It wasn't that long ago that most of our home entertainment involved listening to radio, watching free-to-air TV (five channels), or enjoying music and movies on tape or vinyl. Digital technology changed all of that, and today – thanks to the internet and the ability to create a home network – everything has changed again.
Not only do the kids have games consoles and laptops for school projects, but we also want to browse the internet from the comfort of the lounge, print documents from another room in the home and stream a movie on the smart TV.
Access all areas
Most of us aren't too concerned where our music, videos, contacts, documents and photos are kept; we just want to access it and enjoy it when it suits us, on our laptop, TV or smartphone, in the comfort of our home.
After creating your home network, your media content could be on your old PC in the study, your smartphone, a NAS drive or on a USB stick connected to your TV or Blu-ray player, or it could be in the cloud. For example, we can now watch a TV show from a DVD or Blu-ray disc or on a media player or via online streaming services such as iView, Netflix or iTunes. We can view them on an iPad, Android tablet or even a smartphone.
The all-important router
For home networking, you'll need a router to direct your content to the various devices throughout your home.
A router is different to a modem. A modem is a device that delivers the internet to your home over an existing phone line (this is called ADSL) or a dedicated cable connection (with other features such as OptusTV or Foxtel also an option), or via a wireless broadband connection (using a 3G or a faster 4G network). If you already have the internet connected at home, rest assured you already have a modem.
You may also already have a router incorporated into your modem. Look at the back of your modem and see if there are four LAN or Ethernet cable connections where you can plug in your PC, laptop or maybe printer. If not, you will need to buy a separate router. If your modem does have a built-in router but it isn't wireless, you may still need to add a router with wireless support to enjoy wireless connectivity throughout the home with your smartphone, tablet, laptop and other Wi-Fi enabled devices.
Router or switch?
You might have also heard the term 'switch' in relation to networking. A switch is much simpler than a router, but it has one important advantage: it can handle mixed speed networks. Wireless devices aren't affected by this difference, but if you have computers that can communicate at gigabit speeds and you connect them to a router that doesn't support it or has another device connected to it using 10/100, they'll fall back to 10/100 speeds. However, if you connect them via a switch, they'll communicate at the faster speed. You'll need to connect the switch to a router – possibly within your modem – to connect to the internet.
Check out our router report for more information on your options.
Wired or wireless?
Computers near the router are probably best connected by cable, but for anything further away, you'll want to use wireless. Most laptops have a Wi-Fi adapter built in, but if you have a desktop computer without Wi-Fi, you can simply purchase a wireless USB adapter or a plug-in card.
There are several versions of Wi-Fi and any devices you have such as a smartphone or iPod will indicate its transfer speed as either 802.11a, b, g or n – this is usually specified on the product box.
The first version, 802.11a, is fairly slow and is generally no longer available with the letters basically indicating improvements in speed. So when looking for your next wireless device, make sure it supports at least 802.11g but you should expect a new device to support the 802.11n standard – apart from an improvement in data transfer speeds, you also get a much wider range, which means you can take your device out into the backyard instead of staying in the lounge room. Other terms you may start to see include 802.11ac and 802.11ad which (you guessed it) promise even faster performance. But unless you're obsessed with squeezing as much as you possibly can out of your network, products that support 802.11n should be fine for your home for the foreseeable future.
Bluetooth is another important part of the home entertainment mix, but its purpose is to connect one device directly to another rather than a wider network. For example, you may have a Bluetooth speaker that can connect to your smartphone.
Keeping your wireless network secure
Getting a wireless network up and running in your home is simple; keeping it secure from unwanted eyes takes a little more effort. When you're shopping for a wireless router, make sure you don't select a similar-looking "wireless access point". Although these devices are handy for some situations, they may not provide the same level of security. Wireless routers usually provide additional security measures such as firewall protection and stronger encryption to help keep unwanted intruders from accessing your home network. Wireless routers normally offer one of several security standards, including WEP, WPA and WPA2. WEP is the least secure of the three and WPA2 the most secure.
Your password shouldn't be 'password' and your user name shouldn't be 'user'!
