2015 Guide to Home Networking

Introduction

2015 Guide to Home Networking - Introduction

The term "networking" often brings about thoughts of computers, wires, and over-bearing system administrators. The fact is, if you've got a broadband subscription with a PC, a Wi-Fi enabled laptop, or even tablets and smartphones, then you've got networking happening right there in your home.

But what does having a network mean, and how does it work? Are you taking full advantage of your home network, or is it capable of more? The answers can actually be pretty complex, but they don't have to be. With the BFAds 2015 Guide to Home Networking, you'll have your devices connected in no time, and your home network will be running better than ever before.


Basics

Basics

To better understand what having a home network actually means, it's easiest to think of it the way you would think of the post office delivering mail to your block. Mail goes out, mail comes in, and the postal carrier knows whose mail goes where because each home on your block has an address.

In home networking, your house is the block and each device is a home on that block, with your cable modem acting as the postal service. Your router is the postal carrier, assigning the data to the right address in your home.

By that same token, since you and your neighbors are all on the same street, it's easy for you to walk across the street and talk to one another and also share things like post cards you got in the mail, a DVD, or a cup of sugar. Once all your devices are connected to your home network and communicating with one another, you can share data like pictures, photos, videos, or any other file type.

While this analogy may not be perfect, it does help to simplify what a home network is, and what it can do for you if all your devices are connected to your network and talking to each other. With that basic understanding out of the way, you're now ready to take control of your home network and get the most out of what home networking has to offer.


Buying your own modem

Buy Your Own Modem

A cable modem is a device that connects to your cable provider and grants your home access to your broadband services.

Traditionally, when you buy a service from your cable company, packaged alongside the services on your bill comes the monthly fee for the equipment provided by the cable company. This includes devices such as cable boxes, DVRs, and more often than not, the cable modem. Not only are most broadband customers being charged monthly to rent a modem (sometimes upwards of $10 per month), but if you've got a cable modem with built-in Wi-Fi, many cable companies charge you an additional fee for using the Wi-Fi.

Buying your own cable modem is one of the cheapest and easiest ways to save a bundle on your bill while also getting your foot in the door of managing your own home network. Most cable modems cost under $100, which can be recouped in under a year or less depending on your equipment rental fees.

Head to the website of your cable provider to find out which brands and models of cable modems they support, then check out one of the multitude of retailers that sell modems such as Amazon, Best Buy, or Fry's. As we mentioned earlier, there are some cable modems that also offer wireless routing, but it's almost always best to put that money towards a dedicated router to run the Wi-Fi in your home. Routers offer more features and flexibility than Wi-Fi enabled cable modems, and many can be had for under $50.

Once you've got your new modem in your hands, it's as simple as disconnecting your rented modem, hooking up your new one, and then calling to activate service. It really is that easy, but be sure to promptly return your rented modem to your cable provider, since most will continue to charge you for having the modem even though it is no longer in use.


Wireless Router

Wireless Router

The wireless router is the device in your home that will assign any device that connects to it an IP address, whether they are connected via an Ethernet cable or over Wi-Fi, allowing those devices to communicate both with each other and with the outside world. Once you connect your wireless router to your cable modem via Ethernet cable, the router will connect those devices to the Internet. Any wireless router you purchase will at least offer this basic function, so if you just want a no-frills device, you have your pick of any router on the market.

Since wireless routers allow you to connect wirelessly or with an Ethernet cable, you might be wondering which is better. In almost all cases, a wired Ethernet connection will give you a faster and more stable connection, with the obvious drawback being that you are tethered to the router. For desktop computers and any Ethernet enabled devices such as Blu-ray players, streaming media devices, smart televisions, or any connected device that isn't carried around the room, Ethernet is going to always be the better choice. If you've decided to use Ethernet whenever possible, don't fall into the pitfall of paying retail prices for Ethernet cables, as many merchants charge exorbitant prices compared to online stores like Amazon or Monoprice.


Wireless Security

Wireless Router

Getting your wireless router up and running may be as simple as plugging it into your cable modem, using the default password to log onto the Wi-Fi, and getting right online. This may be the simplest way to get going, it's also one of the biggest mistakes you can make when you get your new router, as it leaves your router vulnerable to even the most unskilled adversary that may be seeking to gain access to your home network.

First and foremost, once you've connected to either the router's wifi or Ethernet port, you'll want to log into your new router by finding your router's IP address in the included manual or setup guide. After you log in with the default password, find the administrator settings and change that password immediately. Manufacturers tend to use the same default password for all their devices, so failing to change the default password makes your router an easy target, since default passwords for any device are just a Google search away.

