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Creating a Home Network: The Basics

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A home network lets you connect to the Internet and other computers within your home. Plus, more and more audio/video gear can connect to your network to access your music files, play online video, and more. Now, let's take a look at the basics of planning and creating a home network.

Visualizing a home network

Network diagram

Modem
The modem connects directly to the Internet through your ISP or Internet Service Provider. It's typically hooked up via a phone line, satellite or cable connection.

Router
Whether wired or wireless, routers serve as the Internet access point for all your connected devices. Most also come with security features to protect you from unauthorized users.

Compatible PCs and/or laptops
Many computers already have a wired or wireless networking card installed. If not, you can upgrade your computer fairly easily by adding a card that's compatible with your router. Make sure that the computers you want to connect are equipped with the right networking card, or have ports that allow you to add cards.

Location, location, location...

  • Modem: You'll have one modem in your home network. This makes a wired connection to a phone, satellite or cable jack depending on your type of Internet service, so it's convenient to keep this device near one of those jacks.
  • Router: You'll likely have just one router in your home network. This connects to your modem with Ethernet (CAT-5) cable, so you'll probably want to keep it in the same room as your modem.
  • Compatible PCs, laptops, and components: You'll probably connect more than one computer or component to your home network.

    If you're making wireless connections, you can place your computers and components anywhere in your home — location won't matter as long as you're within range of your wireless router.

    If you're making wired connections, you'll need to run Ethernet cable to your gear. If the router's in your living room or home theater room, an easy solution is to keep it near the rack with your receiver and blu-ray player or near your TV. If you're connecting to a component that's a few rooms away and your home isn't pre-wired with Ethernet cable, you might want to consider an Ethernet-over-powerline solution or consider making a wireless connection.

Wired and wireless systems

When putting together a home network, you can make wired or wireless connections to your computers and components. Wired connections use Ethernet (CAT-5) cables to connect to networked components in your home, while wireless connections use Wi-Fi®, a wireless communications standard. The type of connection that's right for you will depend largely on what you connect to it and how you want to use those devices. Wireless connections have been increasing in popularity in the past few years.

A wireless connection might be for you if:

  • You want to easily move connected devices from room to room. For example, if you'd like to take your laptop out on the patio to enjoy the weather while you work.
  • You want the freedom to connect and disconnect additional devices at any time.
  • You'd like to connect devices in rooms where you don't already have an Ethernet (CAT-5) connection, and you don't want to run new cable around your home.

A wired connection might be for you if:

  • You'll primarily leave your computer or other connected component in one location — you won't often move it from room to room.
  • You value the security of your system over the mobility and flexibility of a wireless system.
  • Your home already has Ethernet cable run through the walls, or you're willing to run cables through the walls.

You may find that aspects of both wired and wireless connections appeal to you. Below, we've broken down specific pros and cons of the two different types of connections.

The type of connection you want will determine what kind of router you choose. Wired routers feature Ethernet ports that allow you to connect to computers and components via CAT-5 cable. Wireless routers generally offer Ethernet ports along with built-in antennas that pass Internet signals through the air using a wireless standard called 802.11.

Connection speed and range
Wireless connections can run at a slightly slower speed than wired connections, depending on the standard of the wireless router and cards you purchase as well as other factors, like interference from other electronics in your home. However, casual Internet users probably won't find the difference interferes with their web browsing and occasional downloads. Your bandwidth will determine how quickly you're able to load webpages and download content. If you're concerned about the speed of your connection, you'll want to check out the most recent wireless standard, 802.11n, or consider a wired connection. The range of a wireless connection can be up to 150 feet, though the range in your specific home will vary — appliances, building materials, and other household items have an effect on the distance wireless signals can travel.

Wired connections run at a maximum speed determined by your ISP, and their range is limited by the length of Ethernet cable you install. Some ISPs offer faster speed for additional fees — check with your Internet provider to find out if this service is available in your area.

Flexibility and convenience
Wireless connections give you the ability to move devices connected to your home network easily from room to room. This can be especially helpful with laptops. For example, you may want to bring your laptop to the kitchen, so you can look up recipes online as you cook. Another feature of wireless connections is that, unlike wired connections, you aren't limited by the number of ports on your router. With a wired system, you have a finite number of ports on a router. If you use all the ports on a router, you can't connect more components to your network without buying another device. But with a wireless system, you can typically add more devices than with a common wired router. See specific models for details.

The security of your system
A completely wired system is relatively difficult to access without physically being in your home and plugging a computer into your router. Wireless networks pose more security risks because they send information and signals through the air. People can detect and attempt to access your network, but you can take steps to secure it.

Most wireless routers come with built-in security features that are fairly simple to use. Changing the name of your network is a good way to start. Typically, the default name will be the router manufacturer's name. Change it to something else — a name that you'll be able to remember, but not something other folks will easily be able to guess.

Then, adjust your router's security settings to prevent your network name from popping up when people are searching for available networks (see the owner's manual that came with your router for details). That way, folks will need to actually type in your network name, rather than just select it from a drop-down menu, in order to access your network. And if people can't find your network, there's less chance that they'll be able to connect without your permission.

Your next line of defense is encryption. WEP encryption is probably the most common, though WPA and WPA2 are generally more secure. While none of these methods are fool-proof, and there are some pretty crafty hackers out there, they will prohibit your neighbors from logging onto your network with ease.

Commonly asked questions

What if I want to make a wireless connection to a computer or device that only has a wired Ethernet port?
With a computer, you can install a wireless card or wireless adapter. For connected electronics , some manufacturers make wireless adapters for connected electronics, like Internet-ready TVs and Blu-ray players, that can be purchased separately and connect to a USB port. There are also third-party adapters available that will connect to a wired Ethernet port and act as a bridge to your wireless network.

What is "Ethernet over powerline"? How does it work?
There are adapters that can route Ethernet signals over the existing powerlines in your home. You'll plug one adapter into an AC outlet in the same room as your router, and another adapter in to an AC outlet in the room with your computer or connected device. Short runs of Ethernet cable will connect your router and the first adapter as well as the second adapter and your connected device.

One thing to keep in mind is that these adapters generally don't work as well when plugged into a power protection unit. So you'll probably want to run the wired Ethernet signal through power protection before connecting to your gear, in order to protect from electrical fluctuations and power surges.

I've seen routers labeled "dual-band." What does that mean?
Dual-band routers have the ability to transmit two different streams of information at the same time. This is a great option if you plan to do a lot of streaming of music, videos and photos using your home network. You can use one "band" to handle data streaming and use the other for casual Internet surfing and e-mail checking.

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