Build a foolproof home-media network—without any wires

It's the PC home entertainment system of the future, and it streams music and HD video to every room in your house. No cables involved!

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An 802.11ac router will be backward-compatible with older technology, so any wireless products you may already ownincluding your smartphonewill work with it, operating on the routers 802.11n network. That arrangement will remain in force even in the unlikely event that the final 802.11ac standard differs significantly from the current draft, because the 802.11n standard has been final since September 2009. I recently reviewed all five of the 802.11ac routers available on the market today. To learn more about these products, read Who Makes the Best 802.11ac Router?

Note that all the router throughput numbers mentioned above are  theoretical maximum rates; they dont take into account real-world factors such as protocol overhead and the clients distance from the router (throughput will drop as the client moves farther away from the router). An 802.11n router claiming a throughput of 450 mbps, for instance, typically delivers real-world throughput of between 150 and 200 mbps at close range. Likewise, an 802.11ac router will typically deliver real-world throughput of between 300 and 500 mbps under the same conditions.

Buy some wireless network adapters

Cost: Between $30 and $50. Pro: They're easy to set up, and they provide the best solution for a laptop or home-theater PC. Con: Adapters designed for PCs may not work with your Blu-ray player or smart TV. The manufacturers of these products often require you to use their own brand of adapter.

Wireless network adapters are small USB dongles that plug into the USB port on a laptop, desktop, Blu-ray player, or smart TV. The adapters allow you to add wireless connections to devices that don't have built-in wireless radios.

Most laptops and many desktop PCs (especially all-in-one models) come with built-in hardware (specfically, Wi-Fi radios) for connecting to a wireless network. If your device doesnt have built-in Wi-Fior if it does, but it uses technology that predates the 802.11n standardyou can buy a USB adapter. Plug in the adapter, install the software, and your computer can connect to the router over the airwaves. If your router is a 450-mbps model, be sure to buy a USB Wi-Fi adapter that has the same capabilities. Two examples are the Linksys AE3000 ($50) and the Trendnet TEW-684UB ($45).

A dual-band (2.4GHz and 5GHz) 802.11n USB wireless network adapter capable of supporting link rates up to 300 mbps, such as the Buffalo AirStation N300, will cost between $20 and $30. USB adapters based on the new 802.11ac standard have yet to reach the market.

Blu-ray players and smart TVs have ethernet jacks that allow you to tap online services such as Hulu, Netflix, and YouTube. Many also have built-in wireless ethernet adapters, or the manufacturer may put a proprietary USB Wi-Fi adapter in the box. If yours doesnt offer either type of adapter, it almost certainly has a USB port. You might be able to plug in the same type of USB Wi-Fi adapter described above to create a wireless connection to your router. Check your owners manual to find out which adapter will work with your hardware (you may not be able to mix and match adapters, as you typically can on a PC).

If your smart TV or Blu-ray player is DLNA certified, you'll be able to stream music and videos from other PCs on your network (DLNA is a standard that defines how media is carried on a local network). For more on how use DLNA to to stream video, music, and images from one device to another, check out "How to Stream Digital Media From Your Windows 7 PC."

Get a wireless network bridge

Cost: $65 and up. Pro: A bridge allows you to establish a wireless connection to a piece of hardware that would not otherwise support a wireless connection. Also, it lets you connect multiple devices to one adapter. Con: Th bridge has to be in range, and wires are required.

One alternative to using a USB Wi-Fi adapter is to set up a wireless network bridge. This hardware communicates wirelessly with your network router, but connects to your home-theater PC, smart TV, Blu-ray player, or gaming console via an ethernet cable, enabling those products to join your home network and gain access to the Internet.

A bridge, such as D-Link's DAP-1513 ($120) or Trendnets TEW-640MB ($65), is your best choice if the only networking connection available on your hardware is an ethernet port, or if you cant find a compatible USB Wi-Fi adapter for your equipment. Some bridges have four ethernet ports, while others have only one.

In a pinch, consider a powerline network

Cost: Up to $100 per node. Pro: Such networks are easy to install, they work with existing electrical wires throughout your house, and they work in places where Wi-Fi can't. Con: Powerline networks can be subject to interference from high-current appliances, such as air conditioners, refrigerators, and clothes dryers. Houses with older wiring might have problems with power-line networking, too.

Powerline networking uses your home's existing electrical wiring to create a wire-based network throughout your house. It can basically transform any electrical outlet into an ethernet port for your home network. When you deploy a wireless network, construction elements such as masonry walls can block a wireless signaland wireless signals have limited range.

But because electrical cables are located inside your walls, just as an ethernet cable would need to be, obstacles such as thick walls pose no problems. And signals sent on copper cables can travel farther than signals carried over the airwaves.Look for products labeled with the HomePlug AV (or the faster HomePlug AV 500) logo to ensure interoperability and high throughput; the maximum physical link rate is 500 mbps, with real-world throughput of about 75 mbps).

Powerline networking products, such as Trendnets TPL-401E2K ($100 for a two-pack) work like this: Plug a powerline adapter into an electrical outlet near your router and connect the two via an ethernet cable. Plug a second adapter into a receptacle near the smart TV, gaming console, or PC (some adapters have more than one ethernet port) that you want to add to your network, and use ethernet cables to connect these two. Voilà! The devices are now part of your network, just as if youd strung CAT5 cable between them and your router.

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