October 06, 2012, 7:25 AM — A pair of rabbit ears on top of your television, and a turntable and stereo receiver in the corner of the living room used to be prerequisites for home entertainment. But today it's all about digital media and bandwidth. If you want to run Apple TV in your living room, keep a connected Blue-ray player in the bedroom, and have a Logitech Squeezebox music system piping music throughout your home, you need reliable and plentiful bandwidth.
But here's the problem: Your computer is in the den and your broadband router is stuffed in a closet. You have TVs in the living room, kitchen, and master bedroomplus a laptop that migrates all over the house and into the yard, too.
Until recently, nothing short of ethernet wires had the bandwidth necessary to pipe media from one room to another. And unless you were a networking geek, youd have had to spend thousands of dollars getting a knowledgeable professional to punch holes in your walls to wire your house with ethernet jacks.
That time has passed. Today's wireless networks can handle video, music, and lightning-fast Web surfing without breaking a sweatand they require very little skill to set up. Want to battle it out in Halo 3 via the Xbox in your den, or to play a movie from the collection stored on your server in your basement? Ill cover everything you need to know to "wire" your house without stringing new cable or busting your budget.
Just one caveat before we go on. The speed of your Internet connection will have a significant impact on the quality of the real-time video you get from streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Instant Video. If your genuine download speeds are below 6 mbps, you may be limited to streaming lower-resolution video from the Internet. Netflix requires a 3-mbps connection to stream movies at their native resolution. Your Internet connection speed, on the other hand, will have zero impact on the quality of video and audio that originates on your own network. You can check your download speed at Speedtest.net.
Upgrade your wireless router
Cost: Between $100 and $200. Pro: A newer removes any bandwidth bottlenecks that may exist on your home network (though it can't solve problems related to using a slow Internet provider). Con: Resetting router and security settings on all your wireless clients can be a hassle.
Your router is the single most important part of your network, as it has the potential to be your network's primary bottleneck. An out-of-date router can slow your network's ability to move content from one device to another. Make sure that your router is at least an N600 model (that is, a dual-band router based on the IEEE 802.11n standard that supports speeds of 300 mbps on both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency bands). If it isn't, buy a new one that is.
An N600 router, such as the Linksys EA2700, should cost less than $100, and it will suffice for streaming music and standard-definition video. The next step up would be an N900 model, such as the $150 Netgear WNDR4500. This class of router can deliver wireless speeds of up to 450 mbps on both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency bands. The faster your routers throughput, the better it will handle bandwidth-hungry applications such as video.
Why do I recommend dual-band routers? Because you can use the more crowded 2.4GHz frequency band to move conventional data (email, documents, and other files that dont have critical transfer-speed requirements), and reserve the less crowded 5GHz band for music and video. If a few bits of a data file are dropped in transit, your router can simply resend them until the entire file has arrived at its destination. If bits in a video stream are dropped in transitperhaps due to excessive network traffic or because your router is battling with your neighbors router, which operates on the same crowded frequencyyou'll experience annoying glitches and dropouts. That's because the smart TV at the other end cant wait for the missing bits to be resent.
Invest in a future Wi-Fi standard
Cost: $200 and up. Pro: Even faster routers are available, and they're backward-compatible. Con: Available devices are expensive, and there's a slight chance that you may run into compatibility issues down the road.
If you want a nearly future-proof network, and you dont mind being an early adopter, pick up an Asus, D-Link, Netgear, or other manufacturer's wireless router based on the newer IEEE 802.11ac Draft 2.0 standard. This standard is unlikely to be officially ratified until sometime next year, and theres a slim chance that products based on the current draft will be incompatible with products based on the final standard, but I consider that possibility unlikely.
Aside from providing a 450-mbps 802.11n network on the 2.4GHz band, these dual-band routers establish a second, independent 802.ac network on the 5GHz frequency band that can deliver speeds of up to 1300 mbps (thats 1.3 gigabits per second). An 802.11ac router accompanied by an 802.11ac bridge can stream high-definition video and audiothe equivalent of a Blu-ray discto a home-theater PC or a media streaming box, such as Western Digitals WD TV Live, without wires.
An 802.11ac router can also deliver much better range than earlier generations of routers could. Setting up an 802.11ac network isnt cheap, though: High-end models like the Asus RT-AC66U and the Netgear R3600 cost $200 each. And youll need two of them because you must configure one to operate as a wireless bridge (Cisco has announced an 802.11ac wireless bridgethe WUMC710 Universal Media Connectorbut it hasn't yet shipped the product). The bridge will establish a wireless connection to the router, but youll hardwire the clients (a smart TV, Blu-ray player, or a home-theater PC, for example) to the bridge.