Your Internet Service Provider signs you up for one account that is good for one computer to go on the Internet. That’s because the Internet connection has one unique IP (Internet Protocol) number that identifies it and assigns to the single computer. If you have more than one computer in your household, you need a router or network switch to let you share the Internet connection.
The switch takes over the unique IP number and assigns extra numbers to your computers. When two of your computers want to use the Internet at the same time, it switches back and forth rapidly so only one computer connects at a time, but each one gets its signals through to the Internet. PCMag has a more technical overview of how this works. All switches can carry out the basic functions, but more requirements and characteristics affect the kind of unit you need.
Switches have Internet, network and power connections. The Internet and network connections are sockets for standard network cables, the Ethernet cables have plugs that look like large phone connectors. These connect to the modem supplied by your Internet service provider and to your computers.
A key feature of the type of switch you need is the number of network sockets it has. Most have at least four. In addition to computers, you can connect network-ready printers, multi-function machines or other peripheral equipment. Make sure the unit you get has enough sockets for your current needs and plans.
Router Indicating Lights
Most switches have small LEDs on the front, indicating the status of the connections. There is a power light, a light for the Internet and lights for all of the network sockets. These lights tell you at a glance what is connected and they are great for troubleshooting.
If something isn’t working on the network or with the Internet, you can first check the power light to make sure the switch has power, and then the Internet light to see if there is Internet service. Each network connection that is in use should also have one of its lights lit up. You can find out what works by switching network cables between the sockets and watching the lights to see if a cable, a socket or the peripheral equipment are defective.
If you are comfortable with looking for causes of basic problems on your network, get a switch that has different lights for various conditions. Simple ones have only one light per connection, but you can get more information about the problem if there are separate lights for connection speed, signals and data transfer.
Switches include protection against hackers accessing your computer without your knowledge. Inexpensive units include only a very basic firewall that keeps obvious threats out. If security concerns you, you may need a more expensive one that you can program to block unauthorized sites and addresses or even limit access to your network generally. They come with manufacturer’s instructions detailing how to set up and program the firewall functions.
Switches or routers have to connect to the Internet service provider’s modem and are usually located next to it. This also makes troubleshooting easier when there is a problem because you can see the indicating lights on both units. Your computers are often not nearby. You either have to run Ethernet network cable to the computers or get a wireless unit.
Wireless routers look just like normal routers except that they have one or more antennas. If you have one or more computers near the unit, get a wireless system that includes some network sockets, so you can connect these by cable. Once you have connected the wireless router to the Internet, the signal is available throughout the house.
Wireless routers come with protocols that let you encrypt the wireless signal to prevent nearby strangers from using it. People within about 100 feet of your system could use your Internet connection and access your network. Encryption adds a login with a password to your wireless network to prevent unauthorized access.
Wireless routers come with detailed instructions on how to set up encryption. Normally, you connect it to one of your computers and type in the user name and password you want in the settings. Your own computers will remember the login so you don’t have to type it in each time.
Most home users do not need networks with especially high speeds. Wireless routers work on the 802.11 standard and, as of the date of publication, the current version was 802.11n, with older equipment operating on the b and g versions. The higher letters indicate a higher speed, but the standards are all backward-compatible. If you get the latest commonly available version of the 802.11 standard, it will work with older equipment and have adequate speed for your home network.
The first choice you have to make is whether or not to get the wireless function. Wireless routers are very common, but wireless service adds a security risk. Next, the number of network ports is a key. If you don’t get enough, you’ll need a new or second unit. Firewalls, ease of troubleshooting and speed are other considerations.