Home Computer Networks 101

Guide to wired and wireless home networking

Man looking at a woman working on a laptop
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In the late '90s, only a few hundred thousand households in the U.S. possessed a home network. Today, many millions of households in the U.S. and worldwide have adopted home computer networking. Millions more have yet to build their first home network. Even those who previously took the plunge with wired technology are revamping their networks for wireless connections – the current wave of useful technology for home networking.

Why You Need a Home Computer Network

While you can still share files between your computers using external hard drives or USB flash drives, a ,benefits. It allows you to share files much faster and more conveniently by using the available wired or wireless connections between computers. Home networks also allow several users to share printers and an internet connection. As members of your household acquire mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets, the value of having a wireless home network expands tremendously, and it's a requirement if you want to buy a smart TV and enjoy streaming movies and other media.

Planning a New Home Network: Wired vs. Wireless

First, decide whether you want a wired or wireless network. The home networker can choose either wireless or wired designs. Wireless networks provide more mobility to a person in and around the home, and they make especially good sense for homes with laptops, smartphones, tablets and smart TVs. Networks with wires or cables, on the other hand, usually cost less than wireless networks, usually perform faster and more reliably, and make good sense for desktop networking. 

  • Wireless networks are the current standard for home networks because of the popularity of wireless devices. Because there is no physical cable attachment needed, many more devices can use the network, and the distance between devices isn't usually a consideration. 
  • Wired networks require physical cable connections between devices, so if you have a single desktop computer with a printer in the same room and no laptop or mobile devices in your home, a wired network may be right for you

The Router: Centerpiece of the Network

In most home networks, a router is the centerpiece of the network. The router is connected by a cable to the incoming broadband internet service modem or connection, or it is included in the modem. It is the router that each device in the home network hooks up to (either by wire or wirelessly) when it joins the network for local communications or accesses the internet. Your internet service provider may recommend a router for use with its service or offer to rent or sell one to you.

Many, but not all, routers support both wired and wireless networks. If you need to buy a wireless router, look for one that uses the 802.11ac wireless standard, which is the most current and fastest router standard. If you purchase a router classified as 802.11n, 802.11 g, or 802.11b, the speed of your network connections will be slower – in some cases, much slower. If you are looking for a router that also handles wired connections, look for a mention of "Ethernet ports" or "wired LAN ports."

Routers ship with default usernames and passwords. Follow the documentation that comes with your router to change that information and then tape it to the bottom of the router. You may never need it again, but it will be there when you do.

Internet Service Provider

The majority of home networkers want to share an internet connection. Depending on where you live, you may have several forms of broadband (high-speed) internet service to choose from, including cable, fiber, DSL, or satellite internet service. In some areas, there may be only one option. In each case, you have a monthly service charge from the internet service provider for access to the internet.

Shopping for a service provider is a balancing act between cost and upload and download speeds. If you plan on streaming movies or TV shows, you need a fast download speed. For example, although Netflix recommends a 1.5 megabit per second broadband connection speed, it requires a 5.0 Mbps connection for HD quality or a huge 25 Mbps download speed for Ultra HD quality. If you own a late model smart TV, download speed is an important consideration. However, if you don't stream media, a lower download speed can handle most network tasks. Your service provider will likely offer more than one option and allow you to make a change if you decide later you need to change your service plan.

Purchasing Home Network Equipment

In addition to the router and subscribing to an internet service, you may need to purchase additional equipment, particularly if your network is wireless:

  • Network adapters. Most new computers and all modern mobile devices have built-in wireless networking capability. However, if you have older equipment that isn't so equipped, you may need to buy a network adapter or card to make the connection on that device. 
  • Range extender or repeater. If your home is large or you want to be able to sit outside and access your network, you may need to add a range extender to boost the router signal beyond its usual range.

Assembling Your Home Network

After you have the needed equipment, assembling the home network should be straightforward. However, the exact details will vary depending on the network's design. In particular, wireless network connections involve different installation methods than wired ones.

As a general rule, its best to set up the network centerpiece first – usually the router – and then configure each of the computers and other devices to join the network one at a time. In the case of wired devices, use an Ethernet cable to connect each device to the router. Use an online wireless home network tutorial for guidance when assembling a wireless network. For example, many smartphones and tablets have a Settings section with a Wi-Fi entry. Look there to see if the device detects the presence of your wireless network. You'll be required to enter the router password the first time you log on to the new network, and then your device connects whenever it is in range of the network automatically.

Home Network Security

Hooking a home network to the internet can be dangerous. If you can access information on the public internet, it's possible that people on the internet can access your information too. Fortunately, several technologies are available to keep your home network safe from hackers. Bottom line: Network security features should be installed on everyone's home network.

Routers ship with security features that are often enabled automatically. Check the documentation that came with your router to confirm this. This is the first and most effective line of defense against online attackers. Also, using firewalls on individual devices provides an additional layer of protection. In the case of mobile devices that travel away from the protected home network, firewalls and anti-virus software are essential.

Troubleshooting a Home Network

Installing a home network for the first time can be frustrating, but the frustration passes when the basics are understood, and your system is running. If you are new to this and don't feel up to building your network, call one of the services that will come to your home to set up your network for you. Once a network is properly configured with every device, it should run in the background for years to come without any effort from you. After you are familiar with networking and what works best in your home, you may want to look into upgrades for your home network.