Ethernet Rules!

| Ted Landau's User Friendly View

Ethernet? Bah! An archaic technology born before the Macintosh, it should now be on its deathbed — at least for home users. To set up an Ethernet network requires running a maze of cables throughout your house, often involving considerable installation cost. Even when you’re done, you’ll still need a wireless Wi-Fi network anyway.

For starters, iPhone and iPads don’t come with Ethernet ports. Even the MacBook Air doesn’t have Ethernet built in. So why not go with Wi-Fi entirely? Wi-Fi is more convenient — and much less expensive. End of story.

Or so I thought.

Back in 2005

When we did a major renovation of our house back in 2005, those were the exact thoughts that ran through my mind. Our (pricey) electrician wanted around $1000 to install an Ethernet system. I smugly said “No thanks.”

Initially, I was content with my decision. My Mac Pro was located so close to my AirPort Extreme Base Station that I could run a short Ethernet cable directly between them. Same with my laser printer. For everything else, it was Wi-Fi all the way. Back then, the only regular use of my Wi-Fi network was to permit my MacBook Pro to remain connected to the Internet as I moved the laptop around the house. For this function, Wi-Fi was more than adequate.

Flash-forward to the present

Flash-forward 6 years. In the words of Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, here’s how I would now summarize my decision to forgo Ethernet: “Big mistake. Big. Huge.”

To be fair, it’s not exactly that the decision was entirely wrong at the time. It’s just that times have changed.

What in particular has changed? The number of devices in your home (or at least in my home) that use a network to access computers and/or the Internet. And the type of data those devices access.

Today, televisions and virtually every device that works via a television (e.g., Apple TV, Blu-ray player, TiVo, Nintendo Wii, A/V receiver and even some cable boxes) require or at least benefit from a network connection. In my home (which I admit exceeds the norm), I have eight such devices situated in three different rooms.

A primary activity of most of these devices is to stream video — which is probably the most demanding bandwidth-sucking task facing a home network.

The result was that, too often, my Wi-Fi network was not up to the challenge. For example, when I wanted to stream a Netflix movie, it could take minutes before the movie was initially “retrieved” and began to play. Too often, the movie would repeatedly freeze, as it waited for the buffer to catch up. Sometimes, the Internet device would give up entirely and lose the connection to Netflix. Even the simpler act of connecting my Apple TV to the iTunes Library on my Mac Pro could be a painfully slow process.

The primary cause of all of the network trouble was that the strength on my Wi-Fi network would typically fall precipitously as I moved out of my office (where the router and cable modem reside). Even adding AirPort Express Base Stations at strategic locations throughout the house (to “extend” the wireless network) was not much help. In fact, I am beginning to question whether they have been of any help at all.

After putting up with this for years, it finally dawned on me: All of these hassles would disappear if I had an Ethernet network. Ethernet would be faster than Wi-Fi and would not have any signal strength loss problems.

As I’ll detail in a bit, Ethernet can also improve wireless network access for devices such as iPhones and iPads, devices that were not even in my dreams back in 2005.

Ethernet Switch

Ethernet reborn

Was it too late? Or could I still add an Ethernet network to my house — at a reasonable cost and without having to bust open the walls of my house? I knew it would almost certainly be more complicated than when the walls of our house were already torn open for the renovation. But I decided to investigate my current options anyway.

Because of a fortuitous layout of my house, and an installer who charged less than most of the local competition, the news was good. I wanted six (6) Ethernet wall outlets: one by the AirPort Extreme Base Station, two others in my office, and one each near my three televisions. The installer I hired was able to wire 5 of the 6 desired outlets, without making any holes in any walls or ceilings. For this, he charged only $400.

Once installed, the Ethernet connections worked perfectly.

