How to Choose the Right Network Switch
It gets annoying when you run out of Ethernet ports on your router. This is or when you have a home entertainment center and need wired connections for all of your devices, but you don’t want to run a bunch of Ethernet cables from your living room to where your router is.
One of the best ways to expand your wired network at home is to take a network switch. To keep things simple, a switch is like a hub. You connect your devices to it and then you connect the switch to your router. Then your devices will be able to access your home network as if they were directly connected to the router. It is so simple.
Type “network switch” on your favorite online shopping site (or search engine) and you’ll see a variety of listings of switches of all kinds and price levels. Choosing the best switch for your needs isn’t too difficult, but there are a few concepts you need to better understand to avoid buying the wrong device and wasting money.
The Basics of Buying a Network Switch
If you don’t remember anything else, know that the best switch for you is likely to be a simple unmanaged network switch. The price you pay will most likely depend on how many ports your switch needs and their speed. For example, a 5-port switch will cost a lot less than a 24-port switch (and if you have that many wired devices to plug in, we’re impressed). Likewise, a Fast Ethernet switch is likely to cost less than a Gigabit Ethernet switch.
If you’re already scratching the back of your head, don’t worry. Let’s take a look at what you need to know – in no particular order.
Choosing your ports
First, you need to figure out how many ports your switch should have. If you have only a few devices that need an Ethernet connection, you can do without a five-port switch: that’s four wired devices and one connection to the router (or to the Ethernet port on the wall, for example, if your house already has all the wiring). You most likely won’t need a 24-port or even a 16-port switch, unless you plan on using it as the primary hub for all wall-mounted Ethernet ports or something similar.
If you just want to hook up your TV, game console or two, and your set-top box, you don’t have to be future-proofed with an insanely expensive switch with more ports than you are likely to ever use. … I bet you should be fine with an eight port switch, which will probably fit most people’s needs and budget.
Gigabit vs Fast Ethernet
When it comes to speed, I’m a big fan of using Gigabit Ethernet whenever possible. Your router is most likely equipped with Gigabit Ethernet ports – up to ten times faster upload and download speeds than Fast Ethernet – and there is no reason you should limit yourself to plugging in a slower switch. Depending on the brand, you might not save that much money by switching to Fast Ethernet over Gigabit, and gigabit networking is an area where being future proof never hurts.
Yes, you can still stream 4K video from your high-speed network storage device to your TV over Fast Ethernet. So if you choose this option, you will not die. And if you only pay your ISP for a plan that gives you 50Mbps download speeds, for example, you won’t notice a difference in download speeds if you use a device connected over Fast Ethernet instead of Gigabit Ethernet.
If you are using a faster fiber optic network, you will definitely notice the difference. And if you copy files a lot between computers on your home network, you need them to run at the maximum theoretical speed of 125MB / s (Gigabit Ethernet) instead of the maximum theoretical speed. 12.5 MB / s (Fast Ethernet). Ugh.
Buying a Network Switch: Advanced Mode
There are a few more parameters that you should consider when purchasing a network switch. For example, you probably won’t need a more expensive metal switch if a plastic one works. You probably won’t need a rack-mountable switch unless you’ve built your own server. Your switch probably doesn’t need PoE – Power over Ethernet – unless you want to plug in a compatible security camera that doesn’t have access to a nearby wall outlet.
And then there is all this “managed” and “unmanaged” business.
Managed and unmanaged switches
Again, to keep things simple, think of an unmanaged switch as a dumb little network box. You are connecting devices. Then they all connect to each other. You put the switch somewhere and forget about it forever. It doesn’t require any updates or any information from you to do its little simple job.
The managed switch is slightly different. It does all of this, but you can also log into it via the web interface or the app to configure a number of settings, enable features, and update it with firmware to fix issues and add additional features: QoS rules, bandwidth limits, VLANs, etc. D.
