cabled network. In actual fact, the reverse is almost invariably true. If you can use a cable, then you should use a cable. As well as being much faster than wireless, a cabled connection is more consistent. It's not subject to interference or distortion, and is also inherently more secure. In an ideal world we would all have our houses cabled internally with CAT6 Ethernet cables. If you're in a lucky enough position to be moving into a new-build house, be sure to specify network connectivity in all rooms as you would specify power sockets - our dependence on technology is only going to increase and having the infrastructure in place before you start could save you thousands of pounds in the future. If, like most of us, you buy a house without built-in connectivity, it usually isn't practical to have it retrofitted with gigabit networking. Try as I might, I have not been able to convince my better half that the £10,000 or so to run gigabit networking throughout the house would be money well spent.

Description: wireless network or wired network ?

Wireless network or wired network?

This therefore leaves most of us with something of a guandary. In a perfect world, everything would be connected via Ethernet, but this simply isn't practical. You therefore have to choose what kind of connection is suitable for your devices based on their usage. Mobile devices like laptops, netbooks and smartphones are easy. These are inherently mobile devices so they should connect over wireless. If your phone or laptop supports the latest 802.11n 'wireless n' networking standard, then you should definitely upgrade your router to take advantage of it. These newer networks are much faster than older g-type networks, and usually provide you with better range as well.

Static devices that require fast connections for streaming present the biggest problem. Unless you have fantastic wireless signal strength or the devices are in close proximity (in which case, why aren't you using a cable?), then it's unlikely you will be able to stream high-quality video seamlessly between devices, particularly if it's high definition. Fortunately, there is a third alternative: the Powerline or HomePlug adaptor. Despite a rather shaky and unreliable start, these devices are becoming increasingly steady and useful products for home networks. They convert the power cables already running throughout your home into network cables, sending data along the power leads until they emerge at a corresponding Powerline adaptor next to your router. Although speeds are only slightly better than wireless, Powerline adaptors are usually a lot more consistent and reliable, and are less prone to interference. With that said, they can still go a little loopy when you fire up a high-drain device like a vacuum cleaner, a kettle or an oven, although this can usually be avoided so long as you don't keep the adaptors connected at a speed that sits on the bleeding edge of what's achievable.

Description: powerline adapter

Powerline adapter

A downside to Powerline adaptors is their expense; at around $64 a pair, they're pricier than the alternatives. If you need to connect multiple devices at one end of a Powerline network, you can also get Powerline switches. These operate using the same principle but have four ports at one end.

Once you've chosen your network connection by type, it's time to update your home network map with the network infrastructure you'll need.

Step 4 - Planning The Infrastructure

Description: Planning The Infrastructure

If, like me, you have a lot of network-connected devices, you will need to utilise all three types of connection (Powerline, wireless and Ethernet) in order to deliver the connectivity you need. From my router I have a total of six Ethernet ports available. Three of these are populated by devices in the same room: my main PC, my test PC, and a NAS device. Rather than run unsightly network cables internally, I chose to run a 10m network cable from the router's fourth port, through the external wall and then back into what has become known as the 'media room'. In here we have another four devices that need access to the network. This is where switches come in.

You don't need a second router here, as you only want one device assigning IP addresses and 'routing' resources, but we do need a switch, which can distribute the data between different connected devices. I used a six port switch here to connect the router to the PlayStation 3, the amp, the Xbox 360 and my wife's desktop PC.

Description: the Sky HD box

The Sky HD box


Moving downstairs we run into a bit of a snag. In the lounge we have another five devices, each of which needs an Ethernet connection. Most of these do have the option of connecting wirelessly, but it's quite a long way from that corner of the lounge to the router, so signal strength is far too poor for decent gaming or media streaming. This is where our Powerline technology comes in. At the router end, we have a simple Powerline adaptor, and then in the lounge we have a four-port Powerline switch. Unfortunately this is one connection too few, so the Sky HD box will have to go without. As my broadband isn't with Sky, I cannot use the 'Sky Anytime' feature anyway, so it isn't a big deal for me.

Finally we have the wirelessly connected devices - five of them to be exact. When using these devices upstairs there is no problem; the router has a strong enough 802.11n signal to send a decent connection speed to every room apart from the far corners of the main bedroom. Downstairs is a different matter. Apart from the kitchen, the thick Victorian walls of my property mean that signal deteriorates until it is useless as you move away from the kitchen. I have therefore installed a wireless repeater in the kitchen. This device essentially acts as an extender for the router, increasing its range markedly and providing universal wireless access throughout the property.

You might ask why not just use multiple repeaters and forget about anything else? The reason for this is that a single wireless connection has to be shared between all connected devices. If you have one device streaming video over wireless, for example, you won't have enough spare bandwidth over the connection for everything else that needs access to your connection! Wi-fi repeaters also have a habit of extending range at the cost of reducing wireless speed. The more repeaters you add, the more performance problems with your wireless network you are likely to encounter.

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