A home network brings together all the various devices that we use every day, from computers, phones and tablets to games consoles, smart TVs, wireless speakers and more. Whether they connect to the internet or just to one another, they need to join the network.
There's more than one way to get your devices talking to one another, using wired connections (Ethernet) or wireless (Wi-Fi and Bluetooth), or any combination. But what equipment are you likely to need for your particular situation? Here's a handy reference guide to the types of various home network equipment you might need, and how you can use it to boost performance.
These are the tools you need to get online. Without them, your home Wi-Fi is more or less useless.
- Modem: The most basic piece of the home network puzzle, a modem connects you to the internet. It can connect physically to a computer or to other devices, usually via a hub or switch, or a separate wireless router.
- Modem-router: Most commonly, the modem provided by your ISP will be a modem-router, with a wireless router built in. This creates a local wireless network to which you can attach your wireless network capable devices, becoming a central hub for them all to connect. It will also usually include several LAN (local area network) ports for connecting Ethernet cables.
- Wireless router: A wireless router can be bought separately and attached to your modem or existing modem-router to create a wireless network. A third-party wireless router may offer greater speed and features not found in your ISP-supplied devices, and improved performance in busy households. It can be added on to supplement or replace your ISP-supplied wireless router.
Sometimes, a third-party wireless router can be the solution to sluggish speeds delivered by your ISPs modem router. In that case its not necessarily the modem that needs replacing, just the wireless router. You can add a wireless router to your existing modem-router to boost the speed of your local Wi-Fi network.
Wi-Fi routers (including those built into ISP-supplied modem-routers) are usually dual-band 'AC' routers operating on two wireless bands – 2.4GHz and 5GHz. You'll also find many brands also market tri-band routers, which add an extra 5GHz band to help support a higher number of connected devices such as smartphones, tablets, computers and TVs.
Network-connected household appliances and IoT (internet of things) devices such as smart bulbs, typically use the 2.4GHz band. Computers, smartphones, tablets and home entertainment equipment that's more than a few years old will use it too. However, modern devices can connect to 2.4GHz or 5GHz, and you can switch between them whenever you want.
A third-party router can improve Wi-Fi performance.
This is where dual or tri-band is useful. Each band can get crowded if a number of devices are connected, which clogs the network and slows things down. Moving devices onto another band can take some of the load off, because the bands don't interfere with each other, and less congestion equals more speed across the board.
Tri-band routers give you the highest overall throughput to help cope with having multiple Wi-Fi devices. They can stream to two or more devices over their two 5GHz bands, giving a higher total throughput. Tablets and laptops are a good example of devices hopping on the dual-band bandwagon, with their ability to use the faster 5GHz band, giving them an advantage for media streaming in the home.
Understanding Wi-Fi protocols
Understanding the basics of networking is simpler than it used to be, but it's still an alphabet (and numerical) soup of standards and protocols. Once you get your head around the codes which are printed on the box, you can identify equipment running older, slower protocols so you don't get ripped off.
There are four broad factors that contribute to the strength and speed of your Wi-Fi:
- The service you pay for.
- Modem/router quality and capabilities.
- The number of users/devices on the network.
- Proximity to the modem/router (which includes interference).
Number one is pretty well in the hands of your internet service provider. Two and three can be covered by reducing the number of users or spreading them across two or three Wi-Fi bands as covered above.
Proximity and interference depends on a number of factors, including the type of house you live in (brick, for example, is harder for a signal to penetrate). Range can also be affected by bandwidth interference from other devices such as cordless phones or microwaves that commonly operate in the 2.4GHz band. Placing the wireless router as close to the middle of the home as possible will provide the best coverage.
However, you can buy networking equipment that can help maintain a strong signal around your home, far away from the router. Examples include a wireless range extender, powerline adaptor, USB Wi-Fi adapter and a mesh network.
A range extender boosts signal strength at the expense of speed.
A wireless range extender is one way to bridge that extra distance. Even a top-of-the-line wireless (Wi-Fi) router may not be up to the job of covering your whole home. A router only has a certain range (around 50m in line-of-sight) but obstructions such as walls and furniture can shorten that range or block it entirely, creating areas where there is no Wi-Fi signal called black spots.
Typically, a range extender is placed on the outskirts of the main network, where it picks up the Wi-Fi signal and retransmits it. A wireless extender can help you go around obstructions. Strategic placement of your wireless range extender can help you avoid network black spots and weak signal areas. Note, however, that the relayed signal will be slower than the original network.
