Let's take a look at the equipment used to hook all your devices into a network. This is what could be referred to as the infrastructure of the network, devices and cabling that allow us to make everything connected. Some of them, like Ethernet cables, simply facilitate this connection, while others, like routers, manage it.
Network adapters help to give networking functionality to computers that don't have it. From left to right: a USB wireless adapter, PCI-E desktop wireless card, a wireless Express Card for laptops, a PCI-E desktop Ethernet card, a USB to Ethernet adapter. (Credit: CBS Interactive)
These help your desktop or laptop get connected to the network. Most desktop motherboards have Ethernet network ports built-in these days, and most laptops have both Ethernet and wireless capability. You can still buy stand-alone adapters, though, either for higher performance or to add functionality not present in the built-in options.
Dedicated devices like phones and game consoles often have networking built-in from the get go.
Ethernet-based network cards are often called Network Interface Cards, or NICs.
Unshielded twisted pair
You may occasionally see cables referred to as "UTP". This stands for unshielded twisted pair, referring to pairs of wires within the cable sheath that are twisted around each other. The pairs are twisted at varying lengths in order to cut down on cross-talk, but are not shielded against electromagnetic interference. Inside an Ethernet cable there are four twisted pairs within the sheath, each wire shrouded in colour-coded conductor insulation — green, blue, orange and brown, matched up with their white/coloured pairs.
Fundamentally, there are two ways to set up a network — wired and wireless. While wireless connections are rather difficult to illustrate on account of them being, well, invisible, most wired connections are made through the humble Ethernet cable — sometimes simply referred to as a network cable.
The terminator (the plug bit at the end of a cable) for an Ethernet cable has a tongue to lock it in place. It's called an RJ-45 terminator, and is slightly bigger than the RJ-11 or RJ-12 found on your phone cord. (RJ45 Macro image by Nicolas Raymond, Royalty free)
These days they come in just about every colour, but primarily you'll find them in either blue or grey. There are a few standards of Ethernet cable you should be aware of — Category 5, Category 5 Enhanced and Category 6a, often abbreviated to just "Cat 5", "Cat 5e" and "Cat 6a".
These refer to both the electrical properties of the cable and the speeds they're designed to take. You generally don't see Cat 5 being sold these days, as it's only rated for 100Mb networks and Cat 5e has pretty much achieved price parity. Most homes (and indeed, most businesses) will be fine using Cat 5e for their networking needs. It allows for cables up to 100m in length without degrading the signal and can handle gigabit Ethernet speeds just fine.
Cat 6a is generally used in more critical situations like server rooms due to higher cross-talk tolerances. Cross-talk is the phenomenon of transmission along one set of wires causing an undesired effect on another set of wires (see the UTP box out to see how wires are arranged in an Ethernet cable). Cat 6a can also handle 10 gigabit Ethernet (10GbE) over very short distances. By and large you'll not need to touch Cat 6a when networking your home, so save yourself the price premium and go Cat 5e.
The venerable dial-up modem has survived the ADSL threat due to there not being 100 per cent coverage — but wireless broadband and the proposed National Broadband Network threatens to kill it once and for all. (Credit: NetComm)
A contraction of modulator/demodulator, a modem is a device that gets you connected to the internet. There are generally four types on the market today: dial-up modems, ADSL modems, cable modems and wireless broadband modems. While dial-up, wireless and cable modems are still sold stand-alone, it's next to impossible these days to find an ADSL modem that hasn't got a router built-in.
Dial-up and ADSL modems connect to the internet using the same connection as your phone line and availability of these services are widespread. Cable modems require a hybrid fibre-coaxial (HFC) connection to be wired directly to your house — the same connection that cable TV uses. Coverage for this service is quite limited as a result and there are only two players, Telstra and Optus.
Wireless broadband modems. From left to right: "soap on a rope" style, thumb stick style, Express Card, Unwired's Navini Ripwave MX-based modem. (Credit: CBS Interactive)
Wireless broadband modems tend to come in four types: the USB "soap on a rope"; thumb stick style; Express Card/PCMCIA expansion cards for your laptop, built into your laptop as a Wireless Wide Area Network (WWAN) card; or provided as a stand-alone unit from Unwired (Sydney and Melbourne only) connecting through USB or Ethernet. They either use the 3G network provided by mobile phone companies, or in the case of Unwired, Fixed Wireless Access base stations. WiMax as a technology in Australia is still not popular, although it is being looked at as an alternative in areas where the National Broadband Network won't reach.
External dial-up modems are connected to your PC via serial or USB cable, ADSL modems via USB or Ethernet cable, and cable modems by Ethernet cable.