I still need a wireless network as well — for connecting laptops, iPads, and iPhones. Even here, my Ethernet outlets are paying dividends. I kept my AirPort Express Base Stations in place. However, I reconfigured them to connect to the AirPort Extreme in my office via Ethernet rather than Wi-Fi. To do this, I made two changes to the AirPort Utility settings for each Express. First, from the Internet > Internet Connection options, I selected Connect Using “Ethernet” with Connection Sharing as “Off (Bridge Mode).” Next, from AirPort > Wireless > Wireless Mode, I changed “Extend a wireless network” to “Create a wireless network.” I used the same network name and password for the Express’ network as for the AirPort Extreme.

When finished, this allowed for a roaming connection to the closest Base Station as I moved a computer or iOS device about the house. This functioned far better than when the setup was all wireless. For example, when attempting to stream a movie from my iPad via AirPlay, the movie begins almost instantly with no stuttering or drop out. This was a rare event previously.

Added expenses

Were there any other expenses before I was done?

Yes. First, I had to purchase an 8-port Ethernet switch. I went with the Linksys SE2800. I needed this because the AirPort Extreme only has 3 local network Ethernet ports. I now needed nine (9) ports at this location! I moved my existing 4-port switch to the home theater setup in the family room (which now also needed a switch to deal with its multiple Ethernet connections).

Finally, there was that one location where the installer could not run the Ethernet cable. Actually, he could have run the cable here if I was willing to have it go outside the house. I declined. Still, this was the location where I had my Apple TV. I definitely wanted to have Ethernet access here. So I took a chance and purchased a Netgear 85 Mbps Powerline Ethernet Switch (XEB 1004).

This consists of two adapters that each plug into a standard electrical wall outlet. I plugged one in by the AirPort Extreme and the other by the Apple TV. I used short Ethernet cables to connect each device to the nearby Powerline adapter. The Ethernet connection then runs through the electrical wiring. The connection maxes out at 85Mbps, so it’s not as fast as having Ethernet cabling for the entire route. Actually, I was a bit wary that it would work at all. But work it did. At least for me, it was sufficient to far surpass my prior Wi-Fi setup. Most especially, all my video streaming problems were gone. Vanished. Poof!

I now have a strong and reliable network connection at all the remote locations of my house.

One last point. The installer used CAT-5 Ethernet cabling. If I had thought about it, I would have insisted on the more expensive CAT-6, which supposedly does a better job of dealing with Gigabit Ethernet. However, for my purposes (primarily dealing with Internet connectivity), CAT-5 was more than up to the job.

Bottom line

For a total a total cost of about $550 and with no need to make any holes in walls, I now have Ethernet cabling running throughout my house. More importantly, I have a faster and more reliable network than when I had been totally dependent on Wi-Fi.

If you are in a situation similar to mine, or if you have a house under construction, my advice to you is simple: Get Ethernet. You won’t regret it.

Back in 2005, I thought Wi-Fi was the future. Now I see things differently. Ethernet has climbed out of its deathbed (if it was ever there to begin with) and is kicking the crap out of Wi-Fi. Ethernet rules!

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Comments

geoduck

Great article. I agree that WiFi was a bit oversold. In the house we moved into I’m thinking about running Cat-5e for the same reason, The WiFi network bogs down under load.

One point: If you’re handy you can run the cables yourself and save the cost of an electrician. My basement has a suspended ceiling so it’s just a matter of dropping the tiles and stringing the cable. With pre-made cables and a 25’ “Fish-Tape” from Home Depot you can even run the lines between floors. For the more adventurous you can get a spool of cat-5E cable, some ends, and a crimp tool. If you’re running a lot of lines that’ll save you even more.

Couple more points:
Crimp on ends are not difficult but they are a bit persnickety. Test your lines.
For those that have never run Ethernet, it isn’t like speaker lines or POTS phones. You can’t daisy-chain them. Each line goes from the switch to the device. The switch keeps it all straight.
Home Depot Cat-5 cable is awful.

