The Connection Less Traveled
When it comes to home networks, one size does not fit all. I had my home built five years ago and spread Gigabit Ethernet-ready CAT5e drops all over the house. I was lucky (or perhaps foolish, considering the present housing market). Most people don’t have this sort of structured wiring in their homes. But most have coax cabling in the walls, and just about everyone who doesn’t live in a tent has power to every room. If all else fails and you’re just not within reach of any plug, there’s WiFi (usually).
I think we can all agree by now that everyone who does more than play Windows Minesweeper needs a network. But which type of network connection is best for you, given issues of cost, availability, bandwidth, and application, remains a big question mark. There is no one-size-fits-all answer. Wi-Fi is fairly cheap and would seem to have omnipresent reach in the home, but anyone who has used WiFi in a space larger than 1,200 to 1,500 square feet knows better. There are plenty of sources for signal disruption, including RF interference from neighbors. Likewise, wired Ethernet is inexpensive and fast, but to implement it beyond a single room, you’re either going to have to spread some cable clutter or incur time and/or cost for stringing wires through your walls.
Netgear should need no introduction among Tom’s Hardware readers. The company has long been a leading name in consumer networking. Some technologies stick around longer than others (Windows Media Center extenders, anyone?), but Netgear has historically been an early adopter in all fields surrounding the home LAN and works hard to build in some of the best features. For instance, I might take jabs at extenders, but Netgear’s latest evolution in the genre, the Digital Entertainer HD, supports H.264 video, HDMI connectivity, optical S/PDIF, and lossless FLAC audio. Extenders are a niche space, but if you’re going to do it, that’s how to do it up right.
Our subject today is infrastructure, especially when it comes to picking a topology suited to entertainment applications. The four primary technologies available today for creating a home network are Ethernet, 802.11 wireless, Powerline, and coaxial. Each of these four has a needed place in today’s market. In order to compare them with the fewest possible variables, we opted to source the latter three of the four from Netgear. Ethernet connectivity generally comes built onto the motherboard these days, at least in consumer circles. There are discrete options, such as Bigfoot’s Killer NIC, but most people will simply save their money for other, more palpable upgrades, and use integrated options.
Which of the four connection technologies is right for you? Let’s find out.
Our Test Environment
We should state right here at the beginning that our goal was to compare these four technologies as mainstream LAN options. We weren’t out to set new land (or air) speed records. Nor did we necessarily want the latest, highest-speed models in any given space. Netgear may not have the fastest product in any given technology, after all. Similarly, the latest dual-band 802.11n routers might eke out better numbers than the 5 GHz kit we evaluated. We wanted gear that was easy, affordable, and effective—the three criteria we think the majority of consumers are after. Given that, we should be able to evaluate performance and get a better sense of which technologies offer better value in different circumstances.
Our test platform began with two notebooks: an HP Compaq nc8000 (1.66 GHz Pentium M, 2GB RAM, Gigabit Ethernet, Windows XP Professional) and a Dell Latitude E6400 (Core 2 Duo P9600, 4GB RAM, Gigabit Ethernet, Windows XP Professional). These were selected more for their portability and because we had them laying around than anything else. Gigabit Ethernet aside, their specs are quite ordinary, which is what we were after.
Next, Netgear was kind enough to drop a small mountain of test gear on our doorstep. We started with the WNR854T RangeMax Next Wireless-N Router Gigabit Edition, a now-mature 2.4 GHz unit with four Gigabit ports, to be the LAN’s central axis. Next came the GS605 5-Port Gigabit Switch. We then busted out a Netgear ReadyNAS Duo, complete with Gigabit Ethernet port, outfitted with a single 500GB drive from which we could stream our transfer test source files.
On this backbone, we then brought in our three competing connections, which we’ll detail momentarily. The whole affair was set up in a standard issue suburban home: 2,600 square feet, two floors, built in 2003, lots of studs and sheet rock, modern power and coax lines in the walls, etc. The only thing missing, as in most homes, was structured wiring for Ethernet connectivity.
We tested in two locations. The router, main system, and NAS were set up in an upstairs bedroom toward the corner of the house. From here, we tested connectivity to the client system on an adjacent desk, about five feet away. For longer-range in-house performance, we then moved the client to the living room downstairs, crossing about 40 feet, one floor, and multiple walls. The specific location of this distance test was governed by the location of the downstairs’ one and only coax drop. Given that Gigabit Ethernet results would be almost identical in-room versus the distance test, and that our main focus was on the three Ethernet alternatives, we opted not to run a 100-foot cable through the house for several days.