A newbie's guide to home networking
Note: This article was updated on 14th March 2016 to reflect updates in Wireless-AC technology.
Time to Get Connected
In our two earlier articles, we showed you how you can prepare your home for fiber broadband, and also the things that you need to take note of when signing a new fiber broadband contract. Now, let us guide you through some networking basics, and provide you with some tips and tricks on how you can maximize your networking performance.
Speed matters: The bits and bytes
In our day to day lives, we often talk about capacity and data in terms of bytes - megabyte, gigabyte, terabyte, and so on. However, one thing to note when it comes to routers and networking devices is that their claimed transfer speeds are in bits, and not bytes - Mbps and MB/s are not the same! But what is the difference between bits and bytes, and how does it affect our understanding of transfer speeds?
To begin, a bit is the smallest unit of information and can be expressed as either 0 or 1. A byte, on the other hand, is made up of 8 bits. For those among you who are mathematically-inclined, you might realize now the discrepancy between the device’s claimed speeds and our daily understanding of transfer speeds.
For instance, When a router claims to offer 600Mbps transfer speeds, it means 600 megabits per second, not megabytes. In this case, 600 megabits per second is really 75 megabytes per second. The former sounds a lot quicker doesn’t it? Understanding this is crucial as it helps users manage their expectations better.
To begin, once you have your router and network set up, you can connect to it using either a wired connection or wirelessly via Wi-Fi. For the best performance, a wired connection is recommended as most devices with an Ethernet port can support gigabit Ethernet, which really means a theoretical maximum throughput of 1 gigabit per second or 125MB/s. Although the latest Wireless-AC standard, on paper at least, can reach higher throughput speeds, it is often slower in real life (more on this later). Speeds aside, it is also more reliable. This is because unlike wireless signals, signals that passed through an Ethernet cable suffer from considerably lesser interference, which can degrade performance.
However, considering most people’s usage patterns today, depending solely on an Ethernet connection could be both inconvenient and impractical. In fact, many of the devices that we use today, like smartphones and tablets, and even most modern notebooks, do not have dedicated Ethernet ports and rely solely on Wi-Fi to connect to the Internet. Hence, an Ethernet connection is best suited if you are going to be using your system in a fixed position near the router or if you have already planned in advance to wire up your home so that you do not have Ethernet cables running across your rooms, which can be unsightly or even potentially hazardous.
Cat 5 vs. Cat 5e vs. Cat 6
When looking for cables, you might have come across the aforementioned terms, but what do they really mean since the cable themselves all look physically similar? The difference is under the proverbial hood. In a nutshell, the main difference between the cables is their maximum bandwidth and their range. Cat 5 is an older format that supports only up to 100BASE-TX (Fast Ethernet) standards, or simply put, 100Mbps. Most cables you see now are Cat 5e cables and these can support the 1000BASE-T standard, which is also known as Gigabit Ethernet, meaning 1Gbps. It achieves this by reducing crosstalk within the cable. Finally, Cat 6 cables further reduce crosstalk within the cable and also supports the 200MHz bandwidth - Cat 5 and Cat 5e cables only operate at the 100MHz bandwidth. This means that Cat 6 cables can support the 10GBASE-T standard, which amounts to 10Gbps. If you are going to be wiring up your house, we would definitely recommend using Cat 6 cables to future-proof your investment.
An alternative: Powerline adapters
An alternative to an Ethernet connection are powerline adapters. These devices make use of your home’s electrical wiring to create a network, which means no additional wiring is required. However, this convenience comes at the sacrifice of some performance, even if you're using a 600Mbps-rated HomePlug AV2 powerline adapter. And in our experience, it never worked well on an extension power strip (in other words, it works best when plugged directly into the wall socket). That said, if you've to resort to powerline adapters, remember that you need at least a pair of them to complete the connection.
The latest buzzword surrounding wireless connections or Wi-Fi is Wireless-AC. It is the successor to the Wireless-N standard and is meant to bridge the gap between wireless and wired Ethernet connections. And today's fastest Wireless-AC routers can theoretically offer up to 2.16 gigabit per second of throughput on the 5GHz band, that's 2166Mbps or 270.75Mb/s. This easily surpasses the 1 gigabit per second throughput of Ethernet connections.
However, being able to enjoy this level of speed requires compatible devices. Needless to say, you need a Wireless-AC router, which, fortunately, are plentiful and easy to find these days. Next, your device must also support Wireless-AC, which is not that common up until recently. If your device does not support Wireless-AC, then it is no use having a Wireless-AC router. That said, most devices today do support the older Wireless-N standard and that itself is good for up to 600Mbps.
