Selecting a Router or Switch for a Home Network - dummies

Selecting a Router or Switch for a Home Network

By Lawrence C. Miller

Building a home networking system requires basic hardware: a router, switch (or hub), network adapters, and network cables. If you’re building a wired home network, you’ll need to know what types of networking hardware to look for.

Home network switches and routers

The first important piece of networking hardware for your home network is a switch. A switch allows you to easily connect multiple computers and other network devices (such as printers) together, as shown in the figure below. You simply plug one end of an Ethernet cable into the network interface of your various devices and the other end into the switch.

A switch connects multiple devices on a network.
A switch connects multiple devices on a network.

A switch is a relatively simple piece of hardware. Home networking switches are often found in 4-port, 8-port, and 12-port configurations for (generally) less than $100. You will typically see a network switch identified as a 10/100 Ethernet or 10/100/1000 Gigabit Ethernet switch. This refers to the maximum network speed the switch will support per connection.

Although you generally will want to connect your network devices at the highest possible speed, it isn’t necessary to splurge on the fastest switch, particularly if cost is an issue. A 100-megabit Ethernet switch is more than enough for most home networking needs. NetGear (see the following figure), Linksys (by Cisco), and D-Link are three popular brands of home network switches.

A NetGear Ethernet switch.
A NetGear Ethernet switch.

You should be aware of a few variations of switches when shopping for networking hardware. For example, a router with a built-in 4-port switch is one popular option. A router connects your home network to another network, such as the Internet. Having a built-in switch in your router saves you some hardware, space, and one extra electrical outlet! The following figure shows a Linksys router with a 4-port switch.

A LinkSys (Cisco) router with built-in 4-port switch.
A LinkSys (Cisco) router with built-in 4-port switch.

Hubs for home networking

A hub is another variation of a switch. Hubs and switches function in a similar manner, with one important difference:

  • Hub: When a hub receives network traffic sent from one device to another, the hub broadcasts the traffic to all the devices on the network. The intended recipient processes the traffic, and all the other devices ignore the traffic.

    On small home networks, this difference is rarely a problem. However, broadcasting traffic through a hub can cause network congestion on busy networks, and because all devices connected to the hub see all of the traffic on the network, it is not particularly secure.

  • Switch: A switch, on the other hand, is essentially an intelligent hub. A switch knows a little bit about the devices that are plugged into each of its ports and uses that information to send network traffic that it receives from one device, directly to the destination device. This causes less congestion on the network and is more secure than a hub.

Hubs used to be fairly common in small networks because they were relatively inexpensive. However, the price difference between hubs and switches has shrunk over the years to the point that there really is no reason to buy a hub today. A typical 4-port 10 Mbps hub costs about $30. By comparison, you can get a 4-port 10/100/1000 Mbps switch for about $50, and many wireless access points and routers have a built-in 4-port switch available for about $35 to $60.