Networking Gets Faster, More Media-Savvy

Home is where the network is: That's the mantra of networking vendors at the Consumer Electronics Show 2011 in Las Vegas this week.

Increasingly, home networks are being used to transport digital entertainment rather than business data, and network vendors are responding with a slew of products intended to help customers watch movies, look at photos, and listen to music wherever they want--regardless of where on the network that content actually resides.

But regardless of how vendors spin their news, many of these products are also great for small businesses that can use fast networks for big file transfers and backups. Many small businesses can also use the network cameras to monitor workplaces for security purposes.

The most high-profile announcements were of products to support the next-generation version of Intel's WiDi technology for moving notebook multimedia to HDTVs and stereos. Netgear will ship a new Push2TV adapter, the PTV2000, that will support the new version enabling 1080p video and streams protected content, later this month. D-Link promises its first WiDi adapter, the MainStage, by midsummer. Logitech, meanwhile, announced a $30 WiDi speaker adapter that uses the technology to play WiDi-enabled notebook audio over external stereo speakers.

These products exemplify what appears to be a looming trend for using Wi-Fi as an alternative to wired and Bluetooth connections between devices. The Wi-Fi Alliance says it is working on a standard that will basically provide the same functionality as WiDi without requiring an Intel-based notebook. Wi-Fi Direct, the alliance-backed technology for peer-to-peer device connections, is a first step, but right now it's a pipe requiring additional software to be useful the way WiDi is.

Faster, More Versatile Networks

Streaming multimedia requires good bandwidth and coverage, and vendors are responding in several ways. One is by offering hybrid routers that combine networking technologies, offering support for both wireless and wired devices. D-Link's Hybrid Wireless-N Powerline Router (DHP-1320) incorporates support for 802.1n WiFi (on the 2.4GHz band), HomePlugAV, and Ethernet. Netgear, meanwhile, announced its own Wi-Fi/HomeplugAV/Ethernet hybrid, the N300 Wireless Router + Powerline AV (WNXR2000).

D-Link Mainstage, from the back
D-Link Mainstage, from the back
Powerline, which uses electrical wiring, is gaining increased acceptance as a networking technology for multimedia since it's generally more reliable than even fast Wi-Fi. HomePlug AV appears to have won what once was a standards war for powerline networking, but some vendors are now offering speedier HomePlug AV networks through proprietary enhancements.

Netgear's hybrid router--as well as its new HomePlug AV adapters and switches with four Ethernet ports--promise speeds of up to 500mbps, as opposed to the 200mbps of the HomePlug AV spec. TrendNet and D-Link are also introducing 500mbps HomePlug AV gear, although neither announced a hybrid router with support for the enhanced HomePlug AV technology. The caveat here is that to get the speed, all your network gear must be from the same vendor. The HomePlug Powerline Alliance is working on a next-generation spec, but it won't be ready for a few years.

Making Wi-Fi More Media Friendly

Meanwhile, vendors are offering faster 802.11n Wi-Fi by introducing routers and adapters equipped with more antennas. TrendNet and Netgear both announced 450mbps dual-band Wi-Fi routers, the TrendNet TEW-692GR and the Netgear N750 Wireless Dual Band Gigabit Router (WNDR4000), respectively. Netgear's router is slated to ship by the end of March with a suggested retail price of $180, while TrendNet's router is due in April with a suggested retail price of $250.

Dual-band routers, which essentially run separate networks on the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, are becoming increasingly common. Networks based on the 2.4GHz band support older 802.11b/g devices, but 5GHz networks (which are compatible with 802.11a gear) are less subject to interference since they have more non-overlapping channels. This makes them a better option in densely populated areas, where 2.4GHz networks often knock each other offline.

Netgear at CES introduced a second dual-band router, the N600, which doesn't offer the same performance as the N750 but has some extra features such as technology to identify the best channel for network performance, support for remote streaming of media on an attached USB drive, and a new user interface for managing the router.

D-Link, meanwhile, has introduced two 802.11n routers and an 802.11n access point/signal booster that use so-called SmartBeam technology designed to speed things up by focusing the wireless signals on clients (instead of simply broadcasting them everywhere). The D-Link DIR-645 2.4GHz, 802.11n router and the D-Link DIR-845 dual-band (2.4GHz/5GHz) routers also have USB ports and support for streaming media from connected USB drives. The D-Link DAP-1525 access point can also be used as an Ethernet bridge connecting any networkable device with an Ethernet port to a Wi-Fi network.

More Network Cameras for Remote Monitoring

Another networking trend: The profileration of networked cameras that you can control remotely to monitor homes and/or offices.

D-Link's latest, the Day/Night Wireless N Camera (DCS-932L) features infrared illumination to support night vision for up to 5 meters; like its predecessors, it can be controlled remotely from PCs, iPhones, iPads, Android phones, or an HDTV with a D-Link Boxee Box via the mydlink.com Website. The DCS-932L is slated to ship this spring with a street price of less than $150.

A company called TP-Link, meanwhile, is showing a surveillance camera with sophisticated, Web-based remote controls for pointing, tilting, and zooming, as well as the ability to program up to 32 preset positions and 4 "patrol tours." The TP-Link SC4171G is slated to ship by the end of March at a suggested price of $299.

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