If you managed to read my last guide about buying a NAS, your next question maybe that of networking. Maybe you are still on a wired connection and all this wireless gubbins makes you nervous about hackers or maybe you need to have extra oomph in your household to handle all the phones, tablets, laptops, TVs, PVRs, consoles and even a fridge that connects to the internet. Well, I have a few options here for you that should help you down the right path.
Networks scare me!
Well, they shouldn’t. Today’s home networking products are very easy to setup and configure. If you’re a tech-head, you can of course bypass all of the wizards and fiddle with your own settings to the point of not getting it to work at all! For most of us though, we need a single network that is capable of connecting all of your devices that access the internet or for sharing other devices on your network. First we need to go through the technology behind it all and make some sense of the basic options.
Cable or DSL Router?
The first piece of equipment you need to think about, and possibly the only piece, is your router. This is what connects you to your ISP (Virgin, BT, TalkTalk etc) and then to the world. Most people already have these as they are generally supplied by your internet service provider when you sign on the dotted line. Cable customers such as Virgin Media will have a cable modem, whist the rest will have a DSL router. The difference is the cable that plugs into the wall and the back of the router. A DSL one has a smaller plug on it which goes into a splitter or a filter where your landline phone goes into. All this then goes into your traditional telephone wall socket. This filter separates out the telephone signal and internet signals allowing you to use the phone and the internet at the same time. Sometimes this filter needs replacing if your internet keeps slowing down or if your internet goes off when you get a phone call. Cable, however, plugs directly into your wall and doesn’t even touch your phone line and is capable of much faster speeds and more concurrent connections to the exchange.
Why “up to” speeds on DSL?
Well, for DSL users, this depends how far you are from your exchange. The further away you are, the more severe the drop in speed. More recently however, BT are putting in new trunk lines in your local high street and repeater boxes every so often. This means your connection has less distance to travel before it hits the magical fibre network or ADSL2+. Put it this way, I can’t get cable, the builder forgot to put it in when they built the house 3 years ago, so I came from 50mb Virgin speeds down to a crumby 8mb. This week, I upgraded to Plus.net which uses this “fibre” connection and now I get a lovely speedy 70mb.
Before you buy...
One key point to think about is your overall infrastructure. How many people are going to access the router and are you going to have any printers or NAS units on it. Do you plug any Sky+ boxes in, where’s your Xbox etc? WiFi is great, but if you can hard wire a device to a router, do it. This causes less traffic and less wait times (albeit in milliseconds) for “your” turn.
Location, location, location
The next thing to think about is location. Where is your master socket (for DSL) or where is your cable outlet. If you have lots of walls and floors in between where your router is and where you are, your signal will be week and ultimately your internet speed. No point in having 70mb internet speed if you only access it through your router at 11mb. You need to be talking to your router faster than you can connect to the outside world which in most cases will be 150mb or above. This means you will be looking at “n” class devices. This letter is placed at the end of the WiFi IEEE standard, 802.11. The latest and greatest is “n” which can provide speeds from 54mb to 600mb so you’re safe with this specification. There is the “ac” standard in draft which is 500mb to 1Gb and the “ad” draft is being tested to 7Gb! This is the new “WiGig” you may have seen dotted about the interweb, but that’s not going to arrive until at least 2014.
