Choosing the best network cards, WiFi, wireless routers and 3G: Buyer’s Guide review

How to choose the best Ethernet, wireless and powerline networking equipment
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If you’ve got more than one PC or mobile device – a desktop PC and a laptop or tablet, say – you need to get a network up and running. Besides allowing you to share a single Internet connection between multiple machines, a home network also allows you to quickly move files between systems, play mulitplayer games and even stream films, music, and photos to your TV.

Many Internet service providers offer free routers with their DSL or cable broadband packages, which include wireless and wired networking capabilities. If you have got one of these, you’re most likely set – but what happens if you run out of ports, or need something a little more powerful?

For the home user, networking equipment is broadly split into two categories: wired and wireless. Each of these two self-explanatory categories is further broken down into different devices: hubs, switches, and routers. Which bits of kit you need to buy depends largely on what you’re trying to achieve. Read on, and ITReviews will explain all.

Wired networking is, typically, faster than wireless – and it offers a guarantee of security, with ne’er-do-wells unable to hijack your Internet connection or sit and watch your web browsing habits unless they’re physically located in your house. It does, however, require that you physically connect a cable to every system in your network – which is why increasing numbers of users are choosing to use wireless networking for portable devices such as tablets, laptops, and smartphones, enabling them to roam around the house and gain access to the internet or printing and other facilities whether they’re in the spare bedroom or on the sofa.

The majority of wired networking equipment on the market today uses the Ethernet standard at a speed of 100Mbit/s. When you’re out shopping for equipment, you may see it written as “10/100 Ethernet” – this refers to the fact that 100Mbit/s gear will also work with the earlier, slower 10Mbit/s standard. If you’re looking at the more expensive end of the market, you may see 1000Mbit/s equipment, also known as 1Gbit/s or ‘Gigabit Ethernet.’

The speed you require depends largely on your usage. If you’re going to be sharing an Internet connection, 100Mbit/s will be plenty – very few homes in the world are able to receive an Internet connection faster than that, so 100Mbit/s is enough to ensure that all computers on your network can access the full speed of the Internet connection.

If you’re going to be using it for transferring large files between a laptop and a desktop, however, you’re going to want to get the fastest connection possible – in which case paying extra for the gigabit hardware can be a worthwhile investment.

Backwards compatibility
When looking at networking equipment, always check to see what hardware you already have. Most laptops and desktops on the market these days include in-built Ethernet networking, but many at the cheaper end are 100Mbit/s – meaning that if you do want to use a gigabit connection you’ll have to buy a new network card. More expensive laptops, however, typically have gigabit Ethernet included as standard.

The first type of device you’re likely to see when buying equipment is a switch. While network hubs still exist, they’re becoming increasing uncommon – and share the bandwidth between their ports, meaning that they’re slower in operation than a switch. With a small, five-port switch often costing less than £20, there’s little reason to buy a hub.

A switch is used to connect multiple PCs together to share data. They contain little in the way of ‘intelligence,’ and aren’t much use for sharing an Internet connection. For that, you’ll need a router – either instead of or as well as a switch.

Available in sizes from small desktop five-port models to enterprise-grade 48-port rackmount switches, it’s important to consider how many computers you’re likely to network. Buy a switch that’s larger than your needs now, and if you get an extra PC in the future you won’t have to add a second switch or upgrade your existing switch to accommodate it.

If you want to share an Internet connection, you’ll need a router. These are more intelligent than switches – they often come with an in-built four- or five-port switch as well – and contain the equipment needed to assign networking addresses to PCs and laptops, as well as ensuring that all systems on the network can access the shared Internet connection.

When buying a router, always check the type of Internet connection you have: ADSL or cable. If you buy an ADSL router, it won’t work with a cable connection – as many people on Virgin’s broadband network have discovered – and vice-versa. Once that’s sorted, the same advice applies as with switches: find one that has enough ports for your needs. If you can’t, you’ll need to buy a switch as well – this can be connected to the router in order to increase the number of ports on offer for additional computers.

Both wired switches and routers rely on a special type of cable to connect them, known as ‘twisted pair’ cable. The quality of the cable affects the speed of network it can handle, with the most common being Category 5E, also known as Cat-5E. This will handle 100Mbit/s networks easily, and gigabit connections over shorter distances. If you need gigabit support over a longer distance, you’ll need to look for Category 6, a newer – and more expensive – twisted pair cable standard.

