Home networking 101

Last Updated November 2019

Technology has taken over nearly every aspect of our lives — whether it’s helping us be more efficient with our work, social with our friends, or care-free in our spare time, there’s always a gadget or an app for that. Luckily, as technology has evolved, so has usability: you no longer need a Computer Science degree to operate the latest gadgets, and a lot of new tech is designed for non-experts.

In fact, it’s now easier than ever to build a home network that can:

  • Provide stable, speedy WiFi

  • Easily stream local and web media content like photos, videos, and music

  • Monitor your home with web-enabled security cameras

Ready to build the home network of your dreams? It’s easier than you think. Here are our favorite products for the most common scenarios.

Our picks for the non-techie crowd

If you don’t have a lot of time to invest in your home network, that’s OK — we’ve found the “set it and forget it” gear that you’ll have up and running in no time. In fact, the hardest part will be deciding what kind of network you want to build: for setting up fast, reliable connectivity, there are three approaches you can take.

  • Traditional WiFi routers typically broadcast a single WiFi signal and manage all local traffic. WiFi routers are great for small- to medium-sized homes, but typically require a range extender to provide signal to larger ones. While many people rent WiFi routers from their Internet Service Provider (ISP), it’s generally more affordable to buy your own. If you have a moderately sized abode, and you’re only sharing the WiFi with a handful of users, a traditional WiFi router may be your best bet.

  • Our pick: Netgear’s Nighthawk X4S R7800 is an absolute beast of a router. It uses four antennas to deliver a powerful WiFi signal across a massive range, and includes Quality of Service controls to help you determine which devices should take priority. It’s a little pricey, but stability isn’t cheap. If you need a router that will last you 4-5 years and can cover an entire house, look no further.  

  • Mesh networking uses a decentralized model for providing WiFi coverage. Mesh networking kits typically include three separate, identical network nodes that you’ll place at various locations throughout your home. Mesh networking is more efficient than using a traditional WiFi network, because the nodes work together to automatically connect you to the closest one, no matter where you are in your home. If you’ve got a larger home, or if you live with more than one heavy internet user, a mesh networking kit is your best bet.

  • Our pick: the Eero Pro Whole-Home Wifi System is an incredible value. Everything is set up and controlled through Eero’s gorgeous, intuitive app, and the Eero team addresses security issues and rolls out fixes before you read about them in the news. Competing systems cut all kinds of corners, but don’t be fooled by lower prices — Eero’s products and customer support run circles around the competition.

  • Powerline networking is typically used in homes where it’s difficult to get effective internet signal from traditional routers or mesh networking. Powerline networking uses your home’s electrical circuits to transmit information — so you don’t have to run any network cable or experience any frustrations from signal-blocking obstacles. If your home has reliable electricity but many areas of low coverage even with a router or a mesh network, you may want to buy a powerline networking kit instead.

  • Our pick: TP-LINK’s AV1000 Gigabit Powerline Starter Kit delivers incredible speeds and a straightforward setup process. Just don’t forget that with powerline networking, you’ll still need to provide a wireless router, and if you want to extend your existing WiFi with your powerline kit you’ll need a powerline extender (we love TP-LINK’s matching Powerline Add-On Extender).

Most mesh networking systems can only be scaled with identical hardware, and don’t typically work well with third-party range extenders. If you buy a mesh networking system and still encounter a WiFi “dead zone,” adding a traditional range extender will cause more problems — instead, you’ll need to consider buying an additional node from the original manufacturer.

Our picks for streaming media fanatics

Whether it’s the latest 4K movie from Netflix, the most recent Kanye album on TIDAL, or your personal treasure trove of home movies and personal photos, you’ll need a robust home network to enjoy your favorite digital content. Here’s a list of our favorite tech for media-holics.

  • A 4K smart TV is essential for getting every last pixel out of your favorite movies and TV shows. Smart TVs come with built-in apps like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Video, and in most cases can stream 4K content with ease. 

  • Our pick: LG’s OLED55B7A uses an Organic Light-Emitting Diode (OLED) display, creating a picture that’s far more sharp and vivid than just about any other TV out there. The 55” model is LG’s most affordable OLED, and their smart-TV operating system, webOS, has every streaming app you’ll ever need.

  • A network switch will likely be necessary if you’ve got multiple devices to hard-wire to your network — switches allow you to plug multiple ethernet cables in to all receive the same internet connection.

  • Our pick: Monoprice’s 5-Port Unmanaged Gigabit Ethernet Switch supports gigabit speeds and requires zero set-up for connecting up to four ethernet connections (you’ll use the first of the five to supply the internet connection to the other ports). If you need more available ports, TP-LINK’s TL-SG1008P has eight total, and even supports power over ethernet.

  • A Network Attached Storage (NAS) unit can store and backup your most precious files, so you can access them any time from other devices like your TV or smartphone.

  • Our pick: Synology’s DS918+ is a NAS that lets you have your cake and eat it, too. It’s got four drive bays for plenty of storage, it includes built-in apps for file management, and it can even be upgraded to support even more hard drives with Synology’s DX513 expansion unit.

Our picks for the home security buff

If you’re looking to beef up your home security, there’s a lot of great technology available to try out. For beginners, we recommend starting with the basics: smart locks and smart security systems.

  • Smart locks are a great way to update your home’s existing security. Smart locks typically use wireless connectivity like Bluetooth or Near-Field Communication (NFC) to manage who can enter your doors and who can’t.

  • Our pick: Kwikset’s Kevo series of smart locks can be installed by anyone, and have a strong track record of updates and improvements from the manufacturer.

  • Smart security systems are where your home network comes into play — they typically include two or more cameras that you can strategically place for optimal visibility. With a smart security system, you can see a live video stream from just about any device, even if you’re not at home.

  • Our pick: Nest’s security cameras bring the usability approach they pioneered on their Nest Smart Themostats. If you want an indoor model, go with the Nest Cam IQ Indoor; if you need to keep an eye on the outdoors, grab the Nest Cam IQ outdoor.

Written by:
  • Jaime