Below is a table describing the maximum theoretical speed offered by all these solutions. Note that not all services will be available in all areas, let alone at the maximum speed.
|Modem type||Typical maximum connection speed|
|Dial-up||56Kbps download, 48Kbps or 33.6Kbps upload depending on modem options.|
|ADSL||Up to 8Mbps download, 384Kbps upload speeds.|
|ADSL2+||Up to 24Mbps download, 2Mbps upload speeds.|
|Cable||Optus: up to 20Mbps download, 512Kbps upload speeds.
Telstra: up to 30Mbps download, 1Mbps upload speeds.
|Wireless||Unwired: up to 1024Kbps download, 256Kbps upload speeds.
Telstra Next G: 21Mbps download (although Telstra admits most customers will only see a maximum of 8Mbps), 1.92Mbps upload speeds.
Optus/Virgin/Vodafone/3: 3.6Mbps download (devices up to 7.2Mbps available, but are network limited to 3.6Mbps), 384Kbps upload speeds.
An eight-port switch — generally unattractive boxes that do the networking grunt. (Credit: Netgear)
A switch is a box that makes sure that data sent from one client reaches its intended recipient — or in layman's speak, it helps all your devices talk to one another. You hook Ethernet cables between it and your clients to do so, although the network settings have to be manually set on all the clients for this to work, as it's not smart enough to manage all the devices itself.
Most switches in the home have between four and 24 ports, and can be daisy chained together to offer even more. They can also be daisy chained off routers so you can add more devices to your network, in which case the router can manage all connections coming in through the switch. They generally come in 100Mbps and 1Gbps varieties.
Given that the majority of routers have a built-in switch (often up to four ports), most users won't need an additional switch if they already own a router.
Routers are becoming less boxy and ugly as time goes on. Some, however, retain the traditional look and bristle with antennas. (Credit: Billion)
At the heart of most home networks is the router — a device that communicates with all other devices connected to it, and allows them to communicate with each other. Clients are usually connected via Ethernet cable or wireless connections.
A router differs from a switch in that it can be highly configured and also automate some networking tasks, making your life easier.
These days it's not uncommon to purchase routers with an ADSL modem, wireless, a four-port switch and VoIP ports built-in. Some even have a SIM slot for you to connect to a mobile broadband network as a backup. This leads to easy internet sharing from the one connection. They also tend to have built-in firewalls with extra security features, making a router a good value proposition.
You'll want to make sure your router supports the newer 802.11n wireless standard rather than the older 802.11g, and gigabit Ethernet network ports are a good future-proofing feature over 100Mb.
Wireless access points
Wireless access points are generally used to expand the range of your network. (Credit: Linksys)
The wireless equivalent of an extension cord, a Wireless Access Point (AP) simply allows you to expand your wireless range a little wider by using the wonders of bog-standard Ethernet cable hooked up to your router. Some will also act as repeaters, meaning it can communicate wirelessly with your router, and simply amplify the signal so there's more coverage — although it's certainly possible to buy just repeating stations. Most full-fledged wireless routers will also allow switching between router and access point mode, and so you can have multiple routers operating within the one environment.
Generally wireless APs are 802.11g only, but some 802.11n hardware exists.
Wireless client adapters
Wireless client adapters turn Ethernet-only devices into wireless devices. (Credit: D-Link)
Wireless client adapters plug into Ethernet-only devices, turning them into wireless devices capable of joining your wireless network. They are usually 802.11g only.
Extra range antennas
You can change the antennas on some of your wireless gear. (Credit: D-Link)
Depending on your set-up, some laptops/expansion cards/wireless routers/access points will allow you to attach additional, more powerful antennas to extend your range. You can even buy specific antennas to increase outdoor coverage.
Ethernet over power adapters
Ethernet over power adapters let you turn your electrical wiring into a network. (Credit: Belkin)
Sometimes called powerline adapters or homeplugs, Ethernet over power (EoP) adapters allow you to send networking signals over your existing electrical wiring, and plug directly into your power socket.
You need two of them to complete a circuit and at either end the Ethernet cable is used to connect them to the rest of the network. This is especially useful if your house is the sort that doesn't lend itself to wireless signals. You can add more if necessary to create extra access points across the house.
Unfortunately, the EoP adapter's total speed can be affected by how clean your electrical wiring is, how much noise is on the line, and whether or not they are on the same circuit. These days EoP adapters are rated at either 85Mbps or 200Mbps, but expect considerably less from both. We'd recommend buying the 200Mbps adapters over the 85Mbps ones any day.
If you're buying EoP adapters, make sure to get the same brand, as they often won't talk to others and try and avoid putting them in power boards or anything that might cause havoc with the signal.