Choosing a Home Network
With so many new products talking to you, and each other, selecting the right network for your home is more important than ever.
Good communication is a must in a home filled with electronics. Your remote needs to talk to your audio/video components, your wall switches need to speak with your lights, your media server needs to share its music with your family room loudspeakers, and, more recently, it’s become important that your computer be able to transmit photos, videos and other information to every display in the house.
There are several ways of getting information from one place to another. If you’re building a new home, high-speed cabling, including plenty of Category 5 (or higher) Ethernet wiring, is a fantastic medium for doing everything from distributing data between computers to pumping audio and video from a central rack of equipment to multiple speakers and TVs. Owners of existing homes might find wireless networking solutions easier to install than new cabling. Originally intended as a means of connecting multiple computers together, wireless networking systems are becoming a popular way to transport audio and video signals.
Last but not least, there are systems that can zip music, video and data over the existing electrical wiring in your home. These system are relatively new in the marketplace but are ideal for homeowners looking for something that’s easy to install but more reliable (in some cases) than wireless technology.
Structured Wiring Systems
Many builders offer structured wiring systems as standard amenities in their new home packages. Included are cabling, wall outlets and a hub. The cabling is usually made up of Category 5 (or 5e) or Category 6 Ethernet wiring (the kind that’s commonly used to network computers) and RG-6 cables for distributing video from security cameras and other devices throughout the home. More recently, Cat 5 cabling is being used to distribute all video sources. The number of outlets and amount of cabling you get generally depends on how your builder decides to package the system.
The hub is the component that contains the logic to transmit video, audio, data and control signals across the network of cabling. Each “module” within the hub is responsible for a certain task. For example, a phone module could enable multiple phone lines to enter the house and connect each line to a specified phone jack, while a router module could enable multiple computers to communicate with one another and access the Internet simultaneously.
Although you don’t need a structured wiring system to network the electronic devices in your home, it’s a clean, organized approach that’s easy to expand and modify.
Now that structured wiring systems have become nearly standard in new homes, manufacturers have started to develop technologies that enable all sorts of devices to communicate over the network. In addition to linking computers together, Cat 5 cabling is becoming a popular transportation route for audio and video signals. The Category 5 cabling works like a mini Internet: Devices in the home are each assigned their own IP (Internet Protocol) address. You can find IP-enabled lighting systems, whole-house audio systems, video distribution systems and home automation systems.
Of course, not every home is easy to rewire. That’s why wireless networking solutions are so helpful. All kinds of electronic devices use wireless technology to communicate: Remote controls use it to command TVs, stereo components use it to send music to speakers, and phone systems use it to patch calls to cordless handsets. WiFi (802.11), the common technology used to network computers, is driving the wireless market even further by offering a networking option that’s nearly as reliable and fast as wired networks.
There are several iterations of 802.11, each one faster and more reliable than the last. There’s 802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g, and the newest, 802.11n. N products are just starting to roll out, offering transmission that’s rated at 300 mbps, compared with the 54 mbps rating of standard 802.11g products. (You can find enhanced g products that boast faster speeds.) You’ll also get better coverage with n products so that you’ll be able to roam around with your laptop and still get a solid connection. To enjoy the speed and coverage of n, you’ll need to upgrade to a router and computer with n built in or buy a PCMCI for each of your laptops and a PCI card or USB adapter for your desktop computer.
Look for 802.11n to turn up on audio and video products that will enable you to stream content stored on your PC or a stand-alone server to TVs and speakers throughout the house. Without running a single bit of wire, you’ll be able to zip digital photos to the big-screen TV in the family room or downloaded music to a pair of speakers in the master bedroom.
Radio frequency (RF)–based communication has dramatically improved how we interact with certain household devices. But as with any technology, there is always room for improvement. Traditional RF communication is one-way, so if you use an RF remote or keypad to turn on a light in a different room, the system is unable to tell you if the light has actually turned on. Another issue with traditional forms of RF signal transmission is signal interference.
These limitations are becoming problems of the past, thanks to new forms of communication technology that are being adopted by a number of home electronics manufacturers. Z-Wave, ZigBee and Insteon are three of the most promising wireless control technologies to date. Although each technology differs in its makeup, all employ a new type of networking infrastructure, called mesh networking, that strengthens the transmission and reception of wireless signals throughout a home. Products designed to work on a mesh network send their signals over multiple communications paths, unlike traditional RF products, which use a single communications path. The more products on a mesh network, the more communications paths are formed, which gives signals several travel options and ultimately enables commands to reach their destinations quickly and reliably.
Zensys, the developer of the Z-Wave chip, offers this example: If a signal from a remote control is blocked the first time, the signal will notify the remote that it did not complete the connection, and the network will immediately seek an alternative path. The signal may go to an enabled hallway light, then to an enabled thermostat, then to an enabled dimmer switch in the dining room before ultimately reaching the light switch in the kitchen. Once the operation is complete, an indication is sent to the remote. In a traditional RF control scenario, the remote would receive no notification of the blocked signal, and in order for the signal to even get to the light switch the next time, you’d likely need to move to a different area of the house to transmit a command.
Mesh networking is getting the biggest support from manufacturers of lighting control systems. A number of handheld remotes are employing ZigBee, Z-Wave and Insteon, too.
Finally, mesh networking offers the opportunity to build a home control system with products from a variety of manufacturers instead of products from a single maker. In addition to lighting controls and remotes, some of the product categories on the horizon include sprinkler controls, motorized blinds, home control software and thermostats.
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