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High-Tech Specs, Part 4 - Networking Equipment

Computer stores and shopping sites bombard us with details about a device's speed, resolution, format, and other important-sounding information. Much of that data is less important than it may seem. The following are some specifications that are worth paying attention to if youre in the market for networking equipment:

Routers - Once upon a time, cobbling together a network was a painful procedure reserved for businesses, hard-core geeks, and knowledgeable neighbors with an abundance of patience. These days, setting up a network, whether wireless or not, is less of a challenge, though its still not as simple as purchasing any off-the-shelf router, plugging it in, and starting up. With a home network, you especially need to take into account not just what you're planning to hook up, but also the layout of your home.

Wireless speed - Vendors will happily share with you the network's theoretical speed limits, but here's the ugly truth: You'll be lucky if your network hits 150 Mbps. Even using the latest wireless standard, 802.11n, speeds greater than 100 Mbps are rarely seen. Also, beware of vendors promising proprietary technology that will provide a speed boost. If there was any magical technology that definitively increased throughput speeds, it would be standard issue in every network.

Wi-Fi standards - Routers using the current 802.11n standard are backward-compatible with older specs (802.11a, b, g, and pre-n), but those specs may slow your network down. Any 802.11b/g devices that are connected to your 802.11n router may cripple the entire network resulting in slower b and g standard speeds. Also, avoid older, "pre-n" (as opposed to draft-n) routers if you encounter them at clearance sales. Pre-n gear may work with 2.4-GHz draft-n products, but only at the speeds of aging 802.11g hardware. (Huh?)

Security - Using a Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) password is about as effective as hiding your system by closing your eyes. That said, older devices might not support the more secure (and more recent) Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) standard, much less the current (and most efficient) WPA2 security standard. Regardless, any new hardware you purchase should support WPA2 because even if you have to stick with WEP for a while to accommodate older equipment, you'll want to move up to zippier speeds eventually.

Wireless antennas - Generally, the greater the number of antennae that are sprouting from your router, the faster you can transmit data -- well, up to a point. So if you are a fan of video streaming and multimedia, three is your magic antenna number. In other words, there is no need to transform your router into a porcupine.

Wired alternatives - Wired connections may be a pain to install, but they are still the most reliable and secure high-speed broadband option. If the thought of snaking ethernet cable throughout your home isn't something you relish, you might want to consider getting a power-line network designed to work with the electrical wiring already in place.

Unfortunately, power-line networks have their own issues. (Its always something, isnt it?) For example, you will need adapters for each outlet you plan to use (plus one for an existing router). In addition, there are three power-line standards, each of which is incompatible with the other two. Peachy. If you decide to explore this option, I would recommend retaining a professional to install it for you, and look for HomePlug AV products.

Click HERE to return to Part 1, High-Tech Specs - Desktop PCs

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