Ethernet Rules!

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!