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What you need to set up a home network


The variety of options for home networking can make buying decisions difficult. Before you decide what hardware to get, you should decide what type of network technology (the way computers in a network connect to or communicate with one another) to use. This article describes and compares the most common network technologies and lists hardware requirements for each.

Network technologies

The most common types of network technology are wireless, Ethernet, and HPNA (home phone line). When choosing a network technology, consider the location of your computers, desired speed of your network, and how much you want to spend. The sections below compare these three technologies.

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Wireless


Wireless networks use radio waves to send information between computers. The three most common wireless network standards are 802.11b, 802.11g, and 802.11a.

Speed

802.11b: transfers data at a maximum rate of 11 megabits per second (Mbps)

802.11g: transfers data at a maximum rate of 54 Mbps

802.11a: transfers data at a maximum rate of 54 Mbps

(For example, downloading a 10 megabyte [MB] photo from the Internet under optimal conditions takes about 7 seconds on an 802.11b network and about 1.5 seconds on an 802.11g or 802.11a network.)

Cost

Wireless network adapters and routers can cost three or four times as much as Ethernet cable adapters and hubs or switches. 802.11b products are the least expensive; 802.11a products are the most expensive. 802.11g products are priced in the middle and offer a greater signal range than 802.11b and 802.11a products.

Pros

It's easy to move computers around because there are no cables.

Wireless networks are usually easier to install than Ethernet.

Cons

Wireless is more expensive and often slower than Ethernet or HPNA.

Wireless can be affected by interference from things such as walls, large metal objects, and pipes. Also, many cordless phones and microwave ovens can interfere with wireless networks when they're in use.

Wireless networks are typically about half as fast as their rated speed under all but ideal conditions.

Ethernet


Ethernet networks use Ethernet cables to send information between computers.

Speed

Ethernet transfers data at either 10, 100, or 1000 Mbps, depending on the type of cables used. Gigabit Ethernet is the fastest, with a transfer rate of 1 gigabit per second (or 1000 Mbps).

(For example, downloading a 10 megabyte [MB] photo from the Internet under optimal conditions takes about 8 seconds on a 10 Mbps network, about 1 second on a 100 Mbps network, and less than a second on a 1000 Mbps network.)

Cost

Ethernet cables, hubs, and switches are very inexpensive and many computers come with Ethernet adapters installed. Adding a hub, switch, or router to your network will be most of the cost.

Pros

Ethernet is a proven and reliable technology.

Ethernet networks are inexpensive and fast.

Cons

Ethernet cables must be run between each computer and to a hub, switch, or router, which can be time-consuming and difficult when the computers are in different rooms.

Gigabit Ethernet is expensive.

HPNA


HPNA networks use existing home telephone wires to send information between computers.

Speed

HPNA 2.0 transfers data at 10 Mbps. HPNA 3.0 transfers data at 128 Mbps.

(For example, downloading a 10 megabyte [MB] photo from the Internet under optimal conditions takes about 8 seconds on an HPNA 2.0 network and about 1 second on an HPNA 3.0 network.)

Cost

HPNA adapters cost a little more than Ethernet adapters but are usually less expensive than wireless adapters.

Pros

HPNA uses the existing telephone wiring in your home.

You don't need hubs or switches to connect more than two computers in an HPNA network.

Cons

You need a phone jack in each room where you want to have a computer, and all jacks must be on the same phone line.

Hardware requirements

There are several kinds of hardware used in home networks.

Network adapters: These adapters (also called network interface cards, or NICs) connect computers to a network so that they can communicate. A network adapter can be connected to the USB port on your computer or installed inside your computer in an available Peripheral Component Interconnect (PCI) expansion slot.

Illustration of wireless, Ethernet, and HPNA network adapters
Wireless, Ethernet, and HPNA network adapters

Network hubs and switches: Hubs and switches connect two or more computers to an Ethernet network. A switch costs a little more than a hub, but it speeds up the transfer rate of information.

Illustration of an Ethernet hub
Ethernet hub

Routers and access points: Routers connect computers and networks to each other (for example, a router can connect your home network to the Internet). Routers also enable you to share a single Internet connection among several computers. Routers can be wired or wireless. You don't need to use a router for a wired network but we recommend it if you want to share an Internet connection. Access points turn wired Ethernet networks into wireless networks. If you want to share an Internet connection over a wireless network, you will need a wireless router or an access point.

Illustration of an access point, a wired router, and a wireless router
Access point (left); wired router (center); wireless router (right)

Modems: Computers use modems to send and receive information over telephone or cable lines. You will need a modem if you want to connect to the Internet.

Illustration of a cable modem
Cable modem

Network cables (Ethernet and HPNA only): Network cables connect computers to each other and to other related hardware, such as hubs and routers.

Illustration of Ethernet and HPNA cables
Ethernet and HPNA cables

The table below shows the hardware that you need for each type of network technology.

TechnologyHardwareHow many

Ethernet

Ethernet network adapter

One for each computer on your network


Ethernet hub or switch (only needed if you want to connect more than two computers)

One (a 10/100 hub or switch is best and should have enough ports to accommodate all computers on your network)


Ethernet router (only needed if you want to connect more than two computers and share an Internet connection)

One (you don't need a hub or switch if you have a router because it has ports on it for your computers)


Ethernet cables

One for each computer connected to the network hub or switch (10/100 Cat 5e cables are best)


Crossover cable (only needed if you want to connect two computers directly to each other and not use a hub, switch, or router)

One

HPNA

Home phoneline network adapter (HPNA)

One for each computer on your network (USB-to-phoneline network adapters are best)


Telephone cables

One for each computer on your network (use a standard telephone cable to plug each computer into a phone jack)

Wireless

Wireless network adapter

One for each computer on your network


Wireless access point or router (recommended)

One

It's a good idea to find out what kind of network adapters your computers have, if any. You might decide to go with a certain technology because you already have most of the hardware, or you might decide to upgrade your hardware. Most people find that a combination of technologies works best for their environment. For recommended layouts and information about assembling your network

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