State of the wired
Best in slot: 10-gigabit Ethernet (or Gigabit Ethernet if you happen to be not rich)
Yes, 1000mbps Ethernet is better than 1733mbps wireless, because Ethernet comes much closer to reaching its theoretical speeds. In practice, you’ll get a 600-800mbps out of Gigabit Ethernet at any range, while that’s really best-case for wireless. What’s more, it’s absolutely reliable.
Given that, it’s absolutely worth wiring up fixed-position devices in your home, like desktop PCs, game consoles, network attached storage and networked media players. Ethernet cables are quite hardy, and you can typically have cable lengths of up to 100m without seeing a huge degradation in performance.
Thanks to their plastic sheath, they can also be run outdoors as long as the connectors are not exposed to water (although we would recommend specially-made outdoor Ethernet cables for extra durability).
The cleanest scenario is to have the cables run through the walls, with neat wall plates in each room for connecting the devices. This takes some planning and perhaps the help of someone handy, however. If you plan on going this route, expect to spend a day or two on it and be prepared for some crawling through cobweb-infested cavities.
More commonly, people tend to run just one or two Ethernet cables to major device hubs (like the loungeroom or study), drilling holes in the floor or ceiling to run a pre-made cable back to the switch. It’s a little uglier than the wall duct solution, but generally easy enough to hide.
Remember that Ethernet is very flexible, with the possibility of daisy chaining switches. If you have four devices in your loungeroom you’d like to connect, you still only need to run a single Ethernet cable and connect it to an Ethernet switch in the loungeroom, which can in turn be used to connect the individual devices. Yes it’s technically not as speedy as four separate cables (since the four devices are sharing the single “backbone” line), but in practice your devices aren’t going to be competing too much for bandwidth.
If Ethernet is not an option, you can also use powerline networking, also known as HomePlug. HomePlug AV2 powerline products are as cheap as they have ever been, and are currently available at speeds of up to 600mbps. You simply plug them into mains power points in your home and they create a link using your power lines as the transmission media. They tend to provide very consistent, low latency speeds. They are nearly always better than wireless at a similar range – although it’s best not to plug them into powerboards.
Talking “ultimate” with wired is a little tricky right. On a purely theoretical level, the best you can get right now is 10-gigabit Ethernet (10GbE) over CAT 6A cabling. That’s a setup that’s likely to set you back thousands of dollars right now, however.
The cheapest 10GbE switch we’ve seen is an 8-port Netgear device that costs over $1000 (compared to about $50 for a gigabit switch). If you want a NAS with 10GbE as well as PC cards with it, expect to be forking out even more.
More commonly you’ll be getting Gigabit Ethernet, which has thankfully (finally) become standard in most new home routers. If a router or switch still has Fast (100mbps) Ethernet, don’t buy it.
When it comes to Ethernet, it looks like gigabit is what we’ll be stuck with for some time. 10GbE has been around for a long time, but has made few inroads into the consumer space. Heck, there’s already 40GbE and 100GbE standards – although those require either optical fibre or new Cat 8 cabling.
Much more exciting stuff is happing with powerline networking. Although 500mbps and 600mbps HomePlug devices are the standard right now, we’re starting to see 1000, 1200, 1800mbps and 2000mbps MIMO devices be announced.
In 2013 and 2014 we saw the launch of major new multi-stream chips from the major HomePlug providers, and just this year we’re starting to see the fruits of that, with HomePlug devices that can rival gigabit Ethernet for speed.
State of the wireless
Best in slot: Wireless AC2350 with beamforming
Before we get into what you should be looking for, we should talk about how wireless speeds work. Three factors affect base speed: modulation, channel size and MIMO streams. Modulation – how digital information is represented on the airwaves – was improved in 802.11ac.
It typically gets about 108gbps per 20MHz of channel bandwidth; 802.11n gets 72 to 75mbps. The older 802.11n standard was also limited to 40MHz channels (for 150mbps); 802.11ac can go to 160MHz, though 80MHz is most common (for 433mbps).
Finally we have MIMO, multiple input and multiple output. MIMO uses extra antennas to create additional spatially differentiated streams in the same channel, each stream carrying as much data as the original. You can often tell how many MIMO streams are supported by the number of antennas a router has.
802.11n supports four MIMO streams (total 600mbps). 802.11ac can theoretically have eight, but the most we’ve seen is four (for a total of 1733mbps). In theory, 802.11ac with 160MHz channels and eight MIMO streams can hit 6936 mbps.
Looking at what’s available now, the best you can get is a four-antenna 802.11ac device, which should be marked with the “AC2350” moniker. As with other “AC” ratings, it comes from combining the speed of the 2.4GHz 802.11n network (600mbps) with the speed of the 5GHz 802.11ac network (1733mbps, rounded up to 1750).
Is that worth getting for you, however? There’s a pretty big price premium on 4X4 MIMO devices like this, and as you may be aware, both the wireless device and the access point both have to support the full spec to be able to hit top speeds. Heck, only new high-end mobiles support 802.11ac at all, and those that do would be lucky to support 2X2 MIMO.
We’ve not seen a mobile device that supports three MIMO streams let alone four. If your mobile only supports two MIMO streams, for example, you can’t get better than 867mbps no matter how good the router is.
