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By Becky Waring/Windows Secrets
Why Wi-Fi doesn’t cut it for streaming video
Recently I was asked to redesign a home network for a client who couldn’t get reliable wireless Netflix streaming to his home theater. He was also frustrated by the feeble throughput in much of his house, despite investing in four (count ’em, four) 802.11n Wi-Fi routers.
Although his was an extreme case, with a 5,000-square-foot house spread over two wings and a central connector, his network challenges were typical of those upgrading from older Wi-Fi routers: how to get reliable and dropout-free throughput for media streaming as well as faster overall performance for high-bandwidth tasks such as network backup and storage.
You might think dropping U.S. $150 on the latest 300Mbps 802.11n router should do the trick, but in many cases even the fastest Wi-Fi routers can’t deliver smooth streaming video where it’s needed, and network backups might take hours or even days to complete.
Wireless throughput drops rapidly with distance from the router and is also subject to interference from a myriad of sources — from cordless phones and microwaves to neighboring Wi-Fi nets. Even momentary glitches in a video stream can be enough to ruin the movie-watching experience.
My client’s Wi-Fi issues were compounded by the fact that his house is made of bricks, which along with stone, concrete, water tanks and pipes, stucco siding, and ceramic tile are very effective wireless-signal eaters. (Stucco siding has chicken wire inside that creates a Faraday-cage effect, blocking signals going in or out.)
His existing network was a mesh of four routers running in Wireless Distribution System (WDS) mode with three remote routers acting as wireless repeaters, receiving signals from the others within range and rebroadcasting them.
This system was adequate for ordinary Web surfing and e-mail, but it failed entirely when it came to streaming video to the TVs. By the time the Wi-Fi signal had hopped access points to the farthest corners of the house, it was degraded to practically nothing. The only place he could get a solid video stream was in the same room as the main router connected to his cable modem.
Today, with an added investment of about $300, he’s got robust video and data everywhere in the house, and I have a happy client. Read on to find out how we brought wired performance to his Wi-Fi network.
The secret sauce: powerline network adapters
The secret to success? I ditched the wireless mesh design and connected each of the routers to the network with four new 500Mbps powerline adapters from Netgear.
By using powerline gear, which turns home electrical wiring into an Ethernet network, we turned a sketchy wireless network backbone into a rock-solid wired one without having to run new Ethernet cabling all over the house.
Although older 75- and 200Mbps powerline gear has been around for years, it has never really broken through to the mainstream due to both cost (about $75 per adapter, far more than Wi-Fi adapters) and the relatively slow throughput compared to Ethernet cabling.
The new 500Mbps standard finally breaks the elusive “Ethernet-equivalent” speed barrier, with real-world transfer rates of 70–80Mbps in one direction and more than 100Mbps in both directions at once, thanks to built-in gigabit Ethernet ports.
Perhaps more to the point, 500Mbps powerline gear can comfortably deliver 40Mbps streaming 1080p video (as from a ripped Blu-ray disc), the current gold standard. And it doesn’t suffer the vagaries of wireless reception.
Thus far, only Netgear and TRENDnet are shipping 500Mbps adapters, with Netgear being the best performing, according to a SmallNetBuilder review. But expect many more products soon from other powerline vendors such as D-Link and Cisco Linksys.
The Netgear Powerline AV 500 Adapter Kit XAVB5001 we used (info page, about $140 retail) consists of two adapters. One plugs into your main router via Ethernet as well as into a wall power outlet, and the other plugs into a power outlet in the remote location where you’d like to deliver an Ethernet port. (See Figure 1.)
Figure 1. The two parts of the Netgear Powerline AV 500 Adapter Kit
The kit is plug-and-play — no setup is required. You can also buy adapters individually. You can use up to a total of 16 adapters around the house, although you probably need them only in strategic locations such as your home theater or basement office.
In my client’s case, I simply connected one powerline adapter to each of the four routers that covered the two wings of his house, then changed the wireless setup in the three remote routers so that each was creating its own Wi-Fi net rather than using WDS. (Each was already set in bridge mode, which turns routers into access points only — you can have only one true router per network.)
By using precisely the same SSID (Wi-Fi network name), password, and encryption type (use WPA2-PSK with AES if you can — it’s the most secure) in each router/access point, I created a roaming Wi-Fi net where mobile clients such as laptops and smartphones see only one network. They simply connect to the access point with the strongest signal.
It’s easiest to create a seamless roaming network with identical routers because manufacturers have varying encryption and channel-selection options that may not quite match up. However, you should be able to accomplish the same thing I did with most modern routers. I recommend the Cisco Linksys E4200 or E3200, which are the current performance and feature leaders in their price classes. (See Figure 2.)
Figure 2. Cisco Linksys E4200 Maximum Performance Wireless-N Router
Both have simultaneous dual-band 2.4 and 5GHz radios, which give you even more network design flexibility. (The 5GHz band is typically much less noisy and crowded.) They also have gigabit Ethernet switches, QOS (quality of service) support for prioritizing streaming media, and USB ports for shared storage drives. At a $160 list price, the E3200 (info page) is slightly less expensive yet full-featured enough for most users.
The top-of-the-line E4200 (info page; $180) pictured in Figure 2 adds a UPnP media serving capabilities for attached storage (a handy feature that can stream media directly to many set-top boxes) and up to 450Mbps throughput on the 5GHz band (assuming you have a matching 450Mbps-capable client card).