How to Buy Home Networking Products

Introduction

Home Networking Products Buying Guide graphic
Photograph: Rick Rizner

Once confined to businesses and to the homes of hard-core geeks, networks have become increasingly common. And PCs aren't the only things in households and small offices that require a hookup: These days, printers, Voice-over-IP phones, game consoles, media centers, and other devices need an Internet link. Why not have them all share a single broadband connection?

The Big Picture
Learn the benefits and drawbacks of the different types of wired and wireless networks. more

Key Features
Read about the factors you should consider when selecting a type of network. 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

If you're eager to see what products are available, you can get some idea of the enormous variety of networking gear in PC World Shopping.

In Video: How to Set Up a Wi-Fi Network

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 (especially for multimedia streaming), 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.

Wi-Fi Standards

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 common are based on draft 2 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.

Although the IEEE still hasn't finalized 802.11n (final ratification is expected later this year), the Wi-Fi Alliance--the industry group that certifies Wi-Fi products for compatibility--last year began a certification program for draft 2 products in order to address compatibility issues that had surfaced with earlier products based on the initial draft. Fortunately, most products based on the earlier draft are firmware-upgradable to the more recent draft, but shoppers should strive to find the newer products that the Alliance has certified for 802.11n draft 2 compatibility.

Unlike previous Wi-Fi standards, 802.11n covers operations on two different frequency bands: 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. Most products operate only on the 2.4-GHz band, and are backward-compatible with products based on the previous 2.4-GHz Wi-Fi standards, 802.11g and 802.11b. A few recent high-end 802.11n products, however, also support the 5-GHz band, and are also backward-compatible with 802.11a products (which use the 5-GHz band). We'll discuss the benefits of such "dual-band" products later.

The Wi-Fi Alliance certifies 802.11n products for each of these frequencies; products from different vendors will be able to interoperate at high speed on the frequencies for which they are certified.

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. These early products have been largely discontinued; you should avoid them, as they are compatible with 2.4-GHz draft-n products only at the speeds of older 802.11g products. One way of making sure that you are buying the most current technology is to look for Wi-Fi Alliance certification for 802.11n (draft).

Older and Slower Standards

Because prices on low-end draft-n gear have declined dramatically, we don't recommend buying products based on the older 2.4-GHz 802.11 standards (802.11g and 802.11b)--they're increasingly hard to find anyway. The 802.11g standard has a theoretical maximum throughput of 54 megabits per second, and 802.11b has a theoretical maximum off 11 mbps.

You may also see 802.11g gear promising speeds of up to 108 mbps, but such 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 you're sharing on your network is broadband Internet access, you might not notice any performance boost with faster Wi-Fi gear, since most cable and DSL hookups top out at 6 mbps. Though Wi-Fi connections never approach their theoretical maximum speeds, even 802.11g Wi-Fi networks can keep up with the fastest broadband.

Products based on the 802.11a standard also support theoretical maximum speeds of 54 mbps, but tend to have a slightly shorter range than 802.11g products do. Even so, 802.11a does not interoperate with b/g products because it works on a different radio band (5 GHz), and the standard never took off the way its siblings did. In the end, 802.11a was used primarily in some business environments.

2.4 GHz vs. 5.4 GHz

Why, then, do some 802.11n Wi-Fi products support both the 2.4-GHz and 5-GHz bands? For starters, dual-band support takes care of all older Wi-Fi products. And though many more 2.4-GHz legacy products are around, the 2.4-GHz frequency band has a serious limitation that has become increasingly problematic over time: It has just 11 channels, of which only 3 (1, 6, and 11) are nonoverlapping.

As 802.11b and g networks have proliferated--along with other devices that use the 2.4-GHz band (such as Bluetooth-equipped cell phones and headsets, microwave ovens, and some cordless phones)--channel overcrowding has grown to be a significant issue. If multiple users are trying to use the same 2.4-GHz channel, one will inevitably knock off others, resulting in brief service outages. Such interruptions may not be noticeable if you're downloading a file (your device will simply reconnect); but they can be very obvious if you're trying to conduct a phone conversation, play a game, or stream music or video.

