Network Switches - Home Buyers Guide

A network switch is device that connects multiple computers or smart home accessories such as lights, heating, cameras or storage to enable them to communicate within your home and share your Internet connection so they can be controlled when you are away. Most broadband routers, - normally provided by your Internet provider, have an inbuilt 4-port switch, so additional network switches would be needed if you wish to connect more devices via a wired connection.

This guide will take you through when to consider buying a network switch, how to ensure optimal compatibility with your router and what features you should look for. Let’s get started.

What Does a Switch Do?

As smart home technology increases in prevalence adding convenience and control to our lives, it also requires connectivity back to the home router. Whilst some devices are wireless such as speakers and smart assistants, others like light controllers, heating controllers and alarms will require a central wired connection into the network to function. Others such as games consoles, smart TVs and TV recorders may have wireless capability but 4K streaming and gaming will always benefit from a wired connection.

A wired connection not only makes for interference free communication, but it also reduces congestion in wireless bandwidths where smart phones, laptops, tablets and other devices will operate. Having a hard-wired connection to the router also allows for remote control of devices such as lighting and heating systems when you are away from the home.

Network Switch Technology and Interfaces

The predominant wired communication technology within home networking is called Ethernet. It has been around since the early 1980s and over this time the speeds of available Ethernet connections has vastly increased. The commonly seen speeds for the home are 100 megabits per second (100Mbps), termed Fast Ethernet and 1000 megabits per second (1000Mbps or 1Gbps) called Gigabit Ethernet. The 100Mbps speed is still very common today in consumer house hold networks connecting devices such as smart TVs and music players, although most computers and games consoles today will have Gigabit Ethernet ports. Although the slower speeds seen in consumer networking have been adequate for years, the more recent advent of streaming services like Amazon Prime and Netflix have necessitated that device capability increases in order to cope with FullHD and 4K video content with minimal buffering. The Ethernet interface is known as a LAN (Local Area Network) port and has an RJ45 connector - it is standard across all network device regardless of whether they are capable of 100Mbps or 1000Mbps speeds.

There are a couple of things to consider when choosing a switch to add to the network. Firstly what speed ports your router has - if the Ethernet ports are 100Mbps rated then anything faster than this within the home will immediately slow to this rate when passing through the router to another device. This can be avoided if you choose a Gigabit switch and connect all your gigabit enabled devices through it avoiding the router. If your router has gigabit Ethernet ports then you should always choose a Gigabit switch to match it - then it doesn’t matter where you connect devices as all network ports provide the same speed.

Again, if your router has Fast Ethernet ports, but all your additional devices are also Fast Ethernet, then a standard 100Mbps switch will do the trick - however as the price difference between small Fast and Gigabit Ethernet switches is so minimal, you may be wise to future proof yourself and go gigabit, to save changing your switch in the future.

Switches aimed at home use are often a plastic cased construction, although most manufacturers do offer metal cased options too for increased ruggedness. The plastic versions will often feature ports on the back to hide the wires, whereas metal ones are designed more like a business switch with forward facing ports. For connectivity there is no difference, except that to say the metal version tend to be offered in more fully featured versions offering functions like Power over Ethernet and management capabilities.

Power over Ethernet

Power over Ethernet (PoE) is a feature of many network switches that enable the delivery of enough power through the Ethernet cable connection to power the device connected to it. This has the advantage of only needing a single cable running to the device, and removes the need to have a standard plug socket nearby everything you wish to power and be on the wired network. Examples of PoE devices would be ceiling mounted wireless access points or outdoor mounted surveillance cameras, where in both instances running power to them may be very awkward - PoE capability provides flexibility in the placement of devices.

A typical PoE switch for home use will have some ports enabled for PoE and others without it - four out of eight or eight out of sixteen - this gives flexibility in what you connect to which port, but keeps the cost of the switch down as the internal power supply doesn’t need to be upgraded as it would if it were powering all the ports. Typically a PoE port will deliver 15.4W of power and so will suit many network devices like cameras, access points and IP phones.

Switch Management

Although a switch works by sending data traffic from one device to another on the network using the IP address of each device as a unique identifier, this traffic will not be differentiated in any way. This standard type of switch is called an unmanaged switch. Although most types of home switches are unmanaged - both in plastic and metal versions - there are switches called smart managed that do offer some data traffic prioritisation features. It is true that these smart managed switches are aimed at small businesses on the whole, but as more and more connected consumer technologies emerge, they certainly have a place in the home network.

In simple terms a smart managed switch provides a graphical interface to allow you to set weights and priorities to certain types of traffic - for example video traffic (games or TV streaming) can be prioritised over say, email ensuring good consistent viewing. The video data is time critical to avoid picture distortion whereas email traffic isn’t - it can be sent anytime between the video data. Certain types of traffic may also be automatically identified and prioritised too - like voice - if a home office IP phone is being used it is essential for good call quality.

How Many Ports?

It sounds obvious to say that you’ll need a network port to connect every device you want on the network and whilst this is true, allowing some expansion room isn’t a bad idea - let’s face it, connected devices for the home are on the increase and adopting them is simpler when you know you have spare network capacity. It is worth mentioning that you can easily daisy chain another switch from your first one if you need more ports, but you’ll need another plug for that switch and cabling can start to get messy.

The below table offers some likely scenarios in the home with some detail as to the best approach to address them and the recommended type of switch to choose.

Scenario PoE Management Recommended Switch
Addition of Smart Home technologies

Most heating, lighting and alarm systems will be 100Mbps based

5- or 8-port Fast Ethernet Unmanaged Switch
Addition of NAS

Network attached storage offers sharing of files but relies on good throughput - most NAS devices are Gigabit equipped

5- or 8-port Gigabit Ethernet Unmanaged Switch
Addition of security technologies

Cameras benefit from optimal placing so PoE is recommended. Gigabit will support better video resolution.

8- or 16-port Gigabit Ethernet Smart PoE Switch
Extending wireless reach

Adding access points is the best way to extend wireless coverage - PoE will help flexibility in their placement

5- or 8-port Fast Ethernet Unmanaged PoE Switch
Setting up home office

Features such as PoE will support a desk phone and voice / video traffic prioritisation will offer better call and online meeting experiences

5- or 8-port Gigabit Ethernet Smart PoE Switch

Bear in mind the higher port counts are listed if many devices are to be used, or several of these scenarios combined - if you wanted to add heating, lighting, an alarm, a NAS, cameras (maybe up to 4) and set up a home office then a 16-port Gigabit Smart PoE Switch may be the obvious choice.

Time to choose

We hope you’re found this guide to network switches useful in informing your choice of connectivity for your home systems - whether you’re looking at setting up a home office or fully connecting your home. Click below to see our range of switches.

However if you would like further advice on the best connectivity solution for you, don’t hesitate to contact our friendly teams on 01204 474747.