Truth be known, CPUs stopped being a bottleneck to your computing experience ten years ago. And over the ensuing decade, computer storage mechanisms have grown dramatically faster. SATA 6Gbps SSDs, then 2- to 4GBps NVMe (Non-Volatile Memory Express). External USB SSDs regularly top 500MBps, and even the sustained throughput of conventional hard drives has jumped from 125MBps to 250MBps. Basically, computing lag due to slow storage has disappeared.
So where’s the remaining lag. Depending on how heavily you use it, it’s your network. Your garden variety gigabit 1Gbps ethernet delivers only 120MBps transfers (about the speed of an older USB hard drive) and slow seeks. In short, it’s the last remaining bottleneck in your computing experience but it’s easy to fix—upgrade to multi-gig.
Note that there are 8 bits (the small “b” in gigabit) in a byte (the capital “B” in megabyte) so bit speeds are 1/8th byte speeds.
Until quite recently, upgrading from gigabit meant a rather hefty investment in 10GbE (10-gigabit-per-second ethernet) equipment. As fantastic as 10GbE is, only in the last couple of years of its 15 years of availability has it dropped from prohibitively expensive (around $50 a port) to relatively affordable ($35-$40 a port). That’s not even counting the standard’s increased power consumption.
Likely the only reason 10GbE prices have dropped at all is because an intermediate standard—IEEE P802.3bz, aka multi-gig, 2.5Gbps and 5Gbps Ethernet (2.5GbE/5GbE)—was introduced in 2016. It was introduced, you guessed it, partly because 10Gbe stubbornly remained expensive to buy and operate.
Today, far-more-affordable 2.5GbE is available via PCIe and USB adapters, NAS boxes, enthusiast motherboards, and 2.5GbE switches are on the scene to the tune of around $25 a port.
Long story short, this is a great time to update—if you need the speed. To address that qualifier, let’s do an all-important sanity check.
Who needs multi-gig?
Beyond bragging rights, the average consumer doesn’t absolutely need multi-gig. Gigabit ethernet handles 1080p and even 2160p (given a low enough bit rate) video streams just fine—at least for a limited number of users. Client backups over gigabit ethernet aren’t much slower than vanilla USB, and generally fire off in the background where you won’t notice anyway. Also, 10/100/1000 ethernet is very power efficient compared to the faster standards.
On the other hand, I did mention that annoying lag. When has anyone ever complained about a backup finishing sooner? Is it a bad thing that more people can stream high-def movies at the same time? Is anyone not buying a 4K UHD TV because it consumes more electricity? Of course not. More speed also opens up more possibilities.
Many activities that are too slow via gigabit ethernet are feasible over a multi-gig connection. I’m talking about running virtual machines off your NAS box, remote access control of another household computer, and using your NAS as working storage rather than just for client backups and music, photo, and movie repositories. As you can see in the chart below, stepping up one rung 2.5GbE can deliver significant gains.
If you want a subjective reason, even the first step up, 2.5GbE multi-gig feels far snappier than gigabit. Like switching from a hard drive to a SATA SSD.
With the advent of gigabit, I started keeping my musical projects/songs on a NAS box for easy access from multiple computers. Loading and saving was noticeably slower than with local storage, but it was fast enough and I didn’t need to worry about multiple versions in different places. I could act on sudden inspiration without firing up my dedicated music PC. If you’ve ever lost a possibly brilliant idea while waiting to boot up the means to save it, you know what I mean.
With far faster 2.5/10Gbps networking in place, songs load almost as quickly from a NAS box as they do from local storage. As a result, I’ve moved the rest of my formerly slow-loading stuff: user libraries, orchestral sample libraries, etc. onto the NAS as well.
That’s just one usage scenario, but fast centralized storage offers much the convenience of the cloud (locally around the house of course) without the slothful transfer rates.
Start with 2.5GbE
Because of the relative low cost of 2.5GbE adapters (around $30 for PCIe, $35 for USB), compared to 10GbE (around $100 for PCIe, $150 for Thunderbolt 3), an upgrade to 2.5Gbps Ethernet rather than 10GbE makes the most sense for the most users at the moment. Affordable 2.5GbE-centric switches are now readily available and don’t use nearly as much power as 10GbE.
Just some of the 2.5GbE stuff available: QNAP’s QSW-1105-5T five-port 2.5GbE switch ($99), Zyxel’s $110 5-port MG-105 and $170, 8-port MG-108 switches (See the image below), and Trendnet’s $130, TEG-S350.
