Maximizing Your Network for Streaming Media Devices

High definition video and 24/7 music from streaming media devices can put a lot of pressure on a home network.

Is your network bogging down your home theater enjoyment?

How many of you have had the experience of cuing up a Nexflix movie from your Roku or other streaming media device, 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 and streaming media devices 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.

Luxul XEN Gigabit 24-port smart switch

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 media 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.

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 streaming 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 downloading or streaming media 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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