Second, find the wireless security settings and make sure the security type is set to WPA2. Then, change the default password to something that is strong, but easy for you to remember.

Third, you'll want to find your SSID settings, which sets the name of your wireless networks. This is actually to secure your devices outside of your home rather than inside. Router manufacturers tend to have the default SSID names match the name of the manufacturer. Just check your smart device now for wifi devices in your area, and you're certain to see a number of devices named "netgear," "dlink," "linksys," or the like. Leaving this default name means that your wireless devices that you take with you, like your smart phone or laptop, will try and connect to any wireless connection it comes across with the same name. This potentially opens your devices up to data theft or virus infection should they connect to a random signal that has the same name as your home network's SSID.


Wireless 802.11 g/n/ac

Wireless 802.11 g/n/ac

The latest routers found on store shelves are touting something called 802.11ac, while others state they are 802.11n. So what exactly does that mean? Without getting into the technical details, the letters following 802.11 will indicate the maximum speed and total wireless bandwidth that the router is capable of transmitting, with AC being the fastest, followed by N, and then G. These routers are also backwards compatible, so if you've got a mix of devices in your home that use different wifi types, you should have no trouble connecting to your new router even if your devices are a few years old.

So should you spring for the fastest AC router out there? Or is N enough? Well it depends. First of all, your wireless devices need to support AC in order to take advantage of the speed, so if your laptop, smart phone, or tablet doesn't support AC, you'll have nothing to gain until you upgrade those devices.

Secondly, do you need the speed and bandwidth that AC offers? If you've only got one or two wireless devices, or if you only use your wifi to do basic browsing, email, and productivity, then you might consider pocketing the money you'd save by going with wireless N, or use that money to get a more fully-featured N router.

AC routers are most attractive to those who do a lot of media streaming from sources like Netflix, Hulu, or from or other PCs within the home, or for those that have a large number of wireless devices in your house. Before you make your decision here, stop and think about how many wireless devices are in your home. How many smart phones, tablets, and computers are there? What about Smart TVs, streaming media devices, or even video game consoles? The more devices that connect to your home network through your wireless router simultaneously, the slower all the devices will run. So even if you think you might not need an AC router, you could be mistaken if you don't take into account all the device types in your home that will be using your wifi signal.


Other Notable Wireless Router Features

Other Notable Wireless Router Features

With the basics and security out of the way, it's now time to sort through the bevy of advanced wireless router features you'll be confronted with when choosing router that's best for you.

USB Device Sharing - Routers with this feature have a USB port located right on the router, and will automatically share that device on your network. This is great way to share hardware like printers, scanners, or maybe even a large USB hard drive that the whole family can use as a backup device. Not all routers with USB sharing support all device types, so if you've got a particular device in mind that you want to make available on your home network, check the product listing before buying your router.

Guest Zone - Now that you understand how easy it is to share documents, photos, and videos on your network, you should also understand that anyone you allow on your network can potentially access those files. This means friends, family, or anyone that you allow to hop onto your wifi could see any files on your computer that you have shared. With modern operating systems like Windows 10, this is done automatically without any effort from the user. Routers that feature a Guest Zone will create a separate wireless network that keeps house guests sequestered, so they will have internet access but not access to your private home network. Just be sure to set an entirely different password for your guest zone so that guests cannot access your home network even accidentally.

Wifi Protected Setup - WPS makes adding devices to your wireless network a snap. For devices that support WPS, after you choose your wifi network and try to connect, rather than typing in a password, simply walk over to your router and tap a button to allow the device to access to your wifi.


Conclusion

Other Notable Wireless Router Features

Once you've got all your devices connected to your new home network, the only thing left to do is find a way for them all to share data with one another. The good news is that almost all modern devices and operating systems will do this automatically. Windows 7 and 10 will ask you as soon as you connect if this is a home network, and when you choose yes, will take you through sharing your documents. Even iOS devices make it easy to share, since they automatically make photos and videos available to those with Macs or Apple TV.

There is still a lot to learn and a lot to know about home networking, but with this guide you should be off and running. If there is a particular topic we didn't cover, or if you'd like to share a home networking tip, head down to our comments section, or reach us and our readers on our Facebook page or on Twitter.

Of course, with Black Friday almost upon us, use your new speedy and secure home network to keep all your devices pointed at BFads.net, where you'll find the latest price breaks, leaked ads, and door buster info along with our signature buying guides and tips.

September 30, 2015
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