I’ve used the Zyxel 8-port (shown below), the QNAP (shown in a previous section), and the Engenius. They all perform as advertised. I.e., they deliver around 275-300MBps sustained transfer rates.
If you really need all the bandwidth you can get, you needn’t limit yourself to 2.5GbE switches. As mentioned, there are also temptingly low-priced 10GbE switches available. The primary advantage is that they allow upgrading when and if 10GbE adapters finally drop in price; however, there is a catch.
All the affordable pure 10GbE switches I found use the SFP+ connection/cabling standard—something not often found in the home. While you’ll find SFP+ to 10GBase-T (common RJ45/8P8C) adapters, they add $35 or more to the cost of each port. SFP+ cables are pricey as well.
I’ll cover more of the latest affordable gear for 2.5GbE, 5GbE and 10GbE. But first, peruse the following.
Checklist and caveats
1. Use the right cables. You might get Cat5e to function properly with 2.5GbE (try it and see, first), or you might not. A lot depends on the build quality of the cable. For 5/10GbE, you’ll absolutely need Cat6 or Cat6a cable. The good news is that the higher-rated cables are not at all expensive these days. (Incidentally, the “e” in Cat5e stands for “enhanced,” while the “a” in Cat6a stands for “augmented.” In both cases, the modifiers indicate improved electrical performance to provide more bandwidth for data transmission.)
The bad news is that if your unworthy cables are in your walls, you’re in for a fair amount of work. Not as much work as the original install, as you can attach each new cable to the old one and pull it through. If you’re lucky, nothing will snag (cover or tape down the connectors). Personally, I upgraded to Cat8, with its theoretical maximum data rate of 40Gbps in mind.
2. Make sure all components in the chain are as fast as the speed you’re shooting for. It does no good to buy two 2.5GbE adapters and run them through a gigabit router—you’ll get only gigabit speeds.
3. Be careful with used or older networking gear. Pre-IEEE P802.3bz 10GbE doesn’t recognize 2.5GbE/5GbE and will drop to gigabit instead when the latter are in the chain. If you’re going for pure 10GbE, don’t sweat that issue—there are some real bargains in used 10GbE gear (see my earlier comment about pre-IEEE P802.3bz 10GbE equipment) .
4. Make sure connectors match. As noted, if you buy a switch with SFP+, and your wiring is normal twisted-pair Cat5, -6, or -8, you’ll need adapters.
5. Faster networking requires faster storage. 150MBps hard drives won’t be able to take advantage of even 5GbE, unless combined in one of the faster RAID modes (RAID 0, 5, etc.). SSDs, at least for the pointy end of the operation (cache), are a good idea.
6. Multi-gig and especially 10GbE, require more electrical power and produce more heat. Significantly more. If you’re putting this stuff in a closet, you’ll likely want some form of active cooling and ventilation in there.
With those considerations in mind, let’s move on to the cool stuff I got to play with while researching this article.
2.5GbE/5GbE and Hybrid 10GbE gear report
Just a couple of examples of 2.5GbE adapters include this Realtek-based PCIe adapter for only $29 (not tested), the $35 Sabrent NT-S25G USB adapter, and the $34 CableCreations adapter. I tested the latter two with good results (295Mbps read/write). I wasn’t in love with the bright white activity light on the CableCreations, preferring the dimmer Sabrent. If it’s out of sight, as it should be, this won’t matter.
Note that these adapters tend to run very warm, and some users have reported drops in speed. These may have been solved by driver and firmware updates, as I did not experience the issue.
The rare pieces of 5GbE equipment I found were QNAP’s $79 QNA-UC5G1T and Startech’s $100 US5GC30 USB 5GbE adapters. I tested the former, which performed well with pure RJ45 connections (485MBps read/285MBps write), but had issues with my Ipolex asf-10g-t RJ45 to SFP+ adapter, dropping to 150MBps writing. Interoperability isn’t everything it should be, yet.
There are a number of 2.5GbE/10GbE hybrid switches arriving to market. I tested both the QNAP QSW-1105-5T and Engenius ECS2512 switches with good results. The latter is small business product, that’s still a mainstay on my network despite a loud fan (I disconnected said fan) and a propensity to connect with Engenius’s Web site. I firewalled it off the Internet as I don’t like the idea of my networking gear having conversations behind my back.
The idea behind these hybrids is the faster 10GbE to the server or NAS box, with 2.5GbE downstream to clients. They’re only of use if you have a NAS with 10GbE of course.