If, like me, you have lots of devices spread over 3 floors, then you will need a few pieces of equipment to get the best out of your web connection. Sure, one router will do all of the work but if you can streamline and off load some of the work elsewhere, the better performance you will have. Luckily for me, my router is on the middle floor of my house so my WiFi signal is 100% throughout the house so I don’t need any range extenders. What I do have, is over 15 devices that are often connected at once:
• Office has Laptop and a Multifunction Printer
• Living Room has a Sky+ box, NAS and an Xbox 360
• Den has Smart TV, Smart BluRay, Sky+, Xbox 360 and the Wife’s laptop
• Bedroom has, Smart PVR, Living Room, Sky+, NAS and a Wii
• As well as iPhone’s, iPad, Blackberry, Android Tablet and the kids DS’s
My router has all 3 usable LAN ports in use. One for my Sky+ box, one for my NAS and the other, is a very handy Netgear Mains Network unit. What these little beauties do (there’s 2 in a box) is use your household wiring to transfer data to the other unit that is plugged in to the wall. The one unit near my router has that cable connected into it. This is plugged into a mains socket on the wall and all the data is magically transported to the office one floor above where it’s counterpart is sat. Out of that, the cable runs into another router. This is a Netgear WNR2000. That router is wireless but I have that switched off as I don’t need it. The router is set into bridged mode and DHCP is off so it doesn’t dish out its own IP addresses and conflict with ones already given out by the Plus.net router. The bridged mode lets the Plus.net router see all of the devices and assign the addresses appropriately.
Here’s a pretty bad but busy diagram:
I have a network, but it’s congested...
I know the feeling! As I said before, if you can hardwire a bunch of devices to your router, you should do that. I think that wireless devices should be left to phones and tablets and laptops. Anything else like Sky+ boxes, PlayStations, Xbox’s, media servers etc should all be hardwired. These devices should have as much stability as possible and you guarantee this by having them hardwired. It’s annoying when you’re in the middle of BF3 and the microwave starts to slow you down because it’s in the path of your WiFi signal! So, if you have a small collection of devices like I have, TV, PVR, BluRay etc, you can plug them all into a hub or a switch and then that plugs into your router. This way, you only use 1 port on your router and the hub or switch then does the work of distributing the data leaving the router to handle wireless traffic. For me, any of the Netgear range of hubs are great, I do have an 8 port hub but it’s not in use at the moment but I have had it about 6 years and it never falters.
Hubs, Switches and Routers
So who does what and what the best?
This is a very simple piece of networking equipment. It’s essentially a box that receives information (in our case, from the router) and then broadcasts (copies) this information across all the ports and cables that are plugged into it. All of the devices plugged in can choose to listen to it or ignore it but they all have to process the broadcast. This is fine for small scale groups of equipment that need network access. Think of hubs as a 4 gang electrical socket, electric in, electric out of 4 ports. Typically a hub is no more than 4 or 8 ports.
A switch is a little more intelligent that a hub, it has a bit of tech inside that remembers where it’s sent the information, and more importantly, which port accepted the request. It learns where to send future packets of data so it can be more streamlined. Switches can have a mammoth amount of ports, in data centres, they often deploy 64 port switches.
A router, as discussed above is generally the centre of home networking operations. A router is responsible for giving out IP addresses to all of your devices when they connect. When a data request arrives the router knows exactly where to send it. The thing with a router though is you can configure all of these settings. As you might notice from my tacky diagram above, I have a second router acting as a hub/switch. This is setup as a bridged router which means it allows the other router behind it to pass and assign IP addresses making my network one large one.
Ok, I need a new router then!
Well, ok. If you need a router that can run lots of connections to the internet and stream HD across your internal network without a performance hit, then you should consider the Asus RT-N56U. This has dual bands that run at 2.4Ghz for your web connections and 5Ghz to stream HD video. It also has two USB connection ports so you can add a printer and an external disk drive to really take advantage. There are also 4x LAN ports on the back, all gigiabit so there’s lots of options and it’s very good value for what it does.
I’ve got my router, how’d I connect to it?
If you’re in the market for a new “n” class wireless adapter, then the TP-Link TL-WN781ND 150Mbps Wireless Lite N PCI Express Adaptor. This is unbeatable value for a super 150Mb connection for under a tenner.
I think we’re are at the limit of explaining home networking. I could go into WAN addresses, port forwarding, static IP addresses and the like but if you want to know about all of that, I’m sure you stopped reading a while ago! I hope that this guide has helped you and not confused you, although it can be a confusing subject. The thing to remember though is; “Cable” or “DSL” and then buy a router that can handle all your devices in the house. If you have this information to hand, give the guys at CCL a call, they’ll help you make the right choice.