Both Cat-5E and Cat-6 come in two flavours: shielded, or STP, and unshielded, or UTP. For most household uses, unshielded is fine – the shielded variant is for use in places like factories where large motors can interference into the wire if shielding is not used.

For houses where it’s difficult to run cabling, but where wireless isn’t an option, there exists another category of product: powerline networking. These devices, sold under names such as HomePlug, allow the electric cabling in your house to act as network cabling – transferring data without the need to run cables. The devices are expensive, however – and usually operate slower than a ‘true’ Ethernet network.

Although some networking devices use esoteric cables, such as optical fibre, these are typically not used in a home environment – and thus are a little out of the scope of this Buyer’s Guide!

Although wired networks have the edge in terms of speed and security, wireless or ‘Wi-Fi’ is significantly more convenient. For some devices, such as tablets, smartphones, and ultra-thin laptops, it can often be the only way to get connected to a home network.

The good news is that, in recent years, wireless networking has become significantly more secure. The 802.11 standard, known as Wi-Fi, has been improving with time – and the old, insecure WEP encryption protocol has been replaced with WPA and then WPA-2. If you’re still using hardware which relies on WEP, it’s time to upgrade – a ne’er-do-well looking to borrow an Internet connection can break into a WEP-protected wireless network within seconds.

Older equipment often required you to first establish a wired connection for secure setup, but many modern devices include WPS secure wireless setup.

If you already have a wired network in place, there’s an easy way to add wireless support: a Wireless Access Point. These are devices which connect to a spare port on your network and broadcast a wireless signal, allowing devices that aren’t physically connected to the network to share the existing infrastructure in the same way as wired devices.

When buying an access point, always double-check the standard used by the device you’re trying to connect up. While the Wi-Fi standard is largely backwards-compatible, certain versions – such as 802.11a – use different frequencies, and won’t connect to other types of network.

The most common type of wireless network is 802.11g, which is backwards-compatible with 802.11b – the original Wi-Fi standard. These are starting to be replaced with 802.11n hardware, however, which offers a significantly improved range along with enhanced speed. Thankfully, 802.11n access points will happily work with older 802.11g and 802.11b devices – albeit at a reduced speed.

Play Max
A wireless router will let you share your broadband internet connection via Wi-Fi.

If you don’t have a network in place already, and you’re looking to share an Internet connection, you’ll need a wireless router. These combine the features of a traditional wired router – typically including at least four wired Ethernet ports and a connection for the Internet line – with a wireless access point. Buying a wireless router represents a significant saving over a separate router and access point.

As with a wired router, you’ll need to know the type of Internet connection you have: cable or ADSL. If you buy the wrong type, it won’t work with your Internet connection – although it will still function as a wired switch and wireless access point.

If you find that your wireless network doesn’t quite reach to the far corners of your house, higher-gain antennas are available as a drop-in replacement – just check that the antenna on your existing router or access point unscrews, and isn’t moulded in to the casing. Another option is a Wireless Range Extender, which is a device that sits between the access point and an area of poor signal in order to retransmit the wireless signals – and improve the lot of devices sat in ‘black spots.’

A wireless network is all well and good when you’re in the house, but doesn’t offer much help when you’re out and about – but there is another form of wireless networking which does: 3G, or mobile broadband. Based around the same technology as a smartphone, a USB ‘dongle’ connected to your laptop will allow you to browse the Internet from almost anywhere – but they do come with a cost.

Huawei - Huawei E367 mobile broadband dongle on Three
You can get broadband on your portable PC while you’re away from home by using a 3G dongle.

A mobile broadband dongle is like a very simple mobile phone that plugs into your PC’s USB port, and comes with the same sort of charges attached: the cheaper dongles will usually require you to sign up to a monthly contract, which will come with a certain amount of data included in the price – usually 15GB or so. Pay-as-you-go versions are also available, but cost more up-front – and if you’re a heavy user, can cost significantly more in the long run. They do, however, allow you to set a maximum limit on your spending.

Before buying a 3G dongle, check the coverage in the areas you’ll be likely to use it. If your mobile phone can’t get a signal on Vodafone, then neither will a broadband dongle – so you’ll need to look at a different network for best results.