Even for many seasoned technophiles, networking is bugaboo territory. Sure, we all know the basics. Put the WiFi router in a good spot. Use a secure password. Restart said router every six months when the internet craps out. But going the extra mile on setting up your network will make all the difference in speed and reliability. Whether you’re looking to cut out the lag from your frags, maximize performance to a server, or just make your browser tabs load faster, it pays to buy the right gear, and set it up the right way.
This guide is meant to cater to everyone, whether you’re planning on recreating the matrix in your attic, or you’re just looking for a simple upgrade over the box from your service provider. Not sure if you’d benefit from a more advanced network setup? We’ll cover that too.
A quick caveat. This isn’t a comprehensive look into the depths of the “how” behind networking technology. This guide also won’t get into network security like hardware firewalls or password encryption. Security is its own massive topic worthy of another post.
The Truth About Wi-Fi
For those new to networking, let me start with a painful but essential truth. Contrary to the incessant marketing of the early 2000s, Wi-Fi sucks. Sure, it enables our entire digital world, but from a purely technological standpoint, it is inferior to wired connections in almost every way.
Why? Because… physics. Since humans have yet to invent an ability to bend radio waves, Wi-fi signals travel in straight lines from point to point. Unless you live in a large yurt or wall-less commune (or both), your home environment is a variable jungle of obstacles to those signals. Furniture, walls and electrical wiring are all barriers that degrade signal quality or introduce interference. Even in a spread out neighborhood, odds are good that other people around you also have their own routers sending out signals that will compete with yours. In an urban apartment complex, your router is basically fighting the Battle for Middle Earth just to push e-mail to your iPhone. Even the latest Wi-fi standards that integrate higher bandwidth and advanced technology like beam-forthing, can’t escape the reality that our physical world is a permanent hell for wireless signal transmission. When you consider the complexity of sending data wirelessly, it’s a miracle your internet EVER works.
Conversely, hard-wired connections are beautifully simple. A good quality conductor sends your signals back and forth through cable equipped with shielding, enabling a clean, reliable connection. Usable bandwidth through cable is also more plentiful, which means it’s much harder for an all-wired network to run into congestion issues when multiple devices are streaming video, playing games etc.
Obviously though, we’re living in a wireless age. As hilarious as it would be to connect an ethernet cable to an iPhone, wi-fi is simply a fact of life. So why am I crapping on this essential technology? To hammer home the point, which is that wi-fi will never be 100% reliable. You can, however get very close, but only if you work hard to optimize how your equipment is setup. (If you’re already sold on running a wired network, skip to the “Wiring Your House” section at the bottom of the page).
Simple, Intermediate, or Epic?
First thing’s first. The cardinal rule of home networking is SIMPLICITY. Wired or wireless, your networking hardware is a series of cheap, mass produced computers that are running 24-7, sending vast amounts of data around. Inevitably, they’ll have the occasional hiccup, so the fewer boxes you can get away with, the fewer points of failure.
Every network has different requirements, but most will be served by one of the Gremlin’s three examples. They come in three flavors: Simple, Intermediate, and Epic.
The Simple Network
For those of who you’ve bemoaned your cramped studio apartment or meager one story bungalow, rejoice! You’ve found an advantage over the rest of us. You can have a fantastic network for cheap, given a few restrictions. The simple network is for those who:
-Have a living space under 1000 or so square feet
-Don’t have thick walls made of older materials such as plaster or lathe
-Don’t have extremely high bandwidth needs, like streaming uncompressed blu-rays over your local network.
-Have the ability to place your router in or near the center of your home.
For you simple folk, the best option is a single high quality, high power wireless router. Now, you may be thinking “I already have one, courtesy of Charter,” (or heaven forbid, Comcast). But consider this. Your home router is your gateway to the web for every single device in your home. Do you really want to entrust that role to a box that your ISP has sprung on you which is probably outdated, refurbished, poorly designed, or all of the above?
A quick aside. When replacing your ISP’s hardware, it’s important to note that all home internet setups require two distinct devices to function. The first is a modem, which accepts the signal coming into your home from your service provider, and authenticates with their servers, allowing you to access the connection you’re paying for. The second device is a router, which is akin to an air traffic controller. The router takes that single signal, and splits it up to send to all of your gadgets. Often, your ISP will rent you a box that serves both of these roles. If you have cable, your provider may allow you to change out both boxes, but many providers require you to use their modem. That’s not the end of the world, as you can still replace the router side of the equation with something solid. If you’re stuck with a dual router/modem combo, follow your ISP’s instructions (or google the router model) to set the device to “bridge mode” which will shut off the router side of things, and allow you to upgrade.
