The ultimate guide to home networking

Wired or Wi-Fi? Here's how to pick the right hardware for your PCs, game consoles, Internet-capable HDTVs, and other devices--and how to solve your networking problems.

Wi-Fi

I'll say it up front: if you're planning on using Wi-Fi for whole-house networking, think again. While 802.11n sounds great--offering throughput up to 300 megabits per second, and no wiring hassles--it isn't ideal if you want to do lots of media streaming and moving big files around.

For example, in my home we have a Windows Home Server with several user accounts. We also use the server as a repository for applications. Installing large apps over wired gigabit ethernet takes only a little more time than installing from a CD. But installing software over an 802.11n link can take a very long time.

On the other hand, if you simply want to connect a small number of PCs, Wi-Fi may be the right way to go for you. Wi-Fi is a quick and easy way to connect several business laptops, Wi-Fi-enabled cell phones, and light-duty devices such as an Apple iPad or a netbook.

If you like the convenience of Wi-Fi for connecting laptops and phones, you might consider a mixed network, using a combination of Wi-Fi and gigabit ethernet. I'll discuss one possible scenario for a mixed-mode network on the next page.

What Kind of Wi-Fi Do You Need?

If Wi-Fi is your only alternative, definitely go with 802.11n. The prices of 802.11n routers and access points have dropped substantially, so there's no point in using older 802.11g gear unless your networking needs are minimal. (Check out PCWorld's wireless router and networking reviews, while you're at it.)

Before you start shopping for Wi-Fi equipment, make sure you know what kind of equipment you're looking for--you'll see both "wireless routers" and "wireless access points" out there.

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Routers take incoming traffic from the Internet and route the traffic to the correct system inside the network. They handle the task through a built-in NAT (network address translation) capability. Routers also act as firewalls between the internal network and the outside Internet, but that's an additional function.

Traditionally, access points simply existed to connect Wi-Fi-equipped PCs, and didn't handle routing functions. Early access points needed to be connected to a router. These days that definition has become a little fuzzy, and most home-oriented access points have built-in routers but lack wired-ethernet switches.

Home routers include wired-ethernet switches. Note that you can still find routers that connect only via wired links and don't have built in access points.

For our purposes here, I'll use the term "router" to mean a wired router with a built-in Wi-Fi access point. An access point, for this article, is a Wi-Fi router without built-in wired-ethernet switching. Routers don't cost much more than most access points, though, so consider one anyway--you never know if you'll need the added flexibility at some point.

The key to good 802.11n performance is to pick the right router. Routers can vary widely in features and performance, though if you have a small living area and only one or two systems connected to the router, you might never notice.

Small Net Builder offers more-detailed performance reviews, if you're concerned about throughput or area coverage. Lower-cost routers may have only fast ethernet support, and only a single Wi-Fi radio. When you're shopping for equipment, here are several key features to look for.

Simultaneous dual band: Such routers can support both 2.4GHz and 5GHz or 5.8GHz. Only a few routers fully support 5.8GHz; you'll get increased bandwidth, but you'll also sacrifice some range, particularly through walls. Some newer routers may include a pair of 5GHz radios.

Multiple antennas: You'll want an 802.11n router with two antennas at a minimum. Some home routers may have no visible antennas, but carry multiple antennas embedded in the case. That's okay for moderately sized homes.

Replaceable antennas: If you have longer range requirements, consider a router with external, replaceable antennas. These typically attach to a small, coax-style connector. Antennas are widely available from a number of sources, and come in a variety of sizes and configurations.

Depending on your needs, you might also want to look for routers with QoS (quality of service) support for better media streaming, gaming support (if you're an online gamer), and guest access (if you have a stream of friends dropping by who might want to connect).

One key issue to note with Wi-Fi networks is that your bandwidth splits among multiple client connections. Think about an 802.11n router with 300-mbps bandwidth. Now imagine connecting ten PCs to that router via Wi-Fi. All ten systems must share that 300 mbps. Fortunately, most modern routers are pretty smart about allocating bandwidth as needed, and some routers allow you to set up bandwidth allocation limits.

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Another feature that some routers support is WISH (wireless intelligent stream handling), which allows you to prioritize certain types of traffic to specific clients or sets of clients. You might want to enable WISH if you're streaming video from one system (a home server) to another (a living-room PC or network-equipped HDTV). Similarly, WISH is useful for making sure that VoIP connections remain reliable.

Extending Wi-Fi

There may be times you'll want to extend your Wi-Fi network to wired-only devices, like the Xbox 360 game console or BD 2.0 network-equipped Blu-ray players.

A wireless bridge is just the thing you need. You can find bridges with a single ethernet port for connecting one device, as well as bridges with a built-in ethernet switch for setting up several devices at the same time in one area.

Alternatively, you could just increase the range of your network. Standard access points often have a bridge or extender mode, but you can also find dedicated range extenders that essentially act as relays for your Wi-Fi signal.

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