The 5.4-GHz frequency range, in contrast, has more than a dozen nonoverlapping channels, and is therefore less prone to interference. For that reason, it's expected to appear in a coming generation of connected consumer electronics that will stream multimedia. Investing in a dual-band router will allow you to add such devices to your network while still supporting the more common 2.4-GHz legacy devices.

If you want support for network components that use both frequencies, however, make sure to buy a router that can handle them simultaneously--some dual-mode routers may be configured to support only one frequency or the other. Apple's dual-mode router, for example, supports either 5-GHz or 2.4-GHz traffic; it might be better suited for people who invested in an early 2.4-GHz draft-n router and now want to support 5-GHz traffic. Expect to pay more for routers that can support both frequency bands simultaneously.

Power-Line Networks

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 in the last 18 months, several faster technologies, including the Alliance's own HomePlug AV, have eclipsed it. With a 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. Linksys and Zyxel are among the U.S. vendors that have released HomePlug AV products; Belkin is expected to ship HomePlug AV products this fall.

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). D-Link and Netgear are shipping products based on DS2 technology. Panasonic has also introduced its HD PLC power-line adapters, based on the company's own technology.

PC World tested early products based on all three power-line technologies in late 2006. All three proved speedy, but the HomePlug AV-based gear was the most resistant to line interference. We have not had a chance to look at more recent products, though, and while HomePlug AV would appear to have a leg up on its rivals, this standards story has not yet completely played out--in part because power-line networking in general has been lingering in the shadow of the more glamorous Wi-Fi. As streaming-media applications grow more ubiquitous, we expect power-line networking to become more popular, since it's generally more reliable for such tasks.

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. In the past, 10/100-mbps ethernet was the norm, but in recent years more and more desktops and laptops have begun shipping with support for 1-gbps (1024-mbps, or "gigabit") ethernet.

The days when you had to buy an ethernet adapter for your system have long passed: Almost all now ship with integrated ethernet support.

Network Components

No matter what type of network you use, you will need a network adapter or client for each device; most laptops these days ship with both ethernet and Wi-Fi adapters, but desktop systems may not have Wi-Fi. If you want a power-line network, however, expect to buy an adapter that will plug into your system's ethernet port at one end and into a free electrical outlet on the other.

You'll also need a router, which acts as 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.

Power-line networks also require a router. Typically, a starter power-line network kit will have two power-line-to-ethernet adapters: one to plug into an available ethernet port on your router, and the other to plug into the ethernet port on a client device.

Key Features

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 laptops now come with built-in Wi-Fi adapters that at the very least support 802.11b and g. Some have 802.11a support, and a growing number of newer portables support draft 2 of 802.11n, at least on the 2.4-GHz band. (A few laptops now have integrated mobile broadband wireless adapters, which let you connect to the Internet via a cellular broadband network.)

Range limitations, however, 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 pose a problem 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? 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 tests in late 2006, adapters based on the HomePlug AV specification were best able to transmit high-definition video content, even with interference from another electrical device.

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.

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.

Important: Security

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.

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 laptop--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. Others come with ports that support USB hard drives.

Wireless Networking Tips

With inexpensive draft 802.11n gear now widely available, you have little reason to settle for older gear with inferior range and speed. When you choose a product, check the vendor's Web site for firmware upgrades that will optimize performance and (if the device isn't Wi-Fi Alliance certified) ensure that the gear conforms to the standard.

If you're experiencing service dropouts, you might want to invest in a dual-mode router and adapters that support draft-n operations on the 5-GHz band, where channel overcrowding is not the issue it has become for standard 802.11b and g networks on the 2.4-GHz band.

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 Networking 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 isn't 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. But make sure all your gear is based on the same power-line technology.

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