Wi-Fi extenders come in a variety of kits, from the traditional all-in-one wall-plug unit that you simply plug into a powerpoint, to the new mesh network systems. A mesh network is a more 'intelligent' type of Wi-Fi system in which each extender (or node) talks to not only the main router but to the other nodes. This can give you a more seamless networking experience no matter where you are in the home, and can grow with the addition of more nodes, but they come at a relatively hefty price.
Types of extenders
Not all wireless extenders work the same way, so have a look at which of the following suits your needs.
- Media bridge:These have multiple Ethernet ports and are designed primarily for connecting non-wireless home entertainment devices to the wireless network, to give them wireless capabilities. Look for one of these if you want to connect a lot of Ethernet devices to your wireless network and won't be extending the network too far.
- Wall-plug adapter: These are handy if you only want to extend the network over a small-to-medium distance (e.g. apartment).
- NBN users: Look for the products that performed fastest in our extended position tests, otherwise your internet speed might be limited to the extender's capability.
Powerline adapters are also called Ethernet over Power (EoP) adapters. These are paired devices that plug into a wall mains power socket to send data between two points over your existing home electrical wiring. They can plug the gaps where Wi-Fi doesn't reach.
They typically obscure one or two power points, but may come with a pass-through socket so you can still plug in an electrical appliance. They should be plugged directly into the wall (not a power board) and both devices need to be on the same household wiring circuit.
You might find that if you plug one adapter into a lounge room outlet and the other adapter into a kitchen outlet, they might not be able to connect because the outlets are on different circuits. This will vary, however, with the way your house is wired for electricity. Though not generally as popular as wireless extenders, powerline adapters can be an effective alternative in some circumstances.
Note that EoP should not be confused with Power over Ethernet (PoE), which is a different technology that provides power using standard ethernet cabling. PoE can be useful for powering security cameras and other small devices without needing to also run an electrical power cable to a wall socket.
For adding older equipment to your wireless network. Use it with a laptop, for example, to upgrade from the laptop's older wireless connection such as Wireless-n (802.11n) to a faster modern standard such as Wireless-ac (802.11ac). They can plug in directly or via a cable.
A wired hub or switch connects various wired Ethernet devices. Usually, a modem or wireless router will have a small hub with several ports built-in, but a separate hub/switch unit can be added to support many more devices.
A switch is a 'smarter' form of hub that routes traffic directly to specific devices for improved efficiency and throughput. Wired connections to your devices via Ethernet cabling will generally give you a faster and more reliable connection than Wi-Fi, but require that you can run Ethernet cabling through your home to the devices as needed.
Mesh networking is a relatively new technology, which is a system of linked devices including a modem and extenders that can give you seamless network coverage throughout your home and help eliminate Wi-Fi black spots and weak signal areas. A mesh network is designed to give you one set-and-forget network and automatically switch you to the device nearest you with the strongest signal. This saves you having to use multiple networks and should give you optimal speed. Check our our mesh network buying guide for a detailed explanation.
Though you can't connect most computers and laptops to a mobile network, you can buy equipment that lets you use broadcast mobile data (3/4/5G) over Wi-Fi and Ethernet.
Mobile broadband lets a PC or a router gain receive internet access via a cellular network. The devices come in various shapes and sizes, but usually small enough to easily fit in a pocket, and include 3G and 4G LTE capability for connecting to the internet, just like a smartphone. They then create their own personal Wi-Fi network, to which you can connect smartphones, tablets, laptops or other devices with Wi-Fi capability.
Usually they will support multiple devices connected at once, though this will affect the speed of each device as it's a shared link to the internet via cellular connection. They range from thumb-sized devices that plug in directly via USB, to separate devices connected by a short USB cable
This connects to mains power like a standard modem/router, but connects to the internet over the 4G LTE rather than ADSL or the NBN. It is commonly used to provide a backup connection that takes over automatically if your main broadband connection fails. If you can't afford to be without an internet connection at home, a cellular modem set up to be used as an emergency backup connection can give you the peace of mind you need.
Home network equipment typically includes a bunch of extra features. Though not necessary, these tools can be quite useful depending on your networking needs.
Now that you know what kind of equipment you need, these steps should help you keep your network organised as you get it off the ground.
The first step after 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.
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?
- Grab 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.
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.