The QNAP QSW-308-1C ($189) features three 10GbE ports, one of which is a RJ45/SFP+ combo. It worked perfectly in my setup.
The unmanaged Zyxel XGS1010-12 ($149) and managed Zyxel XGS1210-12 ($179) have two 10GbE SFP+ ports, plus two RJ45 2.5GbE ports. I used the latter with very good results; in fact, it’s still in the PCWorld test rack.
If you need a few more 10GbE RJ45 ports, the QNAP QSW-M408-2C ($239) has two combo SFP+/RJ45 ports, and the company’s QSW-M408-2C ($299) has four. They’re both great managed switches, but I wish their gigabit ports (eight in both cases) were 2.5GbE.
If you’re happy with your NAS box, but it doesn’t support multi-gig ethernet, you might have an upgrade path via USB. QNAP’s boxes support the aforementioned QNA-UC5G1T 5GbE USB adapter. Other vendors might offer similar adapter solutions, but I was unable to locate any. Be aware, however, that adapter support must be baked into the NAS operating system, and some vendors are reluctant to do that for third-party adapters.
If there’s a Linux driver available, you might be able to side-load it from the command line, but I would advise contacting tech support or check the user forums before you go down that road.
If you do want to move up to a faster NAS box, then the Asustor AS5202T and QNAP TS-253D are both excellent products that sport dual 2.5GbE ports. Trunking (combining) two ports can deliver even better performance, although it relies on technologies that not all vendors support.
By far the most affordable 10GbE switches out there at the moment ship from a Lithuanian company called Mikrotik. I was unable to obtain one for testing; however, the reports I’ve seen are generally positive. Mikrotek’s five-port CRS305-1G-4S+IN is easily the cheapest ($139).
The Mikrotik CRS305-1G-4S+IN is a bit of an oddball in that one of its five ports is RJ45 gigabit, while the others are SFP+; but that’s for feeding it the outside world, aka Internet. Any devices connected via SFP+ will communicate with each other at 10GbE if they support it (that’s typical smart switch behavior). All the switches I mentioned in the 2.5GbE section are also worthy 10GbE performers.
Sadly, there are no USB-to-10GbE adapters that I could track down. A 10Gbps USB adapter should be able to deliver the majority of 10GbE’s speed, but that apparently hasn’t translated to a concrete product. USB’s relatively low-power delivery might be a reason, as there’s no shortage of Thunderbolt 3-to-10GbE adapters. This may change with USB4 finally showing up.
I tested three Thunderbolt 3 adapters: The QNAP QNA-T310G1, available in an RJ45 configuration for $184. (TheQNA-T310G1 is also available in an SFP+ configuration for $169; prices courtesy of Amazon); the Sabrent TH-3WEA, a RJ45 model that goes for $231, and the very similar OWC OWCTB3ADP10GBE ($140). All are about the length and breadth of a 2.5-inch USB hard drive, but twice as thick due to large heatsinks (in spite of which, they all ran warm to the touch). All performed as advertised, offering true 10GbE speed—maybe five percent slower than what you’ll see from a PCIe adapter, but that’s to be expected given the translation being performed.
Alas, none of these adapters accept a wall wart AC adapter, which rules out using Apple’s Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 2 adapter on an other Thunderbolt 2 Mac or similar. You might be able to work around this by using a Thunderbolt 3 docking station with Apple’s adapter, but it will need to be a newer model. The older Caldigit TS3 I tried offered only intermittent success.
Do it. Do it soon.
When I first wrote this story, I switched to 2.5GbE across most of my network, with 10GbE on my main NAS boxes. It seemed like the way to go, however, I rarely if ever needed the extra performance from the NAS. The the extra heat and power consumption on the 10GbE connections convinced me to roll back to all 2.5GbE. Except for testing new equipment, I stick with 2.5GbE.
But that’s me. If you have the need, say for remote gaming, or video editing, by all means go 10GbE. When I do remote control a PC over 10GbE, it’s fantastic. But no matter what multi-gig speed you choose, I’m sure you’re going to enjoy your upgraded network. I certainly do.
This article was edited on 09/27/2021 to reflect changes in the marketplace and highlight some new products.
Jon Jacobi is a musician, former x86/6800 programmer, and long-time computer enthusiast. He writes reviews on TVs, SSDs, dash cams, remote access software, Bluetooth speakers, and sundry other consumer-tech hardware and software.