For the simple network, your hardware of choice is:
Netgear is a longtime player in the networking world, and they sure know how to eek performance out of their designs. What their boxes lack in looks, they make up for in raw signal strength and throughput. The Gremlin personally tried four different routers in his current home, and while a mesh network ended up being a superior solution, the R7000 was the only single router powerful enough to provide anything resembling a usable signal through my old 50’s era plaster walls, 2700 sq feet and two stories of home. This box is also loaded with technological goodness, from the latest 802.11 AC speeds, to advanced QOS routing that can automatically optimize your network traffic to “congestion sensitive” activity like video streaming and gaming. This box even has a very functional mobile app, for quick settings adjustments from your smartphone. If you follow the KISS approach to networking (and you should), the R7000P will be a pain free upgrade or solution for reliable internet in your home.
The Intermediate Network
Mesh Is King
Maybe your house is more than 1000 square feet. Maybe you don’t have the flexibility to put your router in the best possible spot. Maybe you’ve got thicker walls, or a long, skinny single story home. The answer to your network slowdowns is mesh networking.
A few years ago, the only solution for larger wireless systems was to add additional wireless access points, (or wireless routers in “extend” mode) to improve signal strength. These setups can work quite well, but many dedicated access points lacked the range of a high powered router, and using a second router would often introduce new issues, like signal interference from the overlapping networks. Unless you went through the difficulty of wiring your home with ethernet drops, these access points would connect to each other through the same wireless antennas they use to generate a network, dramatically reducing available bandwidth. The result was that many people ended up spending more money for a less reliable network.
Enter “mesh,” the newest trend in Wi-fi. Mesh networks are groups of wireless routers designed from the ground up to work together painlessly across a home. Instead of having to configure opaque router settings, these systems are setup from a smartphone, and provide a clear setup procedure that will guide you through and test your setup placement to ensure that each part of the system has a solid signal. They’re highly flexible, allowing you to use as many boxes as you need (literally an unlimited number in some systems) to ensure that every nook and cranny of your house is blanketed in wireless goodness.
The Intermediate Setup:
Eero was one of the first companies to launch a mesh wifi product, and they remain the easiest to use, and in the Gremlin’s experience, the most reliable. Compared to the Netgear R7000P and Tp-link Archer C7 combo that the Gremlin was previously using, two Eero Pros (2nd Generation) and a single Eero beacon provide more uniform coverage that’s remarkably reliable. Even when browsing while walking from one floor of the house to another (when most multi-router systems choke during the handoff process) the Eero works like a champ. In fact, the only time I’ve ever had to restart this system was either when the ISP connection went down and I was troubleshooting, or when I piled some useless junk in my networking closet and the Eero overheated (pro tip, don’t pile junk on top of your router).
One of my favorite things about Eero is that their top spec Eero Pro boxes are small, white and curvy, making them nice enough to look at that you won’t mind placing them in view of your living room sofa, as opposed to a closet (where you’ll never get a good signal). They’ve also built the Eero Beacon, a mini router which plugs directly into a wall socket, allowing for placement in hallways or other awkward spots. They even include a little night light (which can be configured on or off at your preference).
Eero Beacon (With LED’s Disabled)
Eero also hypes a kind of special sauce. While other traditional network companies like Netgear and Linksys have their own mesh systems, they’re essentially traditional wireless routers that are easier to setup and link together. Eero, by comparison, uses advanced algorithms to measure interference and variable signal strength between your routers, improving connectivity. Not being a network engineer, I don’t have an easy way to verify that this is actually happening, but anecdotally, I can confirm that the way these routers interoperate is far superior to any multi-hub system I’ve ever used. I’ve personally tested the Linksys Velop system, which was a comparable nightmare due to an extremely unreliable app which would claim routers were placed correctly when they were not, and failed to offer a handoff that’s anywhere close to as smooth and consistent as what I’ve grown accustomed to with Eero.
The Epic Network
After waxing poetic about mesh networking, you may be wondering what could possibly be better, and why would you need it?
The answer brings us full circle. For typical internet use in just about any home, a combination of Eero routers, setup by simply plugging them into power at the locations recommended in setup, is going to provide you with an awesome network. But nothing beats hardwired.
