How to Buy Home Networking Products

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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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