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This chapter is from the book

Finding the Best Home Network for You

Now that you've compared the tasks you want your home network to do with the home networks on the market, it's time to review the best features of each home network. As you review the following sections, keep in mind that it's no longer necessary to build a "pure" home network that is based on a single network type.

In my home, for example, I run a mixture of wired and wireless ethernet (802.11g Wi-Fi) because it makes sense. It would be silly for me to install a wireless ethernet network adapter in a computer that's less than 5 feet away from my wireless access point (which also contains a router and switch). However, it's equally silly for me to run more than 100 feet of CAT5/5e/6 cable to an upstairs workroom when I can connect wirelessly. I use 10/100 Ethernet downstairs, and Wi-Fi wireless ethernet upstairs.

You might find that your home (or small office, for that matter) can be networked more easily with a different network or mix of networks than I use. Just be sure to keep in mind that the greater the number of network types you connect, the more complicated your task of managing them will be. Remember that the only help desk you have at home is the one you're sitting at now.

Wi-Fi Pros and Cons

"Look, Ma! No wires!" If your biggest desire in home networking is to "cut the cable" that ties you to your desk or your kitchen table, Wi-Fi (the popular name for IEEE 802.11 wireless ethernet) is the home network for you. Wi-Fi offers these advantages:

  • No wires means "freedom!"—As long as you can pick up a signal from your wireless access point (WAP), you can plop down in an easy chair with your laptop or PDA, head out to the pool or the deck, or nod indulgently as your teenager sprawls across the bed to do homework online.

  • PC + Home Theater + TV = Entertainment—An increasing number of wireless devices exist to help you play your favorite digital music and view your favorite videos and photos through your home theater system and big-screen TV.

  • Share the wireless joy—Wi-Fi also works with printers, webcams, and video games.

  • Stick with one brand of hardware for easy setup—For example, if you use Linksys-brand Wi-Fi hardware, you can create an easy-to-use passphrase you can type to access a secure network instead of memorizing a finger- and brain-busting WEP key.

  • Wi-Fi inside?—If you bought a laptop since mid-2003, you might already have a Wi-Fi adapter built in, saving you money. Any laptop featuring Intel's Centrino technology includes Wi-Fi, as do many others based on both Intel and AMD processors.

  • Easy mix-and-match networking—Most Wi-Fi routers include ethernet switches, so it's easy to build a mixed ethernet/Wi-Fi network.

But, before you decide that Wi-Fi's the way to go, keep in mind these limitations:

  • Wi-Fi = insecure by default—Wi-Fi devices out of the box are inherently insecure. If you can access your home network, so can anyone else if you don't enable security settings. See Chapter 6, "Installing and Configuring a Wi-Fi Network," for basic wireless ethernet security settings and Chapter 10, "Securing Your Home Network," for advanced strategies and tools.

  • Wi-Fi security is a work in progress—Expect to upgrade firmware and drivers a couple of times to implement the latest security features such as Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) or 802.1x authentication. If you don't, your Wi-Fi network isn't as secure as it could be.

  • Wi-Fi connections are rarely (make that never) as fast as advertised—For example, in tests performed by PCWorld magazine for its July 2004 issue, the typical throughput of 802.11b wireless networks was just 4.5Mbps (the rated speed is 11Mbps). 802.11g wireless networks, which are rated to provide 54Mbps, provided throughput of just 18Mbps.

  • Distance = slowdowns—The further you are from the WAP or router that distributes Wi-Fi signals, the slower the throughput. Brick or concrete walls can also absorb Wi-Fi signals, slowing throughput or blocking signals entirely.

My Take on Wi-Fi/Wireless Ethernet

Use the 802.11g (fastest) flavor of Wi-Fi wherever you can in your network. For devices near your Wi-Fi router, use the router's ethernet ports. If your Wi-Fi signal can't reach some parts of your home and you don't want to run ethernet cable, use HomePlug or HomePNA for those PCs and connect them to the rest of the network with a bridge.

  • Different brands bring Wi-Fi headaches—Although Wi-Fi certification indicates that different brands of wireless access points and adapters should be able to "play well with others," differences in how security settings work can cause headaches you can avoid if you buy the same brand of hardware.

  • No cabling doesn't mean cheaper—Although you don't have the expense of cabling, Wi-Fi adapters and WAPs are more expensive than most other network hardware unless your computers already have Wi-Fi adapters included.

