Holiday Buyer's Guide 2006, Part 2: Networking

LANs and Routers

Sometimes a gift is more practical than fun, sorta like the underwear or socks that you used to get as a kid. I guess you can think of routers, switches, cables and Ethernet cards as the underwear of networking - not the most fun stuff, but definitely necessary.

Manufacturers have been slow to make gigabit switches standard in all routers; even the whizzyest draft 11n stuff still mostly has 10/100 switches. So if you're tired of the time it takes to move your ripped or downloaded music and video files around, a gigabit switch might be just the thing to reward yourself with. Although the percentage difference between 10/100 and 10/100/1000 switches is still rather large, the actual cost is well within reason. And since most new computers now come with gigabit LAN ports as standard, you might as well take advantage of them.

The main catch to consumer gigabit switches is the lack of jumbo frame capability. Netgear revised its GS108 8 port switch last year to include jumbo frame capability, but didn't renumber the product and was slow to flush old inventory out of the channel, frustrating many consumers. It should be safe to buy one now, but if you're buying from an Internet retailer, check its return / exchange policies in case you get one that doesn't say jumbo frames on the box.

Netgear GS108 8 port gigabit switch

Since all of the magic is baked into chips that everyone uses, there is little to differentiate one consumer gigabit switch from another. So if you don't care about jumbo frames or your computers aren't fast enough to really take advantage of them, then shop on price and brand preference if you have one. Gigabit NICs can have a bit of differentiation in the properties or controls that they expose to users and any utilities they include. I use an Intel Pro/1000 MT gigabit adapter which exposes more properties than I care to mess with, but there are plenty of other NICs to choose from.

Wired-only routers might seem boring when compared to their wireless cousins that networking manufacturers love to hype, but plenty of them toil quietly away keeping us connected. But as many filesharing devotees have discovered, ol' faithful might not be able to keep up with the higher download speeds that have become more common or the multiple simultaneous connections required by filesharing and gaming applications.

Fortunately, it doesn't cost a lot to replace a poky old router these days. Our Cheap Router Roundup sized up six routers costing $25 or less and found some surprisingly good products from lesser-known companies. You may have to hunt around for it online, but the AirLink101 AR504 came in at the top of the heap with the best combination of features and performance. If you're looking for something in a bit more of a brand name, just use our Router Charts to compare up and download speeds as well as the number of simultaneous connections supported.

AirLink101 AR504