Build a foolproof home-media network—without any wires
A pair of rabbit ears on top of your television, and a turntable and stereo receiver in the corner of the living room used to be prerequisites for home entertainment. But today it's all about digital media and bandwidth. If you want to run Apple TV in your living room, keep a connected Blue-ray player in the bedroom, and have a Logitech Squeezebox music system piping music throughout your home, you need reliable and plentiful bandwidth.
But here's the problem: Your computer is in the den and your broadband router is stuffed in a closet. You have TVs in the living room, kitchen, and master bedroom—plus a laptop that migrates all over the house and into the yard, too.
Until recently, nothing short of ethernet wires had the bandwidth necessary to pipe media from one room to another. And unless you were a networking geek, you’d have had to spend thousands of dollars getting a knowledgeable professional to punch holes in your walls to wire your house with ethernet jacks.
That time has passed. Today's wireless networks can handle video, music, and lightning-fast Web surfing without breaking a sweat—and they require very little skill to set up. Want to battle it out in Halo 3 via the Xbox in your den, or to play a movie from the collection stored on your server in your basement? I’ll cover everything you need to know to "wire" your house without stringing new cable or busting your budget.
Just one caveat before we go on. The speed of your Internet connection will have a significant impact on the quality of the real-time video you get from streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Instant Video. If your genuine download speeds are below 6 mbps, you may be limited to streaming lower-resolution video from the Internet. Netflix requires a 3-mbps connection to stream movies at their native resolution. Your Internet connection speed, on the other hand, will have zero impact on the quality of video and audio that originates on your own network. You can check your download speed at Speedtest.net.
Upgrade your wireless router
Cost: Between $100 and $200. Pro: A newer removes any bandwidth bottlenecks that may exist on your home network (though it can't solve problems related to using a slow Internet provider). Con: Resetting router and security settings on all your wireless clients can be a hassle.
Your router is the single most important part of your network, as it has the potential to be your network's primary bottleneck. An out-of-date router can slow your network's ability to move content from one device to another. Make sure that your router is at least an N600 model (that is, a dual-band router based on the IEEE 802.11n standard that supports speeds of 300 mbps on both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency bands). If it isn't, buy a new one that is.
An N600 router, such as the Linksys EA2700, should cost less than $100, and it will suffice for streaming music and standard-definition video. The next step up would be an N900 model, such as the $150 Netgear WNDR4500. This class of router can deliver wireless speeds of up to 450 mbps on both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency bands. The faster your router’s throughput, the better it will handle bandwidth-hungry applications such as video.
Why do I recommend dual-band routers? Because you can use the more crowded 2.4GHz frequency band to move conventional data (email, documents, and other files that don’t have critical transfer-speed requirements), and reserve the less crowded 5GHz band for music and video. If a few bits of a data file are dropped in transit, your router can simply resend them until the entire file has arrived at its destination. If bits in a video stream are dropped in transit—perhaps due to excessive network traffic or because your router is battling with your neighbor’s router, which operates on the same crowded frequency—you'll experience annoying glitches and dropouts. That's because the smart TV at the other end can’t wait for the missing bits to be resent.
Invest in a future Wi-Fi standard
Cost: $200 and up. Pro: Even faster routers are available, and they're backward-compatible. Con: Available devices are expensive, and there's a slight chance that you may run into compatibility issues down the road.
If you want a nearly future-proof network, and you don’t mind being an early adopter, pick up an Asus, D-Link, Netgear, or other manufacturer's wireless router based on the newer IEEE 802.11ac Draft 2.0 standard. This standard is unlikely to be officially ratified until sometime next year, and there’s a slim chance that products based on the current draft will be incompatible with products based on the final standard, but I consider that possibility unlikely.
Aside from providing a 450-mbps 802.11n network on the 2.4GHz band, these dual-band routers establish a second, independent 802.ac network on the 5GHz frequency band that can deliver speeds of up to 1300 mbps (that’s 1.3 gigabits per second). An 802.11ac router accompanied by an 802.11ac bridge can stream high-definition video and audio—the equivalent of a Blu-ray disc—to a home-theater PC or a media streaming box, such as Western Digital’s WD TV Live, without wires.