However, managed switches are generally more expensive than unmanaged switches – at least that was the case for the two Netgear switches I looked at while writing this article, its Nighthawk S8000 switches (managed, $ 80) and GS908 (unrelated, $ 40). …
While the GS808E came with a lot of features for an additional $ 40 and felt a lot cooler to use than a simpler unmanaged switch, I couldn’t help but feel that most people would actually have to tax their network to make use of the managed switch’s capabilities. (Or become a big networking enthusiast for starters.)
For example, consider the QoS features found in the Nighthawk S8000. Netgear itself gives a pretty good description of when it matters and when it doesn’t, on their website:
- The internet speed is lower than the LAN speed that a regular user can reach. Hence, if the bottleneck is your internet connection – outside of your hardware – QoS won’t help it.
- The bandwidth and traffic going from your local network to the Internet is usually less than the amount going into your local network. ISPs deliberately reduce their outgoing bandwidth to save money, as most users download less than they download from the Internet. Thus, QoS on routers is most useful for traffic originating from your local network. For inbound traffic, any useful QoS has probably already been applied by your ISP.
- NETGEAR switches pass traffic so fast that when there is a lot of traffic, the router connected to the Internet becomes overloaded with traffic. Adding a QoS switch to work with your existing QoS router will not improve your Internet performance.
- On the other hand, if your local network has a lot of active users sending traffic within it, then a QoS switch can improve local performance very well.
To double-check all of this, I booted up a bunch of devices, connected them all to a switch, and allowed it to be copied:
- View high quality Twitch streaming on an iPhone connected to a wireless hotspot that itself was connected to the switch via Ethernet.
- Watch 4K movies on Netflix from your TV, which is also connected to a wireless hotspot.
- Transferring files from my NAS server (wired to switch) to laptop (wireless to hotspot).
- Playing World of Warcraft on my desktop PC (wired to switch).
When I opened World of Warcraft and checked my latency (using the “?” Icon in the lower right corner of the game), it was incredibly low. More importantly, it was similar to the lag I usually experience when I only play World of Warcraft – no change, and it was without any QoS features enabled.
Then I started BitTorrent on the laptop indicated, because if there is one thing that I always grieve about from my roommates, it is when I eat up our network shares with a large Steam download or torrent. And again, when I ran through World of Warcraft , the delays didn’t change. The game could be played without delays or other problems.
I’ve double-checked both scenarios and ran a simple fast.com test for each and didn’t notice any crazy drops in download speed, download speed or latency. Obviously I had a lower speed when starting BitTorrent, but still a lot of overhead (> 100 Mbps) for everything I wanted to do.
I noticed that I didn’t have a lot of outbound traffic in my BitTorrent client – just one meager person connecting and using paltry bandwidth. All in all, it is likely that my setup was not consuming enough resources in the more limited direction, downloads, to even justify the QoS fiddling around. Likewise, my internal network activity was insufficient to cause any major slowdowns that QoS could otherwise help, if at all .
However, my roommates will probably like the switch’s rate-limiting capabilities because they can simply enforce a rule limiting my desktop to 50 percent of the total bandwidth at home. I would have plenty of speed for big downloads if I needed it, but I wouldn’t ruin everyone else’s web browsing or streaming video. Of course, they could probably just do it using a home server / router setup. (Nobody tells them that.)
What to Write on the Switch Shopping List
If I were shopping for a new network switch tomorrow, I would probably find the cheapest 8-port switch with a gigabit network, the kind of great warranty I could find (just in case), and front panel lights that tell me. if my devices connect at 10/100 Mbps (Fast Ethernet) or 1000 Mbps (Gigabit Ethernet).
Managed switches are fun to play with, and I can definitely see how useful they are for people who need finer control over their network devices – and who can’t get it from their routers yet. If the people in your home are only browsing the Internet, watching YouTube, and texting friends a lot, you probably won’t need most of the features that the Controlled Switch offers. (Port Aggregation? Pfff.)
However, if your router prevents you from shaping traffic on your network (or limiting the speed of connected devices blocking your connection), it might be worth considering a managed switch. A managed switch is also great if you plan to install the switch in a hard-to-reach location and prefer to remotely validate (or reset) its connections. And if you want to improve network security by disabling smart devices, a managed switch can help (if your router can’t).