A newbie's guide to home networking

A newbie's guide to home networking

Let us guide you through some networking basics, and provide you with some tips and tricks on how you can maximise your networking performance.

Speed matters: The bits and bytes

In our day to day lives, we often talk about capacity and data in terms of bytes - megabyte, gigabyte, terabyte, and so on. However, one thing to note when it comes to routers and networking devices is that their claimed transfer speeds are in bits, and not bytes - Mbps and MB/s are not the same! But what is the difference between bits and bytes, and how does it affect our understanding of transfer speeds?

To begin, a bit is the smallest unit of information and can be expressed as either 0 or 1. A byte, on the other hand, is made up of 8 bits. For those among you who are mathematically-inclined, you might realise now the discrepancy between the device's claimed speeds and our daily understanding of transfer speeds.

For instance: When a router claims to offer 600Mbps transfer speeds, it means 600 megabits per second, not megabytes. In this case, 600 megabits per second is really 75 megabytes per second. The former sounds a lot quicker doesn't it? Understanding this is crucial as it helps users manage their expectations better.

Wired connection

To begin, once you have your router and network set up, you can connect to it using either a wired connection or wirelessly via Wi-Fi. For the best performance, a wired connection is recommended as most devices with an Ethernet port can support gigabit Ethernet, which really means a theoretical maximum throughput of 1 gigabit per second or 125MB/s. Although the latest Wireless-AC standard, on paper at least, can reach higher throughput speeds, it is often slower in real life (more on this later). Speeds aside, it is also more reliable. This is because unlike wireless signals, signals that passed through an Ethernet cable suffer from considerably lesser interference, which can degrade performance.

However, considering most people's usage patterns today, depending solely on an Ethernet connection could be both inconvenient and impractical. In fact, many of the devices that we use today, like smartphones and tablets, and even most modern notebooks, do not have dedicated Ethernet ports and rely solely on Wi-Fi to connect to the Internet. Hence, an Ethernet connection is best suited if you are going to be using your system in a fixed position near the router or if you have already planned in advance to wire up your home so that you do not have Ethernet cables running across your rooms, which can be unsightly or even potentially hazardous.

Cat 5 vs. Cat 5e vs. Cat 6

When looking for cables, you might have come across the aforementioned terms, but what do they really mean since the cable themselves all look physically similar? The difference is under the proverbial hood. In a nutshell, the main difference between the cables is their maximum bandwidth and their range. Cat 5 is an older format that supports only up to 100BASE-TX (Fast Ethernet) standards, or simply put, 100Mbps. Most cables you see now are Cat 5e cables and these can support the 1000BASE-T standard, which is also known as Gigabit Ethernet, meaning 1Gbps. It achieves this by reducing crosstalk within the cable. Finally, Cat 6 cables further reduce crosstalk within the cable and also supports the 200MHz bandwidth - Cat 5 and Cat 5e cables only operate at the 100MHz bandwidth. This means that Cat 6 cables can support the 10GBASE-T standard, which amounts to 10Gbps. If you are going to be wiring up your house, we would definitely recommend using Cat 6 cables to future-proof your investment.

An alternative: Powerline adapters

An alternative to an Ethernet connection are powerline adapters. These devices make use of your home's electrical wiring to create a network, which means no additional wiring is required. However, this convenience comes at the sacrifice of some performance, even if you're using a 600Mbps-rated HomePlug AV2 powerline adapter. And in our experience, it never worked well on an extension power strip (in other words, it works best when plugged directly into the wall socket). That said, if you've to resort to powerline adapters, remember that you need at least a pair of them to complete the connection.

Wireless connection

The latest buzzword surrounding wireless connections or Wi-Fi is Wireless-AC. It is the successor to the Wireless-N standard and is meant to bridge the gap between wireless and wired Ethernet connections. It can theoretically offer up to 1.3 gigabit per second of throughput on the 5GHz band, that's 1,300Mbps or 162.5Mb/s. This surpasses the 1 gigabit per second throughput of Ethernet connections.

However, being able to enjoy this level of speed requires compatible devices. Needless to say, you need a Wireless-AC router, which, fortunately, are plentiful and easy to find these days. Next, your device must also support Wireless-AC, which is not that common up until recently. For instance, none of Apple's iPhones nor iPads support this new standard, and only Apple's latest MacBook Pro and Air support this new standard. If your device does not support Wireless-AC, then it is no use having a Wireless-AC router. That said, most devices today do support the older Wireless-N standard and that itself is good for up to 600Mbps.

Even so, bear in mind that actual real-life performance is much lower, because aside from interference from other wireless devices, wireless signals are also susceptible to other factors such as distance, home layout, the location of the router itself, and even, to a lesser extent, the weather. These factors can cause wireless performance to be poor and even unstable. But most users, especially if their primary usage is just browsing the Web, would hardly be affected by these factors. However, for those who rely on their wireless network for more intensive purposes such as streaming HD videos and online gaming, a wired connection is usually preferred.

Additionally, this plays into our next point, which is with regards to your subscribed fiber broadband plans. We often see users complaining on our forums that their speeds do not match the plan that they have subscribed, and many a times, this has to do with the way they are connected to their router. As we have mentioned, older standards such as Wireless-N supports only up to 600Mbps and even older ones such as Wireless-G supports only up to 54Mbps. Therefore, the wireless connection becomes the bottleneck, which is also why we recommend fussy and demanding users to always connect to their router using an Ethernet connection.

The Issue of interference

If you look at a router, you might notice that it says "dual-band". Dual-band refers to the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency bands that routers use to transmit data, and this is a feature available on most routers today. Additionally, most devices such as your smartphone, tablet, and notebook are also dual-band compatible so they can connect to both bands. Generally, using the 5GHz band is recommended because the 2.4GHz band usually suffers from congestion and interference because of the sheer number of different signals that operate and emit signals at this frequency. Some examples of interference are your Bluetooth speaker, cordless phone, wireless keyboard and mice, and even your microwave.

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