Matt

Ted, it sounds like you spent $550 to fix the Apple TV’s broken Netflix app. I and thousands of others experience the same video streaming problem you did, but it’s really a Netflix app problem. The buffering problem doesn’t occur if I stream a video from iTunes on my Mac to the Apple TV, and we all know that Netflix is streaming the movie at a bit rate even 802.11g can handle. The problem is the Netflix app, and it has never been fixed. It’s sad that we have to resort to using Ethernet because Netflix can’t fix this.

Ted Landau

The problem is the Netflix app

I used Netflix as a prominent example of the problem, not because it was the only place where I had a problem. With the weak Wi-Fi strength I had in certain parts of my house, everything was a problem. As I said, I couldn’t even get my iTunes Library to load at times.

Lee Dronick

As with Geoduck I wired several rooms with ethernet, no basement in this house so I had to route them via the attic. The cables are “currently” not being used, but they are there if needed.

KitsuneStudios

Being a lowly prole, rewiring my apartment isn’t an option. wink

One advantage of the internet media revolution is that the cable modem is right next to the media center, so it’s easy to hard-wire the game consoles, Apple TV, and receiver and leave the computers free for WiFi.

I just wish Apple would allow Time Machine to work with NAS. The router has more free Ethernet Ports than my Mac has USB ports.

geoduck

I just wish Apple would allow Time Machine to work with NAS

It does. I have a WesternDigital MyBook Live and have two MacBooks backing up to it wirelessly using TimeMachine.
Of course, now that I think of it I’m using Snow Leopard. YMMV with Lion

computerbandgeek

I just wish Apple would allow Time Machine to work with NAS.

Do a quick google for “enable unsupported network volume time machine”. They’re called “unsupported”, but I’ve been backing up with time machine to my NAS since the first Leopard beta with time machine, and I haven’t had a single problem. As long as the NAS supports AFP (AppleTalk) it will work just fine.

Intruder

It is broken for many NAS units in Lion.

sflocal

Ted, even back in 2005 (earlier for me) I knew that no matter what the hype surrounding WiFi was about, nothing, and I mean nothing, beats the performance a a wired connection. 

We own quite a few victorian apartment units in San Francisco, as well as family homes and each time one of those came up for restoration and remodeling, we installed flex-conduit behind every wall that had a power-receptacle next to it, with the termination points going to a common closet in which to terminate everything.

I lost track of how many times I got into arguments with fellow tech-heads about the eventual death of ethernet.  Now, after over 10+ years of doing this, they are the regretful ones while I can upgrade whatever wiring I want effortlessly and cheaply.  My work has changed the minds of many would-be homeowners to do the exact same thing.  Even if only remodeling a room, install the conduit anyways and just terminate it later.  At least the tube will be there when the time comes to continue the run.

When walls are exposed, I do the work myself.  A simply 1” drill bit, some elbow grease, and pre-planning is all it took.

Our apartment units have their own LAN/IP addresses.  The conduits also serve coax cables (TV), and phone lines (most aren’t used).  When upgrades occur, I can simply feed the new cable in, or remove what is not being used.  They are wired with Cat5e cable, while my house and the houses of other family members are wired with Cat6 all the way.  The conduit tubes are cheap, and so are the low-voltage boxes that attach right next to the power-receptacles.  All is up-to-code as well.  It also creates a great selling point to future buyers that wiring of any kind can simply be fed and upgraded without any damage to walls.

The point being, planning ahead with minimal cost will pay benefits for essentially the life of the structure itself.

Ehternet, or whatever future cable-solution is here to stay.  It’s not going anywhere.  Wireless brings huge conveniences, but only when it works right.  Interference, saturation, etc.. are always problems that just don’t seem to go away.  In addition, a wired connection beats wireless anyway since the LAN does not have to deal with WEP, WPA encryption to slow the data down.  The Internet definitely feels “snappier” on a wired connection.

cb50dc

Thanks, Ted, for a very significant example of how the latest-greatest whiz-bang “wave of the future” isn’t always necessarily best. Here’s to continuing prudent thinking as other options emerge and compete for our attention (and dollars).

