How many of you have had the experience of cuing up a movie on Netflix or other streaming service, and then instead of watching the movie, you have to watch a buffering icon slowly creep across your screen? If you’re lucky, the end result will be the high definition version of your movie, but too often network issues result in something less than HD.
The same thing happens with streaming music too—the audio pauses or stops completely, and the experience of listening to your favorite music channel is ruined. It’s enough to make you nostalgic for FM radio.
This goes for IP-based home control systems too. Without a properly performing network, the system will give you less than what you expect.
As more of our home entertainment devices rely on network connections for their content, the more we need to pay attention to the networks that they run on.
When trying to identify the source of your network problem, it’s a good idea to strip it down to the basics and try a process of elimination. “You have to find the broken link in the chain,” says Nick Phillips of Pakedge, a maker of high-performance home network products. As much as we want to blame Netflix or Spotify or whatever service you’re using, Phillips said those providers are pretty reliable, so the issue is more often in your house.
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Even our internet service providers are mostly reliable these days, providing you’re getting the bandwidth you need. After checking the internet connection (simple tools like Speed Test, on the app or web site, can tell you what your download rate is) you need to start eliminating parts of your chain to find the culprit.
If your network connections are wired, then unplug all your Ethernet connections and reconnect them one at a time until you find which link is the speed bump. Of course, this could take a while if you have to restart your Netflix movie each time.
More problems come up when people use wireless for all their streaming devices. In that case you can try connecting to a different access point or change to a wireless channel that’s not being occupied by other devices in the area.
If your modem, router and wireless access point are all bundled into one product (which is typical of the products supplied by ISPs), then consider whether it’s placed in the best location for your home. It may be OK to put a modem in your basement, but your wireless access point should be in the center of the house so it can reach all your wireless devices.
Wi-Fi extenders can help you get signal in hard to reach places, but they also cut your bandwidth in half.
Using Wi-Fi connections for entertainment products is convenient, but convenience can come at a price. “People are over-dependent on wireless,” says Phillips. “You can’t control the airspace around you, so you never know what’s going to interfere with your Wi-Fi. Someone can turn on a microwave or a baby monitor, or your neighbor could install a high-power access point that overpowers your area,” he explains.
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So, use wired connections when at all possible.
Say you’ve done that, but your still having problems. “Often the router is the first culprit,” says Brannon Young, director of Systems Engineering at Luxul. Most homeowners rely on the cheap routers that came from their internet service provider, but Comcast, Verizon and Time Warner are in the business of getting the internet to your house. Once it’s there, they consider their work done. Those routers, as well as many of the inexpensive devices found at mass market electronics stores, are not designed for heavy network functions. When you start hooking up multiple Apple TVs, game consoles, Wireless music devices and a home control system, a low-performance router can get bogged down and cause problems.
Young compares the situation to driving a sports car on a lousy road. “If you drive your Ferrari on the Autobahn it’s going to perform great; but when you take it on I-70 your mileage may vary.”
A smart practice is to upgrade to an enterprise-grade router that’s designed to handle data more efficiently. Phillips says one thing to look for in a good router is processor capacity. “A lot of consumer-grade products are just single core, low speed. Better products have higher-speed processors with more capacity in a system-on-a-chip approach.”
Another thing better routers have is a higher session count. “That’s the amount of applications the device can handle at any given time,” says Phillips.
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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. He's also the author of the book The Trouble with Rivers
. Follow him on Twitter @geclauser.