  • Wi-Fi (often) not included—Almost all desktops and most laptops, particularly those built before mid-2003 or low-end models, need Wi-Fi adapters.

HomePNA Pros and Cons

If your home has a telephone jack in every room, you already have a home network wired up and ready to go. The missing link? A HomePNA adapter. HomePNA strong points include

  • No rewiring—The phone jacks are the network, so you don't need to put crayon-colored wires all over the place.

  • No security worries—Your telephone wiring is a closed network.

  • Easy setup software—Run the software included with the adapters and away you go!

Despite its strong points, you should think twice before making HomePNA your only network. Here's why:

  • HomePNA's a slowpoke compared to other networks—Most HomePNA products currently correspond to version 2.0 (10Mbps). Although a faster (128Mbps) version 3.0 was approved in June 2003, it looks as if version 3.0 hardware might never make it to market. The original version of HomePNA, HomePNA 1.0, ran at just 1Mbps!

  • HomePNA = more money, less availability—HomePNA network adapters are almost as expensive as Wi-Fi adapters, and are harder to find at retail stores.

  • HomePNA's mostly for PCs—Most media adapters are designed to connect between your home theater system and ethernet (wired or wireless) networks, not HomePNA.

  • Expect to buy a bridge—A relatively expensive HomePNA-Ethernet bridge is required to connect a HomePNA network to an ethernet or wireless ethernet network.

  • HomePNA.org's website needs work—The HomePNA.org website's list of compatible products is not well maintained. Many of the product links are not working, and many of the products listed are no longer available (or might never have been produced).

My Take on HomePNA Networking

I consider HomePNA basically a "last resort" network option; use it in rooms where you can't run ethernet cable or can't get a Wi-Fi signal through. Remember, you can bridge HomePNA to other networks.

HomePlug Pros and Cons

Although HomePlug powerline networking isn't as well-known as some other network types, it provides features similar to HomePNA, but works in any room that has an electrical outlet. HomePlug's strong points include

  • Built-in encryption—Snoopy neighbors can't get to your data.

  • No rewiring—The AC power lines in the wall are the network.

  • Easy network connections—The only network connection you add to your PC is a small device about the size of an AC briquette power adapter that plugs into the AC wall socket (no surge protectors, please) and your computer's USB port.

  • HomePlug is more popular than HomePNA—Many mail-order and online stores offer HomePlug hardware and an increasing number of vendors produce HomePlug network hardware.

Nevertheless, you should think twice about making HomePlug your only network for these reasons:

  • HomePlug's a slowpoke—Although HomePlug's rated speed is 14Mbps, its real-world performance is about the same as 11Mbps 802.11b wireless networks. If you want to use it for streaming video, HomePlug is too slow.

  • HomePlug's just for PCs—Current media adapters don't support HomePlug, so you need to use an ethernet/HomePlug bridge to connect a media adapter to a HomePlug network.

My Take on HomePlug

HomePlug is a good option for networking PCs for web-surfing and printer-sharing if Wi-Fi or ethernet isn't feasible. Use a bridge to connect a HomePlug network to an ethernet or Wi-Fi network.

Ethernet Pros and Cons

Ethernet, the built-in network adapter found in most recent desktop and notebook PCs, has four big advantages:

  • Low cost—Most recent PCs have an ethernet (RJ-45) port built in. Add a low-cost router to your broadband Internet access device (cable, DSL, and so on) and a cable for each device and you have a network with Internet sharing.

  • High performance—Almost all routers, switches, and network adapters used on ethernet home networks these days support a feature called full duplex (simultaneous read/write). Full duplex support makes a 100Mbps ethernet connection run at 200Mbps!

  • Versatility—Many specialized network adapters, such as print servers, media adapters, and others, even if sold primarily for Wi-Fi use, also have ethernet ports.

  • Mix and match with Wi-Fi—Most Wi-Fi routers incorporate an ethernet switch, making it easy to build a mixed ethernet/Wi-Fi network.

With ethernet's many advantages, why not use it for everything? Keep in mind these drawbacks:

  • Network cable expense—Long cable runs can be costly, especially between far-flung rooms or from one floor of your home to another.

  • Network cable esthetics—Your home might look like somebody's been drawing on the baseboards with crayons unless you take time and spend money to hide the cables or standardize on neutral cable colors such as white or light gray.

My Take on Ethernet

Connect close-in computers and devices with ethernet (especially if you can hide those cables!) and use Wi-Fi for more distant areas of your home.

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