JohnnyO

Glad to hear that adding a wired Ethernet backbone has helped resolve some of your problems.

When I hear the number of issues folks have with wireless, I’m really glad that I took the effort to wire my house with Cat5e.  I design network deployments as part of my job (both wired, and wireless) and each have their place, but wired networks (especially at Gig speeds, assuming you have a Gig capable switch) really can improve things, and takes a lot of the “I wonder if it is my WiFi…?” questions out of the troubleshooting flowchart.

At our home, we have 4 home entertainment devices (2 TiVos, a Blu-Ray player and an Apple TV) plus 2 wired computers, a router, and a cable modem all connected via two Gig switches.  We also regularly have an iPhone, an iPad, and two Mac and one Windows machines on WiFi.  All very stable.

We also don’t have much WiFi interference, whether from microwave ovens, cordless phones, or neighbors with WiFi.

John

furbies

If I have a choice, I go ethernet.

Using Cat-5e cable and gigabit switches severly reduces the chances of screwups, Cluster F$#@s and grief.

AirPort has it uses, but there’s so much more to go wrong.

Helge

Ted,
don’t worry - CAT5e is just as good as CAT6 or even CAT7 since its unlikly there will be a new standard between 1GbE and 10GbE. You should have considered going for fibre and put copper media converters at the outlets though wink
But in the end its always the same: there is no real substitution to a real switched fabric net. Will be a long way that WiFi gets near this since consumer devices tend to have poor quality chips and manufactors will always degrade new standards (like the 802.11n for “compatibiliy reasons”; 2.4 GHz legacy mode making 5Ghz optional - the N draft was much better).

Another Reason to go wired again is much better network security (but you still have the WiFi access point in the same subnet, havent you?)

Terrin

I disagree. The problem is the middleman, like AT&T or Comcast, that throttle Netflix’s content. I say this because Netflix can suffer the same problem on any platform, for example my X-Box 360.

Most of the big cable or DSL operators that you pay money to to deliver the content you desire, then turn around and try to squeeze companies like Netflix for an additional cost to deliver the content. If Netflix doesn’t pay, its content doesn’t get priority treatment. This is essentially the whole basis of the Net Neutrality issue.

So most of the time you can blame your cable provider for the stalls.

The problem is the Netflix app,

wab95

Ted:

Yours is a timely piece on a dilemma we face in our US house. The house has three floors. We use the latest version of a 2TB Time Capsule connected to our ethernet cable. This is located in the basement level on the northern side of our house. We’ve (okay, I’ve) done this because it makes it easier to connect our printers to the TC, and keeps them in the workspace downstairs.

Recently, with some of my neighbours switching their wireless service providers, with apparently greater signal strength, we encountered interference with our Wi-Fi. I switched channels and all seemed to be fine.

Later, my son and daughter complained that they could not access Wi-Fi from their rooms upstairs, which are in the southern extreme of the house. Changing the broadcasting channels from their defaults should not have affected signal strength/quality (not that I am aware), but I selected other channels,  brought in an Airport Express to extend the range, and like you, found that did not work (although it works in our Asian house which is all one level), and a few other manoeuvres equally unsuccessful.

Apart from the ‘line of sight’ question, another reason for the Airport Express extension failure may be due to interference in the construction materials; the US house is substantially sound and weather-proofed, whereas the house in Asia is simple brick.

I also thought that the kids’ connection problems could be due to their using older hardware (minted circa 802.11g), whereas the TC uses 802.11n, until my mum came to visit recently, and encountered similar connectivity problems using her 2009 final edition core 2 duo MBP in the guest room (although curiously, that is where my kids now connect to the internet).

I have not quite made up my mind to forego playing further with our Wi-Fi setup; I’m spurred by the challenge, but I have begun to ponder wiring additional parts of the house with ethernet.

I’m not quite there yet, but am glad to hear your expenses were less than I would have thought.

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