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Home Network Technologies - a primer

There are several different technologies you can employ in a home environment:

Wireless

Many people install a wireless broadband router in their home to provide wireless network access for use with their laptops, PDAs, desktops etc. By “install” I mean they simply plug the wireless router (or access point) into a mains socket and turn it on. This setup can work fine for regular internet browsing but when it comes to streaming, whether that be audio streaming or video streaming, you’ll soon likely discover that a wireless network has some serious limitations. Those limitations are either “range” or “throughput” or, more often, both. The current wireless standard is “802.11g” which means your data can travel across your network at a theoretical maximum speed of 54Mb/s. This is fine for internet browsing for example because the speed of the internet connection through your telephone line is probably much less than this, typically it’s around the 2-20 Mb/s mark.

For video streaming however you can be looking at needing something like 50Mb/s, especially for high-definition video. But wait, this is within the limits of the wireless “802.11g” standard so you should be fine, right? Wrong. Firstly, as mentioned, “g” provides a theoretical maximum speed of 54Mb/s. In practice you’ll get a lot less than this. A lot less. If your media server is hardwired to your router and your wireless device (e.g. your video streamer) is located close to your wireless router (or access point) then you could possibly just about stream some HD video. But throw some interference into the mix (in the form of microwave ovens, DECT telephones, fish tanks, fluorescent lights, even your neighbour’s wireless router) and you will be struggling. Compound that problem by adding some solid walls and some distance between the wireless device and the router/access point and you’ll be lucky to get a throughput of 10-20Mb/s.

Furthermore, for streaming you need a constant, quality connection and wireless technology just doesn’t cut it in the typical home. If you’re only going to be streaming audio then a wireless network may work just fine. Perhaps if you strategically place a few wireless access points in the more hard-to-reach places in your home then you might be lucky and be able to run a wireless-only setup, but for video you might need to re-think this strategy.

UPDATE: As of 11th September 2009 the wireless N standard, 802.11N, has finally been ratified. N offers speeds of around 100Mb/s so, potentially, this is a viable solution for HD video streaming. However, it will still be affected by solid objects such as walls and also affected by distance so don’t bank on it working in your environment.

HomePlugs

HomePlugs are a great way to get network access throughout your home. HomePlugs use your mains wiring as your network and are generally less prone to interference than using a wireless network setup. For streaming standard definition video (DVD ISOs typically use 6-8 Mb/s) you may have great success using HomePlugs. However HomePlugs can work out quite expensive if you use them in several rooms in your home and for some people they’re actually not up to the job of supporting HD video streams. This can be down to interference in the mains wiring upsetting the signal from the HomePlugs. Perhaps this interference is from another electrical device somewhere in the home or possibly “outside interference” affecting the copper wiring. What I'm saying is that whilst your mains wiring may be perfectly suitable for carrying electricity it might not be up to the job of carrying the signals from the HomePlugs. As with wireless, the success rate is variable so by all means try it just don’t expect any guarantees.

UPDATE: We’re now starting to see HomePlugs enter the market which claim data rates up to 1Gbps (1000Mb/s) so perhaps we’ll be seeing higher success rates when streaming HD over HomePlugs. Time will tell.

Ethernet Cables

Networking your home using Ethernet cables is currently the most robust means of networking your house. Ethernet cables can support 1Gbps (1000Mb/s) of throughput. Although this is still a theoretical limit, in practice it is still more than plenty for any home video streaming needs. You can cover quite long distances with Ethernet cabling, up to 100metres for a single cable run. Longer if you use a switch to "join" the 100 metre lengths together.

That's all well and good, but what should I use?

Many people actually use a combination of all of the above in their homes. In my home, for example, I use wireless for internet browsing and some audio streaming. For video streaming and audio streaming “in those hard to reach places” I’m using Ethernet cables.

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