There is still value in three (1300mbps) and four (1733mbps) stream routers, however, even if your mobile devices don’t actually support it. 802.11ac has the capacity to designate MIMO streams to devices through multi-user MIMO. For example, if the router can transmit four streams, and you have two mobiles that each support two-stream MIMO, then they can both (theoretically) hit their top speed simultaneously because of the way the MIMO streams can be shared between them.
Newer routers also come with a feature called beamforming, which is recommended. Beamforming uses a complex system constructive and destructive interference from multiple antennae to steer a signal at a particular device rather than simply transmitting it omnidirectionally (which is what Wi-Fi routers normally do). The effect is that more of the transmission power is directed at the target rather the sent off pointlessly away from the intended target. The outcome is a stronger signal, particularly at medium range.
According to most reports, you can expect a 2-5dBm stronger signal at medium range with beamforming. It’s not earth shattering, but it can make enough of a difference to bump you up to the next wireless speed bracket.
There are however some some odd caveats here. AC1300 and AC1900 use a non-standard form of 802.11n to bump speeds up to 200mbps per antenna. Essentially they take the modulation tech of 802.11ac and apply it to 802.11n – but a lot of client devices won’t support that and will behave as if they were 300 (AC1200) or 450mbps (AC1750) devices.
AC3200 is being used by a couple of new devices like the Netgear Nighthawk X6 and Asus RT-AC3200. These devices have six antennae and create two discrete 802.11ac networks, each with their own SSID. A given device can only communicate on one of them, however, so the per-device speed is limited to 1300mbps. Netgear and Asus are calling these “tri-band” devices, but they shouldn’t be confused with devices that support 60GHz 802.11ad.
In terms of Wi-Fi, 802.11ac is going to be with us for good time to come. If you’re thinking “but I want to hold out for the next big thing,” then you’ll be holding out for quite some time. The successor to 802.11ac is not expected until 2019 at the earliest (though draft products may come out sooner).
It is in the works, however. Development of 802.11ax, the expected successor to 802.11ac, is well underway, with a goal of quadrupling speeds to individual clients on the network. Speeds of up to 10.53Gbps have already been reported by the working group thanks to a new encoding scheme and underlying improvements to interference management and client communications.
In the nearer future we might see so-called tri-band designs appear, using the already ratified 802.11ad spec, a.k.a. WiGig. Now there’s a pretty good chance you’ve probably never heard of the 802.11ad standard, in spite of it being published back in 2009. It hasn’t yet made any kind of noticeable market impact.
In theory, however, it could be good for very short range peripheral connectivity, allowing Miracast/Google Cast/AirPlay style wireless display connectivity in full HD and even 4K. WiGig uses the 60GHz radio band, which has serious trouble penetrating any kind of obstacle but can transmit data at very high rates – up to 7Gbps at short range. It’s designed, essentially, to provide same-room connectivity between devices at very high speeds.
There have been a few tri-band (2.4GHz, 5GHz, 60GHz) chips announced, but we’ve yet seen no products in the consumer space. There is hope for the standard, however: many of the developers of competing standards, including Wireless USB, are slowly seeming to start to rally around it. A WiGig Certified campaign is due to start next year for new WiGig devices.
(We should note here that 802.11ad tri-band has no relation to the new “AC3200” tri-band devices from Netgear and Asus – those devices create multiple networks in the 5GHz space, not 60GHz networks).
Best in slot: An additional router/access point bridged with gigabit Ethernet
We’ll come right out and say it: we’re not big fans of range extenders. Yep, we get why they exist, and why they might be useful in some instances. But as performance devices, they kinda blow. They tend to add massive latency to wireless connections, making gaming and voice chance horrible. They can also halve your bandwidth, since the extender has to both send and receive the data on the same channel.
If you must go with a range extender, look for one that supports 802.11ac and/or crossband. Crossband uses one band (2.4GHz or 5GHz) to connect back to the source network and the other to extend the range – thus solving the half-bandwidth problem. (Netgear, it should be noted, calls this FastLane Technology rather than crossband).
A better solution than a range extender, if it’s available, is to set up an additional wireless access point or router, and link it back to the original using an Ethernet cable. It won’t compete for radio space with the original, and you get full speed with minimal latency. In lieu of an Ethernet cable, you can also use powerline networking to bridge the primary and secondary wireless networks.
Router firmware and features
Best in slot: DD-WRT, OpenWRT or Tomato.
If you’re especially keen on building the most advanced network you can, we also recommend playing with open firmwares like DD-WRT, OpenWRT and Tomato. These router firmwares replace the official router firmware from the router vendor, and are almost always superior.
Indeed several vendors, notably Asus and Linksys (which originally created the open source WRT firmware, then abandoned it, and has now returned) have begun using them in lieu of their proprietary solutions.
Of particular note is the integral support for VPNs in the open firmwares – either client or server. Given how important VPNs are becoming to privacy and anonymity, being able to connect to one at the router level, thus providing protection to all the devices on your network, is invaluable. Very few proprietary consumer router firmwares provide VPN support.
There’s a lot of other stuff to like here as well. Network diagnostics, hotspot and guest support, USB server and 3G failover support, per-IP traffic stats and management, wireless power tweaking and quite a bit more is possible with open firmware.