The ultimate networking setup is a combined hard wired and mesh system. All the major mesh providers (or at least Eero, Linksys Velop, and Netgear Orbi) now offer something called “ethernet backhaul.” Basically, instead of the gateway node in the mesh sharing its connection wirelessly to its mates, you run ethernet cable to the other places in your home where you have Eero’s connected, and hard wire them together. This makes your network more resilient to sources of interference, like other neighboring wireless networks, and also improves bandwidth availability, as you’ve removed a sizable chunk of wireless activity from your home.
Paired with this solution, you should also be running ethernet drops from your primary router, to any bandwidth heavy devices that are stationary. Prime candidates are media streaming boxes, game consoles, and desktop computers. Hardwire everything you can, because you’re not just improving performance to that device, you’re also alleviating wireless congestion for all the portable devices you can’t hardwire.
Who Needs the Epic Setup?
I’m trying to keep things simple here, but the truth is, going wired is going to subtly benefit just about anyone in terms of basic reliability. What it won’t necessarily get you is increased raw speed. Here’s why:
Most of our basic network use is LAN to WAN, (ie your iPhone connecting to the wider internet to pull a web page or a video). The typical home internet connection is only about 100Mbits download, and AC Wi-fi can easily net about 70 to 150 Mbits if properly setup. Simply put, Wi-Fi is often fast enough.
What hard-wiring DOES get you is a much faster LOCAL network, and more reliable internet (for all the reasons mentioned above). This becomes hugely important if you want to run a local server on your network.
The Gremlin greatly enjoys having all of his (legally purchased) blu-rays ripped onto a private home server, which allows instant streaming to a number of strategically placed raspberry pis. Copying files from one machine to another (i.e. a gaming PC to a workstation desktop or HTPC) is also dramatically faster with hard-wiring. Another good need for this type of setup is a home business, where it’s not uncommon to have gigabit internet speeds, where hard wired connections are really your only option if you want to make the most of the bandwidth you’re paying for.
Equipment for the Epic Setup:
The Wi-Fi side of the Advanced Setup is the same as intermediate. If you really want the best possible network, get multiple Eero Pro models, and run ethernet drops from your install locations to the brain of your network.
The Wired Side
Connections for large hard wired systems look intimidating, but it’s actually pretty easy. Unlike optimizing your Wi-fi, hardline connections on a home network are usually made through a simple hub, known as an “unmanaged ethernet switch.” These switches work just like a usb hub, allowing a whole bunch of ethernet devices to connect to each other and the internet.
If you want to do things right, invest in a patch bay. When you wire your house for ethernet, you’ll add a whole bunch of ethernet jacks in the walls, which will connect via a cable back to the home base of your network. A patch bay is simply a box that allows you to splice all those incoming cables directly into numbered ethernet ports. You could skip this, and simply terminate all your cables with connectors instead, but this makes for a much cleaner setup, and allows you to easily troubleshoot and keep track of what’s connected where.
Finally, you’ll want to consider investing in a networking rack. Basically just a metal frame that bolts to the wall, this will allow you to mount all of your networking equipment in the same place, and keep things neat and tidy.
There’s lots of different sizes and shapes available. The above Monoprice unit is what’s in the Gremlin’s closet. If you buy a wall mount frame like the one above, don’t forget to buy a shelf for your router, like this one.
Tips for setting up Wi-Fi
Even if you’ve picked a fantastic wireless router or mesh system, there’s still some guidelines you should follow to get the best performance out of your equipment:
1. Location is everything. If you’re using a single router, place it as close to the center of your home as possible. Try and cheat it toward the areas of your house where you most frequently use the web (like a family room or office).
2. Avoid hiding your equipment, especially inside solid wood furniture or closets. Those physical barriers will limit your signal strength. If you can, place the router on top of furniture, like a media cabinet or on top of a book shelf.
3. Be channel aware. Just like an old walkie-talkie, all wi-fi networks operate on channels of wireless spectrum. In areas with lots of existing networks, it may be smart to manually choose a channel that’s not being used by lots of other devices in the area. Channels become particularly important when you have multiple routers in the same house (or a router and secondary access point). HOWEVER, there are plenty of situations where manually setting channels can be detrimental. Any quality router will, on startup, automatically survey the area it’s operating in, and select the best available channel. If you manually set a channel, and then, a month later, a new network is introduced on the same channel next door, you’re going to have interference issues, unless you manually make adjustments (which you probably won’t unless the issue is severe). If you’re manually setting channels, you also have to take into account that back to back channel numbers overlap, and that higher frequency channels are more susceptible to interference, so it’s easy to create problems here if you’re not careful.