An 802.11ac router can also deliver much better range than earlier generations of routers could. Setting up an 802.11ac network isn’t cheap, though: High-end models like the Asus RT-AC66U and the Netgear R3600 cost $200 each. And you’ll need two of them because you must configure one to operate as a wireless bridge (Cisco has announced an 802.11ac wireless bridge—the WUMC710 Universal Media Connector—but it hasn't yet shipped the product). The bridge will establish a wireless connection to the router, but you’ll hardwire the clients (a smart TV, Blu-ray player, or a home-theater PC, for example) to the bridge.
An 802.11ac router will be backward-compatible with older technology, so any wireless products you may already own—including your smartphone—will work with it, operating on the router’s 802.11n network. That arrangement will remain in force even in the unlikely event that the final 802.11ac standard differs significantly from the current draft, because the 802.11n standard has been final since September 2009. I recently reviewed all five of the 802.11ac routers available on the market today. To learn more about these products, read “Who Makes the Best 802.11ac Router?”
Note that all the router throughput numbers mentioned above are “theoretical” maximum rates; they don’t take into account real-world factors such as protocol overhead and the client’s distance from the router (throughput will drop as the client moves farther away from the router). An 802.11n router claiming a throughput of 450 mbps, for instance, typically delivers real-world throughput of between 150 and 200 mbps at close range. Likewise, an 802.11ac router will typically deliver real-world throughput of between 300 and 500 mbps under the same conditions.
Buy some wireless network adapters
Cost: Between $30 and $50. Pro: They're easy to set up, and they provide the best solution for a laptop or home-theater PC. Con: Adapters designed for PCs may not work with your Blu-ray player or smart TV. The manufacturers of these products often require you to use their own brand of adapter.
Wireless network adapters are small USB dongles that plug into the USB port on a laptop, desktop, Blu-ray player, or smart TV. The adapters allow you to add wireless connections to devices that don't have built-in wireless radios.
Most laptops and many desktop PCs (especially all-in-one models) come with built-in hardware (specfically, Wi-Fi radios) for connecting to a wireless network. If your device doesn’t have built-in Wi-Fi—or if it does, but it uses technology that predates the 802.11n standard—you can buy a USB adapter. Plug in the adapter, install the software, and your computer can connect to the router over the airwaves. If your router is a 450-mbps model, be sure to buy a USB Wi-Fi adapter that has the same capabilities. Two examples are the Linksys AE3000 ($50) and the Trendnet TEW-684UB ($45).
A dual-band (2.4GHz and 5GHz) 802.11n USB wireless network adapter capable of supporting link rates up to 300 mbps, such as the Buffalo AirStation N300, will cost between $20 and $30. USB adapters based on the new 802.11ac standard have yet to reach the market.
Blu-ray players and smart TVs have ethernet jacks that allow you to tap online services such as Hulu, Netflix, and YouTube. Many also have built-in wireless ethernet adapters, or the manufacturer may put a proprietary USB Wi-Fi adapter in the box. If yours doesn’t offer either type of adapter, it almost certainly has a USB port. You might be able to plug in the same type of USB Wi-Fi adapter described above to create a wireless connection to your router. Check your owner’s manual to find out which adapter will work with your hardware (you may not be able to mix and match adapters, as you typically can on a PC).
If your smart TV or Blu-ray player is DLNA certified, you'll be able to stream music and videos from other PCs on your network (DLNA is a standard that defines how media is carried on a local network). For more on how use DLNA to to stream video, music, and images from one device to another, check out "How to Stream Digital Media From Your Windows 7 PC."
Get a wireless network bridge
Cost: $65 and up. Pro: A bridge allows you to establish a wireless connection to a piece of hardware that would not otherwise support a wireless connection. Also, it lets you connect multiple devices to one adapter. Con: Th bridge has to be in range, and wires are required.
One alternative to using a USB Wi-Fi adapter is to set up a wireless network bridge. This hardware communicates wirelessly with your network router, but connects to your home-theater PC, smart TV, Blu-ray player, or gaming console via an ethernet cable, enabling those products to join your home network and gain access to the Internet.
