Our homes are filled with more devices that connect to the internet – and each other – than ever before. Many, such as laptops, tablets, smartphones and printers, can live by wireless alone; but there are also devices that greatly benefit from (or even require) a direct, wired Ethernet connection: smart TVs, game consoles, streaming video players (Apple TV, Fire TV, Roku, etc.) NAS storage drives, VoIP telephone adapters and home security systems.
Problem is, most wireless routers – the gizmos that share a modem’s internet connection with both wireless and wired devices – usually have only four onboard Ethernet ports (those highlighted in yellow in the image above). Connect a desktop, game console, TV and VoIP adapter, and you’re slap out of ports. If this is a problem you’ve run into, you may be asking yourself if it’s time to buy a new router with more ports.
Answer: probably not. If you’re happy with your router’s wireless performance, all you need for additional ports is an Ethernet Switch.
In this article, I’ll introduce you to Ethernet Switches, show you how to use them to expand a LAN, help you choose the right model for your needs, and give a brief overview of how to best configure your network with a switch.
What is an Ethernet Switch?
Essentially, an Ethernet (or Network) Switch is a wired network hub, a box that – much like your router – allows multiple wired devices to connect to your Local Area Network (LAN).
Also like a router, an Ethernet Switch is intelligent, “aware” of where data originates and where it’s supposed to go; this sets switches apart from Ethernet Hubs, which are more akin to cable splitters.
Many switches are business-aimed monsters with 20, 50, or 100 ports. For home use, we don’t need anywhere near this plethora of ports, just a few extras. And the good news is that 5 or 8 port models are fairly inexpensive, usually $20-$40 for a good, solid unit.
How to Choose an Ethernet Switch
There are a lot of network switches out there. And in my experience most are solid performers. The main two questions you should ask when choosing a switch are 1) How many ports do I need? and 2) How fast do I want my switch to transfer data?
How many ports do I need?
Most wireless routers have four Ethernet ports. Adding a standard 5-port switch to these routers will take up one of the onboard LAN ports, and give you four more (one of the 5 ports on the switch will be taken up connecting to your router). So, adding a 5-port switch gives you a net gain of 3, for a total of 7 usable Ethernet ports.
This is likely enough for most, but you can choose a switch with more, like the 8-port model shown above. You can also add an additional switch later should the need for more ports arise.
How fast do I want my switch to transfer data?
The second question can seem confusing, but it’s actually pretty simple.
There are two types of switches readily available in the U.S.: 10/100 switches and 10/100/1000 switches, also called gigabit switches. If all devices you’re connecting are 10/100 Ethernet devices (meaning their maximum wired data transfer speed is 100Mbps), you could go with a cheaper 10/100 switch. But my advice is to spend a few extra dollars and get a 10/100/1000 switch; even if you don’t have any gigabit-ready computers or devices today, you may later, and the extra speed can come in handy (more on that later).
There are also other considerations like power consumption, LED lights, mounting capability, warranty, etc. Many modern switches have intelligent power saving features that can help save on your power bill; this is particularly important since your switch will likely be plugged-in and running 24/7. Some switches are virtual Lite-Brites that can light a dark room. If you want to mount your switch on a wall or behind an entertainment center, you’ll want a model that’s wall-mountable. And – particularly if you choose a gigabit switch, which tend to get hotter than the 10/100 models – you’ll want a model with a solid two year or more warranty.
In addition, there are terms you will see when browsing switches that may be confusing. Here’s a quick list for clarification:
Auto-MDIX: A technology that removes the need for using different types of cables (i.e. crossover v. patch) for different connections.
Auto Uplink / AutoUplink: Allows a switch’s ports to automatically detect whether each is plugged into an uplink (like a router) or a normal port (like a PC) and automatically configure the port’s operation.
Managed Switch: A switch with its own unique IP address with many configuration and segregation options including speed throttling, port traffic stats, and more.
Unmanaged Switch: A more-or-less automatic switch that routes traffic with little user interaction and zero configuration. (I think these are best option for most home users)
And finally, here are a few recommend Ethernet Switches:
- TP-Link TL-SG1005D 5-Port Gigabit Switch (2 year warranty)
- TRENDnet 8-Port Gigabit GREENnet Standard Switch (5 year warranty)
- NETGEAR GS105 ProSafe 5-Port Gigabit Ethernet Switch (2 year warranty)
How to Add a Switch to an Existing Home Network
An Ethernet Switch is surprisingly easy to add to your existing Modem+Router or all-in-one Modem/Router setup. All you need is an Ethernet cable, a compatible switch, and a little setup time.
First, power off your modem and router, or modem/router combo unit. Keep your switch unpowered as well. If you have a free router Ethernet port, just connect the switch to it. If all of your router ports are full, disconnect one of the LAN ports (not the Internet or WAN port attached to your modem) and connect the switch. Connect the Ethernet cable you removed from the router to the new switch.
Power on your network in this order: Modem > Router > Switch.
That’s it! You’re connected and ready to go with more ports.
Gigabit Switches: More That Just a Port Numbers Game
In addition to gaining more ports, using a 10/100/1000, or gigabit, switch can also greatly benefit your home network’s operation, given certain conditions.
Most wireless routers use 10/100 Ethernet ports, while many switches support gigabit connections. Even if you connect a gigabit switch to a 10/100 router, traffic moving only thorough the switch’s sub-LAN will use the higher speed, only slowing when a connection is made through the router.
To illustrate how this can be a benefit, let me give you a brief rundown of my home network setup.
My laptop, Kindle, and iPhone all connect to the network and internet exclusively via Wi-Fi. But I also have devices that either can’t connect via Wi-Fi or perform far better over a wired connection: a smart TV, Dish Network DVR, PS3, NAS (Network Attached Storage), desktop PC and Vonage VoIP telephone adapter.
The Vonage adapter doesn’t need gigabit connectivity, nor does the Dish DVR, so they’re connected to the 10/100 ports on the router. But my TV, NAS, PS3 and desktop PC all use lots of data transferred within the local network, and all (except the TV) support gigabit wired connections. So attaching them to a gigabit switch will move all traffic between these devices at gigabit speeds, allowing the fastest possible connections; this is particularly valuable when backing up to the NAS from the PC, streaming video from the NAS to the PS3 or viewing files on the NAS from my desktop.
By smartly configuring what connects to your gigabit switch, you can enjoy a vast increase in transfer performance, both for file transfers/backups and video streaming. Using the switch as the main hub for your wired network also takes workload off the router, leaving it to perform better with its.
Setting up a home network can be a real pain, but done correctly and carefully it can also provide great benefit. Even if you’re not low on router ports, adding a switch can, as illustrated above – save you time and aggravation.
You can also add additional switches if you need more ports; you can even have a switch attached to your router and keep it nearby, then use a long Ethernet cable to attach a second switch in another room for more ports there. You shouldn’t see any appreciable decrease in speed as long as the cables are under 200 feet in length. I like flat Ethernet cables for in-house use as they are easy to tuck under baseboards.
I should note that “gigabit” 10/100/1000 devices, including switches, have a technical maximum throughput of approximately 1000Mbps. While you probably won’t see this speed, compatible devices connected to a gigabit wired network will operate much faster than 10/100-based networks.
If you have any questions, suggestions or comments, please email me or share them in the comments section below.