4. Know your 2.4Ghz from your 5Ghz. 2.4Ghz signals have been around a long time, but are still present in every router. 5Ghz was introduced as a less congested spectrum option, that is also capable of higher speed and bandwidth. However, 5Ghz is also more easily blocked by walls and other obstacles, so it’s not always the best option. If you want to get hands on with your network, you can choose to broadcast separate 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz networks under different names, and manage which devices connect to which. This can yield performance advantages in scenarios with lots of devices, but always prioritize a strong 2.4Ghz signal over a weak 5Ghz signal, as it will yield greater reliability.
How to Wire Your House
The Gremlin’s (somewhat) organized networking rack
Tools & Supplies
To complete your wiring project, you’re going to need a whole heap of cable, connectors, wall jacks, and the tools that will allow you to terminate and test your connections.
First the wire. It’s up to you what quality of cable you use for wiring. Cat 5A has been around for ages, and it will technically work just fine for typical Gigabit speed ethernet connections. Keep in mind though, unless you’re on a tight budget, you want to install the best cabling you can afford, as ethernet standards and speeds will improve over time, and as cable improvements are entirely predicated on the cable’s signal insulation and physical bandwidth capability, the day will come when you can happily upgrade your home network speed without having to run new cables.
The Gremlin went with cat 6A back in 2014, and today he recommends that as a minimum spec. Also, if you want your wiring job to be legal and safe, ONLY use in-wall rated cable inside your walls.
Next, some odds and ends. For ethernet jacks, I recommend using keystone style inserts. Keystone jacks are standardized connectors that click into a keyed hole in a wall plate. This system is modular, making it easy to throw several ethernet jacks onto one wall plate, or to mix and match between ethernet and other cables you might want to run, like coax or HDMI.
Technically, if you use a patch bay, the only connectors you NEED are the physical ethernet jacks you’ll install in the wall. However, once you’ve started terminating your own cable, you may find yourself wanting to make your own ethernet cables (this is also a cost effective way of connecting each port on your patch bay to your switch.
Finally, to remove shielding, crimp your connectors and test your connections, you’ll need some tools:
Necessary for stripping cat 6A, and crimping connectors onto 6A or 5A. Note that the thick shielding of cat 6A won’t usually be removed by the stripper part of the tool, so you’ll need to cut it off separately (wire cutters work well, or scissors in a pinch).
This is used for terminating cables into female wall jacks and patch bays. Simply line up the cables in the correct color order, then press the tool into the alignment crevice. It’ll retract inward with a thunk, and your cables will be secured.
This is optional, but will leave you with peace of mind. It’s actually possible to make a faulty ethernet cable that appears to work (the cable will transfer data, but not at full bandwidth). This happens because one or more of the wire pairs hasn’t been terminated correctly on one end, so your networking equipment will use the parts of the cable that have a secure connection. The tester has two pieces, which connect to each end of your cable. If the cable is working, the row of lights on the tester will light up green, indicating which cable pairs are connecting. For testing your cable runs, use a known good ethernet cable connected to your outlet on one side, and the patch bay on the other, to verify your terminations are solid.
Placing Your Network Hub
For many people, their entire network “infrastructure” is a single modem/router combo tucked onto a shelf. But when you’re building an advanced network in your home, you’re going to need a dedicated space for storing your modem, your router, your switches, and any miscellaneous devices, like a server or smart home hub. Here’s some practical considers for locating your network’s brain:
First off, always consider ventilation when setting up your networking equipment. Your collection of networking boxes run 24/7, and they all generate heat. If they lack sufficient airflow, they’re more likely to slow down, crash, or fail prematurely. Don’t put your stuff in a closet or drawer unless you’re going to provide a fan system and/or venting for air movement.
Next, consider using a networking rack. A small rack is usually the most space efficient way of storing your equipment.
Finally, don’t forget to consider how you’re going to run cable from the brain into the rest of the house. Ideally, you’ll want to place your gear in a location that’s adjacent to a crawl space or vent system, allowing you an easy way to run cables in and out.
