Upgrade to Gigabit Networking for Better Performance

The speed of your network affects nearly every device on your home network, whether it be a home-theater PC, an external storage device, or a gaming console. For most networks, the transfer rate of a faster ethernet connection (roughly 12.5 megabytes per second) is the typical speed limit. That may be okay for transferring ordinary files, but it's painfully slow if you're trying to back up a PC to a network device, for example, or to stream a high-definition movie to your living room.

The solution? Move up to a gigabit network. Switching over to gigabit (1000-Mbps) speeds increases your potential throughput tenfold, minimizing your transfer times and greatly enhancing your ability to stream high-bandwidth files to connected devices without interference. Gigabit networking is now a sufficiently common feature of modern networking devices that it shouldn't carry too great a cost premium. As for your motherboards, the odds are good that they already have gigabit functionality built in, whether you know it or not. Before we go any further, I should note that this guide does not apply to wireless networks; the factors that constrain speeds on wireless networks are entirely different from those that limit speeds on wired networks.

How do you determine whether your equipment is capable of handling gigabit networking? And if it isn't, how do you build a gigabit network from scratch? Let's start with the basics.

Identify Your Network

Do you already have a gigabit network? The Windows desktop provides no signal to let you know when you've achieved this superspeedy networking feature. And a lot of factors influence your network transfer speeds--so your gigabit network might crawl along at a data transfer rate of less than 125 MBps for various reasons.

Ethernet port; click for full-size image.
You can't tell a gigabit network port from a fast ethernet port just by looking at it. Instead, consult the specification chart or do a little software-driven digging!
Photograph: Chris Manners

The most basic requirement of gigabit networking is that all connected devices must be connected via a gigabit port. In addition, they must be connected to each other with network cables that can handle the bandwidth. For devices such as your router, a gaming console, or an external storage device, the quickest way to discover whether they support fast ethernet (10/100 Mbps) or gigabit ethernet (10/100/1000 Mbps) is to check the devices' specifications in their online descriptions or accompanying manuals. Look for a mention of either 'gigabit networking' or '1000 mbps [or Mbps]'.

You can check the performance potential of your motherboard's network connection in just a few mouse clicks. Start by pulling up your Network Connections window.
Your PC's motherboard is a critical component of the gigabit network. If your system came to you prebuilt or if you don't remember relevant details about the motherboard you used in your rig, don't worry. Click your Windows Start button and select Run (or for more modern-versions of the OS, just point your cursor on the search box and left-click). Type ncpa.cpl and press Enter. The Network Connections window should pop up.

Motherboards can vary in how they label the properties of their network controllers. Scroll through the available properties until you find one that identifies the speed of the device.
Right-click the network connection listed as your Local Area Connection (LAN), and left-click Properties. Click the big Configure button that appears to the right of the listing for your network controller. In the new window that appears, open the Advanced tab and scroll down until you find a property labeled 'Connection Type' or 'Speed'. Left-click it and then click the Value field to the right. Scroll up and down through this list of options, looking for anything that starts with a '1000' value or anything that refers to network speeds in gbps (or Gbps). If all you see are '100' values and speeds designated in 'mbps' (or 'Mbps'), your motherboard's built-in Ethernet controller tops out at fast-ethernet speeds. But you can still upgrade your PC to gigabit networking by installing a third-party gigabit ethernet card.

If all of the devices on your network support gigabit functionality, great! If a slower, fast-ethernet device joins a gigabit-ready hub, transfer speeds will crawl only when you access that particular device--a slow device connected to a router won't poison the rest. Obviously, if you directly connect a gigabit-ready PC to a fast-ethernet device such as a network-attached storage (NAS) box, you'll get only fast-ethernet speeds.

Finally, consider your cables. A typical category 5 (Cat 5) cable supports gigabit ethernet, but it's worthwhile to invest in Cat 5e cables if you're building up a gigabit network from scratch. Plain old Cat 5 cabling is now considered obsolete, and Cat 5e cabling meets more-rigorous specifications, enabling it to do a better job than Cat 5 cabling can of minimizing electromagnetic interference. On the other hand, bumping up your cabling to a classification higher than Cat 5e may not benefit your network speeds. For example, Cat 6 cabling doesn't deliver dramatic speed improvement.

To see what kind of cable you have, check the cable's side: The specification information should be printed somewhere along the length of the cord.

Test Your Gigabit Network

If your parts are in order and your cables are connected, you'll want to fire up your gigabit network and check its performance.But first you need to confirm that the drivers and firmware related to your various network-themed devices (motherboard, router, NAS box, and so on) are up-to-date.

Suppose that you're planning to connect your PC to a gigabit NAS box via a single router. At this point you need to make sure that you're running the latest firmware for your NAS box and router, and either the latest firmware and drivers for your motherboard or the latest drivers for your discrete gigabit network card, depending on how you've set up your system.

All too often, a device may not work as intended out-of-the-box. Head over to the manufacturers' Web sites to grab the latest drivers and firmware updates; then run the accompanying driver setup programs or follow the related instructions for flashing your device. The process isn't difficult (see "Firmware and You: A Comprehensive Guide to Updating Your Hardware").

LAN Speed Test is a convenient utility to use to determine the bandwidth of your current network as measured between a PC and a target network device.
Fire up your network devices and use the helpful LAN Speed Test utility to see gauge the speeds that your new gigabit network is attaining. After launching the utility, press the Start Test button and surf to a folder on a connected network device. Enter a size for your test file (1GB should do the trick), and the program will begin to track the read and write speeds between your system and the target device.

Of course, you won't get the maximum 125-MBps connection that a gigabit network theoretically supports. Ultimately, the speed of the storage devices doing the reading or writing--be they magnetic hard drives or flash-based storage--will limit your network's performance. For a hard drive, relevant factors include the physical speed of the drive itself and the location where the drive writes the data on the physical platters. For a solid-state drives (SSD), performance depends on whether the drive uses faster single-level cell flash memory or slower multilevel cell flash memory, and on whether you're reading or writing to the drive.

As this convenient hard-drive benchmark indicates, the maximum read speed for files off our gigabit network is 95.8 mbps.
Short of operating a RAM drive, or an array of hard drives or SSDs, your network won't reach the 125-MBps limit for gigabit networking. Nevertheless, you can realistically expect speeds of at least 40 to 50 MBps, which is four times as fast as the real-world speed of a typical fast-ethernet connection. Gigabit networking might not be the Star Trek transporter of LAN-based file transfers, but the performance improvement it offers over a typical fast-ethernet connection amply compensate for time this setup process requires.

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