Even so, bear in mind that actual real-life performance is much lower, because aside from interference from other wireless devices, wireless signals are also susceptible to other factors such as distance, home layout, the location of the router itself, and even, to a lesser extent, the weather. These factors can cause wireless performance to be poor and even unstable. But most users, especially if their primary usage is just browsing the Web, would hardly be affected by these factors. However, for those who rely on their wireless network for more intensive purposes such as streaming HD videos and online gaming, a wired connection is usually preferred.
Additionally, this plays into our next point, which is with regards to your subscribed fiber broadband plans. We often see users complaining on our forums that their speeds do not match the plan that they have subscribed, and many a times, this has to do with the way they are connected to their router. As we have mentioned, older standards such as Wireless-N supports only up to 600Mbps and even older ones such as Wireless-G supports only up to 54Mbps. Therefore, the wireless connection becomes the bottleneck, which is also why we recommend fussy and demanding users to always connect to their router using an Ethernet connection.
The Issue of interference
If you look at a router, you might notice that it says “dual-band”. Dual-band refers to the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency bands that routers use to transmit data, and this is a feature available on most routers today. Additionally, most devices such as your smartphone, tablet, and notebook are also dual-band compatible so they can connect to both bands. Generally, using the 5GHz band is recommended because the 2.4GHz band usually suffers from congestion and interference because of the sheer number of different signals that operate and emit signals at this frequency. Some examples of interference are your Bluetooth speaker, cordless phone, wireless keyboard and mice, and even your microwave.
Tips and Tricks
Now that we have covered the basics of connecting to your router, here are some tips and tricks to improve your connection and networking experience.
1.) Router location
Router positioning is like real estate: it is all about location, location, location. Wi-Fi signals do not pass through barriers well. In fact, even objects such as large fish tanks and ornaments can disrupt and degrade Wi-Fi signals. In addition, Wi-Fi signals can also be susceptible to weird home layouts that can even cause the signals to be reflected. As a rule of thumb, it is best to locate the router in a central position of your home. This generally means the living room, walkway or, if you are trying to spread coverage across two levels, the stairs.
2.) Router maintenance
Your router is designed to work 24/7 so there is actually no need to turn them off when you are not using it. However, take note of the location of its vents and be sure not to block them. Most routers do not have any form of active cooling and rely solely on these vents to keep cool. Additionally, it is a good idea to check your router's manufacturer for firmware updates, and update frequently so that you stay secure and get the latest features. For instance, a recent firmware update from ASUS addressed a serious security flaw.
3.) Boosting signals
If your router is incapable of providing coverage over your entire home, you can improve coverage by using a Wi-Fi range extender. This device connects to your existing Wi-Fi network and then broadcasts a separate signal to extend overall coverage. The Wi-Fi range extender should therefore be positioned midway between your router and the area that is devoid of coverage, whilst making sure that it is not placed too far from the router that it cannot get a good signal. Additionally, do note that performance when connected to the range extender will often be significantly compromised as compared to connecting directly to the router, but that beats having no signal at all, right? You can check out some possible range extender options to consider over here.
Always, always password protect your network. This prevents unauthorized users from leeching your bandwidth, which can degrade performance, or worse, put you at risk because of them engaging in illegal or suspicious online activities. Additionally, we also recommend that you hide your SSID so that it becomes invisible to others and requires users to manually enter the SSID to log on.
5.) Network cables
If you are using a wired connection, take note that you should try to keep the cables as straight as possible to maximize performance. The bend radius should be kept to at least four times the outer diameter of the cable. Additionally, these cables have an effective range too, for Cat 5 and Cat 5e cables, the maximum length should not exceed 100m. For Cat 6 cables, if you intend to use it for only up to 1Gbps, the maximum length is also 100m. For purposes beyond 1Gbps, the maximum recommended length drops to 55m.
Hopefully, now that you have read our basic guide, you will better understand the basics of home networking. To recap, one of the fundamental things to note is the way that manufacturers and internet service providers rate their speeds in bits and not bytes, which can affect our understanding and expectation of how fast we can expect our fiber broadband and router to be. So for users who demand the utmost performance, it is best to connect to their routers directly via Ethernet. However, for those who find this inconvenient or impractical, understand that Wi-Fi has its limitations, but these limitations can be overcome or alleviated using our tips. Last but note least, the position of the router in the home is absolutely crucial if you want good coverage and performance.
Next week, we continue this series on how to improve your online surfing and gaming experience with some simple tips.