You should first change the default password and administrator login name when setting up your wireless router. Depending on the router, the passwords can be as simple as "password" or "1234" and the user name "admin" or "user". The default security names could also be the name of the product, such as NETGEAR or Linksys. These may be easy for you to remember, but they are also easy for potential freeloaders or hackers to crack when searching for unsecured Wi-Fi connections.
Planning your physical network
Before you start, it pays to do some planning. Think about what equipment you want to attach to the network, and where it will be. Which ones will use wireless? Which will be wired? Where in the house will they be and how much cable do you need? Get out a pencil and paper and draw up a diagram of your network. That way, you can work out exactly what you need to connect it all. On that same piece of paper, put down any relevant user names or IDs and passwords; you'll be amazed at how often you'll use that piece of paper while setting all this up.
The modem, for example, may be constrained by an existing phone port, which is often not in the centre of your home. And it's a good idea to have the modem and router (and any equipment that will attach directly to the router) together. But if you are using wireless, the router is best positioned near the centre of the house where its signal can reach the rest of the home without too much trouble. If this isn't possible, you may have to add a modem access point at the other end of the home.
The first step in plugging it all together (assuming you have a separate modem and router) is to identify the 'WAN' (wide area network) port on the router, which looks the same as the others but is intended only for your modem. It's usually labelled and colour-coded differently too so it's easy to pick out. The other ports are for your wired devices which can generally be attached in any order.
Expanding your network
We are living in an increasingly wireless world, but there are still devices that need a physical network cable, such as computers and devices like printers and networked attached storage (NAS) hard drives. Wired device connections are limited to the number of Ethernet ports on the back of your router – which is usually four.
If you run out of ports, you can buy another router or Ethernet hub and expand your network. Even eight-port routers are relatively cheap. Wireless devices can be added to your network quickly and easily and are only limited to IP address availability (which means well over 200 devices).
Getting your operating systems to play nicely
There was a time when Macs and Windows machines didn't play that nicely together, but the latest operating systems are pretty good at recognising each other and tolerating one another on the same network.
Just like the internet, every machine must have a unique IP address. Local networks usually default to 192.168.1.X or 10.0.0.X – all you really need to know about this is that the second last number represents a subnet, and that for your computers and devices to see each other easily they have to be on the same subnet. For example, a computer on 192.168.1.2 will see another computer on 192.168.1.8 without you having to do any fiddling. And if you're wondering where the values for 192.168.* and 10.0.* are chosen, they are traditionally reserved for private networks, which is why your router or modem will come preconfigured on an address like 192.168.1.1.
For a home network, your modem will usually run a DHCP (dynamic host configuration protocol) server. Operating systems like Windows, Mac OS X and Linux will usually automatically seek out a DHCP server and ask for a unique IP address, and set up routing to allow access to the web.
You'll usually access the router control panel through a browser by typing in the IP address for the router. It's almost always 192.168.1.1 or 192.168.0.1. Similarly, the default login is often "admin" for user and "password" for password, but again, check the manuals. Remember, once you have set everything up make sure you change the username and password.
The Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA)
The Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) protocol was introduced to help simplify the process of sharing content around the home, allowing connected devices to "talk" to one another as seamlessly as possible over a wireless or wired network. Companies supporting DLNA include Microsoft as well as home electronics companies such as Panasonic and Sony. Apple is the notable omission from the DLNA consortium, however as with all things Apple, there's an app for that, giving iPad and iPhone users similar DLNA functionality to that enjoyed by Android device owners. A search for "DLNA viewer" in the Apple App Store will show available programs.
Most smart TVs should support DLNA. A look at your TV's network settings will confirm whether it has DLNA support, and it may even connect to your smart device automatically. Once selected, you can access music, photos and video by using the TV remote control. If the back of your TV has a LAN connection (a network port that looks like a large telephone jack to connect to your router) and you can get an Ethernet cable to the TV, you should be able to watch online video applications such as ABC TV's iView, or access video, photos and music stored on your home network. If you have a wireless home network and a TV with wireless connectivity, you may not need to connect a cable at all.
If your TV doesn't have network connectivity, all is not lost. The latest batch of Blu-ray players or PVRs (personal video recorders) also have the ability to access online TV programs or content stored on your home network. Once you have your player or PVR connected to your network, simply connect it to your old TV using an HDMI, component or composite cable and transform your ageing TV into a Smart TV.