Running & Terminating Your Cable
So you’ve got your tools and supplies, you’ve mapped out where you’re putting your ports, and you’ve found a suitable location for the brain of your network. Here’s some guidelines for running your cable:
1. Safety first. Any time you’re drilling or sawing holes in walls or navigating unfinished areas, be extremely careful. Always inspect the area around where you’re drilling for possible electrical lines or pipes. A non-contact voltage detector is also a handy tool for ensuring there’s no live voltage where you’re working. When in doubt, toggle off your circuit breaker first. Also, when you’re drilling through wood framing or foundation walls, be careful not to use too large a bit, and consult local building code to verify that you’re not breaking any rules. Most codes stipulate that you cannot drill a hole larger than 40% of the material’s width (or 1.5 inches nominal in a 2×4 stud). The Gremlin used a six inch long 3/4″ drill bit for drilling through studs, and always centered holes to maximize the remaining integrity of the wood. Conversely, don’t drill a 1/4 inch hole unless you’re very sure you won’t be running more than one cable through. It’s very difficult to expand the size of the hole after you’ve already run a cable length through it.
2. Pick the easy way. If there’s one rule of thumb to running cable, it’s to take the path of least resistance, even if it means running a longer cable. Every house is going to have unfinished areas that provide access to run pipes, electrical cable, or provide venting. Specifically, look for:
-Existing accessible routing options, like exterior mounted raceways.
3. If you can, run cable from below. Typical wall framing includes cross beams installed roughly 2/3rds of the way up the wall. If you drill through the lower plate in the wall, you’ll usually have free access to the wall cavity at the height you’ll want your ports. If you go from above, you’ll need to find a way to drill through the horizontal beam in order to get your wires down. usually, the only way to do this is to cut a small hole in the drywall, drill a hole through the cross beam for your wires, and then patch and paint.
4. Never run data cable with electrical. Inevitably, you’ll find a part of your run where you have to cross 120V. That’s okay, but be sure to do so at a clean 90° angle, minimizing the amount of contact (and therefore noise) that the electrical has with your ethernet line.
5. Be generous. If you’re not sure how many ports you want in a location, more is more. Better to run an extra line and not use it, than to try and run more cable later on. The easiest way to run multiple cables is to buy multiple spools. Run your first cable, cut it (with a few feet of slack on either end), and then electrical tape all your spooled ends together, and use the existing run to pull the additional lengths of cable through the walls. If you don’t want to waste cable, you can try using a spool of string for the first run instead, but keep in mind that most string is thin, and will more easily catch on rough edges inside walls. Another option is to use a length of cheaper cable (like cat 5a) for the first run.
6. Buy an in-wall camera. This may seem excessive, but if you’re running a lot of ethernet drops, having an ability to look inside the wall and find the cable end you’ve shoved into the wall cavity from below is very handy. You can even use a piece of heavy gauge wire and some electrical tape to attach a hook to the end of the camera line. I bought a camera for about a $100 at home depot, but there’s cheaper options available if you’re willing to connect it to a smartphone app.
There’s lots of different methods used to run and pull cable, but here’s what worked well for the Gremlin:
Starting at your central network hub or closet, cut a hole in the wall, and snake the cable down (or up) into the nearest crawl space.
At the other end (where you’re installing your ports) drill a 3/4″ hole in the wall, centered at the exact height and position where you plan on putting your ethernet port.
Using your in-wall camera, inspect the cavity inside the wall, making sure there’s no unusual framing or existing wiring that would prevent you from running cable into the space.
Using a low-voltage wall bracket as a guide, cut a rectangular hole for your port, centered around the existing hole. Test fit the low-voltage bracket into the opening, making sure it can secure tightly into the drywall with it’s pair of screw down clamps. Remove the bracket.
Grab your spool (or spools) of cable, and feed ten feet or so down into the wall from one side of your cable run.
Shine a flashlight into the cavity, then prepare to get dirty. Using whatever crawl space you have available, drill a hole directly below (or above) the cavity. If you’re having trouble figuring out where to drill from in your crawl space, looking for orienting markers like electrical lines, vents or pipes that might indicate where you are in the house. Inside your room, get a measurement of the distance these markers are from your port location, then repeat that measurement in your cramped crawl space until you’ve got the position right.
Drill through the plate at the bottom of the wall. You’ll know you’ve got it right because you’ll be able to see the flashlight’s glow through the hole.
Pull your cable through the crawl space and push a couple of feet’s worth into the wall cavity.
Finally, use an in-wall camera, or your hands and some creativity, to grab hold of the cable and pull it out the hole.
Cat 6A Cable Terminated into a keystone connector
Install the low-voltage bracket into the opening, then terminate your cable on the keystone port connector.
Snap the keystone port into the wall plate, and secure into place.
The Finished Ethernet Ports
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