Monday, 13 February 2017

Upgrading the Home Network

Every now and then I work from home, and unreel some gnarly Cat 4 (really) cable I bought from Homebase a long time ago so I can connect the work laptop. One directionless thought eventually lead to a couple of visits to the Maplin store by Liverpool Street and a lot of browsing for specifications, cataloguing the computing kit, reading reviews and a bit about Wi-Fi data protocols (I used to work in telecoms).

So the first thing to do is to get the connectivity capability of every bit of kit I have. (It would be the first thing if I was the kind of person who Did Things Properly, but I’m not, so it was about the middle thing I did.)

  • The HG533 router has B/G/N wireless and has 4x100Mbs Ethernet ports and a USB 2 port.
  • The NAS has a Gigabit ethernet interface.
  • The Brother HL2250DN Laser has USB 2 and 100Mbs ethernet.
  • The Canon MG7550 inkjet has B/G/N wireless, USB 2, NFC and 100Mbs ethernet
  • The Apple kit has B/G/N/AC wireless, and the Macbook Air has Thunderbolt, which with an adapter provides Gigabit ethernet.
  • The Samsung NP-R720 has on on-board B/G wireless, and 100Mbs ethernet.
  • The Sony Blu-Ray BDP-760 has on board wireless, I’m guessing B/G given its age.
  • The WD TV Live media player has 100Mbs LAN, and a USB port into which I can plug what I want. I have a wireless-N dongle at the moment.

I know what you’re thinking. Upgrade my internet connection. I’m supposed to be getting 8Mbs download on my ADSL, and Speedtest tells me I can about 7Mbs get on my Air over the wireless-N, so that’s not the problem. I don’t do online gaming or TV streaming. This is the problem: when I connected the Samsung with the LAN cable, the browser speeded up. Wait. What? (This is when all the work started to get done in earnest.) Wireless-G is supposed to be good for 54Mbs, though with all the wi-fi signalling overhead, that works out at about 20Mbs of user data. So in theory the wi-fi has capacity to spare. Using the LAN should not have improved the download times. Yet it did. Reading around, it turns out the HG533 is a couple of ariels short of a six-pack, and it was designed to a price. The router definitely needs an upgrade, as does the wireless on the Samsung.

My first thought was that the modem bit of the HG533 is okay, unless it’s really cold outside, when it can drop out now and again, so I would leave well enough alone. But, what if it packs up and I need another modem? Getting a modem that doesn’t come with a router attached is difficult, or rather, you buy a router and can opt for a free ADSL modem to be included. So I might be paying for the same thing twice. I could go on using the HG533, but who knows if a newer ADSL modem might not improve the performance? I’m on ADSL2+ and about 2km from the exchange and in theory could get up to 15Mbs download. In practice, I’m not so sure. The copper and distribution pole (yep, an old-fashioned distribution pole) outside my house survived the Great Storm of 1987. Talk-Talk tell me that I can upgrade my router at any time. It will cost me £79 and I will get their Super Router. You read the review. (I think Talk-Talk do this as a sneaky way of limiting the demand on their network.) So why don’t I get a top-end router with a free modem?

So that’s done. I feel like I dodged a bullet there. So now to the in-house network.

Wire-heads have a Cat 6 wired house with sockets in every room, but a) I’m not a wire-head, and b) that still means wires trailing from the skirting-board to the kit. I have enough wires with the hi-fi and TV / DVD kit, thank you. And, yes, I did spend a while online reading, and talking with a helpful assistant in Maplin, about Powerline. The mains wiring in my house was last touched in about 1987 or so. Some of it may be older than that. The fuse box has been updated, but not the wires. I’ll leave that alone. It’s a nice-sounding solution, but I bet it works better with modern wiring. So it's wireless for everything except the heftiest data transfers, when I’ll live with temporary trailing wires.

There are two rules for wireless: destroy any nearby wireless-B device; and make sure your kit all has the same capability. Otherwise the wireless network will run almost at the speed of the slowest protocol (not quite, but nearly). I can make an exception for the Canon and the Sony because if I'm doing colour printing or watching DVD’s I’m not likely to be doing anything else.

So upgrade the wireless router to something with Gigabit-ethenet and AE-capable, and get AC-capable dongles for the Toshiba and the WD TV Live. The Apple kit and the NAS can then run as intended. Leave the Canon to be wireless and leave the Brother on a LAN port where it is now. (Printer servers cost too much.) Get some nice new Cat 6 flat cable for the work laptop when I’m at home, and for big downloads or when I want to do fast transfers of data between the laptops and the NAS.

Which router? Think about what a router does: it sees an incoming packet of data, reads its destination and sends it to the relevant port (modem, LAN, USB or wireless device). It needs to do that so fast it’s waiting for the next packet to arrive. Or if it can’t, it needs a lot of memory for those packets to sit in to be dealt with. Otherwise the computers are going to be sending lots of “Nope, missed that, send again please” requests back. Those doesn’t slow down the network, but it sure as heck increases the time it takes for a useful data packet to arrive. So we want a fast processor and a chunk of fast RAM. And you think you’re going to get that for £30? Ummm, no. £30 will get you a decent bit of kit, but I doubt that the experience will be snappy. So it’s worth spending a bit extra on a decent spec. With that spec there are two big choices: Apple Airport Extreme, or Netgear / Linksys / Belkin / Billion / etc. I have Windows 7 and 10 computers, and the forums have too many people saying the Airport doesn’t always play nice. It’s also really expensive. So after going through some reviews, I’m looking at the Netgear R6250 and two Netgear AC-dongles.

What I've not listed is how many websites and Google queries it took to get all that information together. Did you know there was a website that listed all the BT local exchanges and their capabilities?

Part Two to follow.

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