We explain how you can make your home network faster and more reliable – it's not difficult and it won't cost you a fortune either
Once a home network is up and running, many people simply forget about it: after all, if everything seems to work, why give it a second thought? However, with a little time and effort it’s usually possible to make a network faster, more reliable and more useful, particularly if it is a wireless setup– and all without spending a fortune.
In most cases making such improvements is a simple process, but where do you start? Plenty of people, for example, experience slow or unreliable internet connections, and perhaps lay the blame at the door of their internet service provider (ISP).
However, more often than not, problems like these are caused by issues related to the home network itself, such as incorrect settings or outdated equipment.
Read more articles about solving network problems
In this article we’ll explore all the different components that make up a home network and explain how they can be easily and cheaply upgraded to add features or improve performance.
Let’s start at the core of any home network: the router. This connects to the internet and then shares this connection with any devices connected to it via a wired and/or wireless network.
These days, many ISPs provide routers that are set up and ready to go: just plug them into the phone socket and you’re online. This seems straightforward enough and, indeed, many people are well-served by these offerings.
However, these free routers tend to be quite limited in terms of features. For instance, some ISPs supply a basic Zyxel modem/router that includes a solitary Ethernet port (see the heading Wireless network standards explained further on) and no wireless capability. This means that only one computer can be connected to the internet, which is highly restrictive.
Upgrading the router is sometimes possible, depending on the ISP’s terms and conditions (see the heading Upgrading cable and ADSL routers for more on this). If allowed, you can upgrade the router to one with more network ports, or even with Wifi capability.
These don’t have to be expensive. Examples of reputable budget brands include Edimax, Getnet, Tenda, and TP-Link. At the time of writing, for example, the TP-Link TD-W8950ND costs £26 from Amazon: this has four 100Mbits/sec Ethernet ports plus 150Mbits/sec 802.11n Wifi (see the Wireless network standards section).
New cable subscribers (Virgin customers, in the main) get a decent router as standard these days, but those with an older separate cable modem could choose the Edimax BR-6204WG: this can be picked up for just £13 on Amazon.
Make the switch
The alternative (and simpler) method of upgrading a router’s capabilities is to add a network switch. These are ‘intelligent’ devices that plug into any network port on a router to provide extra network ports (a bit like a multi-socket mains adapter) – and no configuration is needed.
A standard (100Mbits/sec) Ethernet switch with five ports, such as the Zyxel Dimension ES-105A, can be bought for around £11. Gigabit Ethernet models (able to pump data around the home network at up to 1,000Mbits/sec) are a little more expensive, but shop around for bargains – the five-port TP-Link TL-SG1005D was being offered at £14 at the time of writing.
One great advantage of switches, apart from the fact that they don’t need setting up, is that they can be ‘daisy-chained’ together with Ethernet cables, allowing a network to grow indefinitely as more wired devices are added.
Almost all modern routers and switches have network ports that automatically detect what kind of device is being connected and make the necessary adjustments automatically (look for the description ‘Auto MDI/MDIX’ in the specifications).
The result of this is that users don’t really need to worry about how it all works: just plug things in and off you go.
The one thing to remember is that nothing on your network will run faster than the port it’s connected to on the switch. That’s not really an issue if you’re only connecting one computer to the internet – even a 10Mbits/sec Ethernet port is faster than most broadband connections – but if you want to share files between computers, or with a network-attached storage (Nas) device, then a switch with 100Mbits/sec or Gigabit ports is a better investment.
The ports will work at the maximum speed of the device plugged into them, allowing high-speed devices to communicate with each other quickly, rather than slowing the network to the speed of the slowest device.
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