A bridge, such as D-Link's DAP-1513 ($120) or Trendnet’s TEW-640MB ($65), is your best choice if the only networking connection available on your hardware is an ethernet port, or if you can’t find a compatible USB Wi-Fi adapter for your equipment. Some bridges have four ethernet ports, while others have only one.
In a pinch, consider a powerline network
Cost: Up to $100 per node. Pro: Such networks are easy to install, they work with existing electrical wires throughout your house, and they work in places where Wi-Fi can't. Con: Powerline networks can be subject to interference from high-current appliances, such as air conditioners, refrigerators, and clothes dryers. Houses with older wiring might have problems with power-line networking, too.
Powerline networking uses your home's existing electrical wiring to create a wire-based network throughout your house. It can basically transform any electrical outlet into an ethernet port for your home network. When you deploy a wireless network, construction elements such as masonry walls can block a wireless signal—and wireless signals have limited range.
But because electrical cables are located inside your walls, just as an ethernet cable would need to be, obstacles such as thick walls pose no problems. And signals sent on copper cables can travel farther than signals carried over the airwaves.Look for products labeled with the HomePlug AV (or the faster HomePlug AV 500) logo to ensure interoperability and high throughput; the maximum physical link rate is 500 mbps, with real-world throughput of about 75 mbps).
Powerline networking products, such as Trendnet’s TPL-401E2K ($100 for a two-pack) work like this: Plug a powerline adapter into an electrical outlet near your router and connect the two via an ethernet cable. Plug a second adapter into a receptacle near the smart TV, gaming console, or PC (some adapters have more than one ethernet port) that you want to add to your network, and use ethernet cables to connect these two. Voilà! The devices are now part of your network, just as if you’d strung CAT5 cable between them and your router.
Multimedia over coax (MoCA)
Cost: $125 to $150 per node. Pros: MoCA uses existing wiring in your home. Cons: It's pricey, and might not work with coaxial cables that carry satellite TV signals.
Many modern homes are wired throughout with coaxial cable for carrying cable TV programming to each room. Multimedia over coax (MoCA) technology uses these cables to carry network data alongside the television signal. Coaxial cable offers robust construction and electrical shielding, and it has more than enough bandwidth to carry both cable TV signals and ethernet data.
As with powerline networks, you connect the MoCA bridge to your router, but you also connect it to one of your home's existing coaxial cables. In an ideal environment, all the coax cables in your home will originate at a central location and branch out from there to the other rooms. Your router and your MoCA bridge should be located at the point of origin. Install additional MoCA bridges in your entertainment center, den, bedroom, and wherever else you want to add smart TVs, PCs, gaming consoles, or Blu-ray players to your network.
Few consumer MoCA products are on the market. Actiontec’s ECB2200 ($125 for a two-pack) is designed for cable TV systems, while the company’s ECB2200V ($75 each) is designed to work with Verizon’s FiOS broadband service.
Be aware that most MoCA bridges are incompatible with satellite TV systems. If you're piping a satellite TV signal through your house via coaxial cables, make sure that you buy a MoCA kit that will work with it.
What’s the right solution for you?
As much as I’d like to pick a single wire-free solution and recommend it to everyone, that’s just not possible. I will say that the first step to building a really satisfying network is to buy a high-performance router. The performance of your entire network will hinge on the strength of your router. If you’re feeling adventurous—and can afford it—consider 802.11ac technology. It has knocked my socks off. However, if you don’t plan to stream Blu-ray-quality video around your home, 802.11ac is probably overkill.
When it comes to connecting computers to your wireless network, a USB adapter is one of the simplest ways to go. With smart TVs, Blu-ray players, and gaming consoles, you may be better off with a wireless bridge.
Powerline networking is probably the next-easiest system to deploy, because it’s basically plug and play. But if your home has old or poor-quality wiring, the performance of your network will suffer. And most manufacturers of powerline-network products recommend limiting your network to no more than 16 devices.
Though MoCA sounds like a great idea, it seems to be fading from the DIY market.
The bottom line is that building a home network that can move media all around you home without any new wires is not only possible, but relatively easy.