Maximizing Your Network for Streaming Media
High definition video and 24/7 music can put a lot of pressure on a home network.
Is your network bogging down your home theater enjoyment?
September 23, 2013 by Grant Clauser

You also want to make sure that you’re using gigabit level equipment. Gigabit routers and switchers have higher throughput, so your data can speed to its destination. When looking at gigabit equipment, it’s important to find products with a backplane that can handle all ports at full bandwidth—it should be double the number of ports on your switch or router. For example, if you have an 8 port switch, it needs to be able to support a data transfer rate of 16 Gb/s.

RELATED: Electronic House reviews: Luxul Gigabit XEN 24-port Switch

Unfortunately, many consumer products don’t list all the specs you need to know, so it’s important to consult with an integrator about your network equipment. In addition to good equipment, an experienced integrator will be able to assess your needs better than you can. Some integrators will setup virtual LANs (VLANs) to segment some data away from the network to prevent freeway style traffic jams.

Another problem that comes up with routers is the need to be power-cycled every now and then. You can do this manually by unplugging your router and then plugging it in again, or your integrator can install a product to do that automatically or remotely.

For Wi-Fi, routers with beam-forming capability, designed for media devices, will focus media signals to your media players rather than send the signal out omnidirectionally. Also, wireless routers with multiple antennas will automatically select the best antenna to broadcast to an individual device.

Some products are going to be more bandwidth intensive than others. Phillips says that Apple TV is a particular offender here because of the way it broadcasts data—it uses a multicast protocol that “sends signals to everybody on the network, whether they should receive them or not.” That creates a lot of overhead data that can flood the network. Imagine a house with several Apple TVs, a couple of online game consoles, a wireless music system and several smartphones or tablets, and you can quickly see how both the wired and wireless networks can get like shoppers storming a department store on Black Friday.

Pakedge R6V router, S24P8 24-port gigabit/hybrid Power over Ethernet (PoE) switch and mounting brackets.

Another issue that can bog down a network is media distributed within the house (rather than that coming from outside). Many homes systems now feature high-definition video servers such as those offered by Kaleidescape or Dune or even stored on a network connected hard drive. That high definition content has to go through the same routers or switches as every other signal; it creates a lot of overhead for the system to handle. Again, an integrator with a strong network background can ensure that you won’t have problems when it’s time to sit down and enjoy a movie.

If you have an IP-based control system, and most of them are now, a confused network can result in button lag or even devices dropping off the network completely. 

So how much bandwidth do you need? That’s going to depend on your specific home entertainment system and the number of streaming or downloading devices you connect to it (and how many will be used at once). One high-definition stream from Netflix takes between 2 and 5Mb/s. If you plan to have several streaming devices in the house all watching different movies, you better tell your ISP to give you the biggest pipe they offer.

Tips for your media network:

1. Tell your integrator exactly what kind media you want and how frequently you use it.
2. Use wired connections whenever possible.
3. Use commercial or enterprise network equipment rather than that supplied by your ISP or purchased at a big box retailer.
4. Use VLANs to wall off some data from parts of your network.
5. Use managed switches and Quality of Service Settings to maximize your network for media devices.

Also check out:
What You Need to Know about Wireless Networks
Who are the Key People in an Electronics Project?
HDBaseT Could Simplify Home Theater Hookup

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Grant Clauser - Technology and Web Editor, Electronic House
Grant Clauser has been covering home electronics for more than 10 years with editorial roles in several consumer and trade magazines. He's done ISF-level damage to hundreds of reviewed products and has had training from THX, the Home Acoustics Alliance, Control4 and Sencore. His latest book is Necessary Myths. Follow him on Twitter @geclauser.

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