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What is a network switch (and do you need one)?
A network switch is an optional extra device for your home network that comes with some speedy wired perks.
There are many types of tech-based switches out there. Most popular is the Nintendo Switch console. But there are also keyboard switches, KVM switches, HDMI switches, USB switches and network switches. Of those switches, the network switch is worth considering for faster and more reliable home network speeds.
What is a network switch?
A network switch, also called an Ethernet switch, is an optional piece of networking equipment that’s built to handle wired traffic between Ethernet-compatible devices in your home. One of the main reasons these bits of networking tech exist is because of limited Ethernet ports on modern routers or modem-router. A network switch connects to a router via Ethernet and, once connected, effectively expands the number of Ethernet-compatible devices you can use on your home network.
Generally, routers and modem-routers tend to have four Ethernet ports to connect to devices in the home. That may sound like plenty, but it’s not a lot if you want to connect as many Ethernet devices in the home as possible with a wired network connection. This is where a network switch can help.
These days, there are plenty of Ethernet-compatible devices. Computers and laptops (the latter sometimes via a dock), gaming consoles (PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X, Nintendo Switch OLED), smart TVs, WiFi extenders, network-attached storage (NAS) drives and set-top boxes (like the Nvidia Shield TV Pro). Admittedly, WiFi is fast enough—not to mention more convenient—for most online tasks with download speeds comfortably up to 100Mbps.
But WiFi connections are prone to interference and speed degradation over distance, not to mention wireless black spots in the home that can make internet unbearably slow or increasingly unreliable. This is where a network switch can help.
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Do I need a network switch?
For most homes, a network switch is entirely optional. After all, a network switch adds another power-drawing device that needs to be monitored if there are network errors. But it also frees up a router or, more so, a modem-router to focus on other tasks. The challenge of routers and modem-routers is they’re handling WiFi, Ethernet and incoming/outgoing internet traffic.
By connecting a network switch, routers and modem-routers can free up resources for WiFi and internet traffic, rather than throwing Ethernet into the mix, too. The other perk of a network switch is it lets you connect as many Ethernet devices as there are network switch ports, which may mean fewer devices in the home competing for finite WiFi bandwidth.
Ethernet connections using Cat5e or newer cables (Cat6 Ethernet cables are great) can comfortably handle speeds beyond gigabit internet. While only Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) and select Hybrid Fibre Coaxial (HFC) homes are currently eligible for NBN 250, NBN 500 and NBN 1000 plans, Ethernet has other perks. It’s faster and more reliable than WiFi, which leads to more consistent internet download/upload speeds and lower latency.
It's also great for homes that like to transfer large files on their local network. This makes a network switch a great choice for speedy file transfers between two devices connected via Ethernet. It’s also a great option for streaming local video files via services like Plex in high resolutions (including 4K) to multiple devices.
Which network switch is best for me?
For home use, you want an unmanaged network switch. While managed network switches allow for greater device control, they’re intended for business use. An unmanaged switch just lets you plug and play: connect an Ethernet cable between a router-connected network switch and device, and then you’re good to go.
The next question then is whether to opt for a regular switch or power-over-Ethernet (PoE) network switch. A PoE network switch adds versatility by allowing for network data and power to travel over an Ethernet cable, which is useful for VoIP phones, wireless access points and surveillance cameras. If you do have an NBN service with a VoIP phone, we’d recommend connecting the VoIP-compatible handset directly to your NBN connection box or modem-router.
Ultimately, a PoE Ethernet switch is optional. The main question for any network switch owner is how many ports you want. Count the number of Ethernet-compatible devices in your home and buy a network switch that has at least that many ports (though more ports means you can connect more devices in the future).
Finally, remember that you’ll need Cat5e or faster Ethernet cables to pair with all of your devices. Estimate the distance between the intended network switch placement spot and the devices you want to connect via Ethernet. Cables can be trip hazards, so allow extra breathing space to run them in a way that won’t be directly underfoot, or speak with an electrician about installing tucked-away Ethernet in your home. To save money, source Ethernet cables from Amazon or trusted eBay sellers.