What speed LAN hardware do you really need?

Fred langa By Fred Langa

It’s always tempting to buy the fastest-possible hardware, but sometimes it’s just a waste of money.

Fortunately, some free tests can help you ensure that your networking gear is the right speed for the tasks you actually perform.

When faster isn’t necessarily better

Reader Rick Buse’s comments on my Oct. 14 item, “Networking via your electrical wiring,” bring up some interesting — and perhaps controversial — issues.
  • “I read with interest your comments about your power-line network adapters. I, too, opted to go the power-line adapter route in my apartment for Netflix streaming. I bought a couple of highly-rated Netgear Adapters (XAVB-101) and got 85 megabit-per-second (Mbps) throughput, according to the software.

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    “However, that was with an older 10/100 router. I purchased a 10/100/1000 (a k a, Gigabit Ethernet) router to replace the old one. My power-line adapters immediately connected at the higher throughput, and I now get 195 Mbps (according to the configuration software) between my two adapters!

    “So, anyone interested in this kind of setup might want to invest in a router with Gigabit Ethernet.”
Yes, very high-speed power-line networking is available, and clearly, your gear is capable of impressive speeds.

This may surprise you, but I deliberately chose a slower setup that’s limited to 85 Mbps. For me — and I suspect many others — paying extra for the fastest-possible local networking gear wouldn’t deliver any meaningful benefit. Here’s why:

A network connection is only as fast as its slowest link. In many cases, that link is the one your ISP provides.

For example, my cable Internet connection delivers relatively modest inbound data speeds of about 6.7 Mbps. Even if I bought the world’s fastest local-networking hardware, my Internet connection still won’t run any faster than approximately 6.7 Mbps. (See Figure 1.)

test your isp's speed
Figure 1. My Internet connection runs at about 6.7 Mbps for inbound data. Building a Gigabit-class LAN won’t give me any more.

In fact, even the slowest and least-expensive local-networking hardware in common use — 10 Mbps Ethernet and 11 Mbps 802.11b-class Wi-Fi — is more than enough to keep up with my 6.7 Mbps inbound data stream.

An 802.11g-class, 54 Mbps Wi-Fi network is over eight times faster than my typical inbound data speeds. And Gigabit-class Ethernet and 802.11n-class Wi-Fi networking can outpace my cable connection some 15 times over … but the data coming in from the Internet will still arrive at the same, relatively pokey 6.7 Mbps.

Of course, higher local-networking speed can still be worthwhile if you’re transferring large files from across the LAN — PC-to-PC or PC-to–external hard drive. High-speed LAN gear also adds some future-proofing.

But your original point was streaming movies from Netflix to a home theater. For that (and for similar activities), your top transfer speed is limited by your ISP. So start by measuring the overall download speeds delivered by your ISP. For the best results, use more than one speed test, test at different times of day, and average the results. DSLReports.com offers a nice directory of free speed tests from around the world.

Because any networking gear you buy will almost certainly be faster than what your ISP provides, how much LAN speed you need depends on other factors: the amount of purely local file-transfer activity, price, future upgrades to a higher-speed Internet service, and so forth.

In my case, for example, I pull a lot of data off the Internet, and I also do a fair amount of file transfers between my home-office PCs. So I’ve settled on medium-speed networking gear — 802.11g-class (54 Mbps) Wi-Fi and 85 Mbps power-line gear. Local file transfers proceed at an acceptable pace, and the LAN almost never has a problem keeping up with streaming video.

Network gear in this speed range is also quite reasonably priced; there’s no particular incentive for me to spend more on faster hardware — at least, not until my ISP boosts its offered speeds. (And sadly, out in the boonies where I live, that’s not going to happen any time soon.)

Bottom line: Investing in high-end, high-speed networking gear doesn’t necessarily pay off. Measure what your ISP delivers and factor in your local-LAN needs — you’ll get the most value out of your new networking equipment that way.

How to edit ‘Ratings’ for media files

Steve Ryder wants to add user ratings to his videos.
  • “Greetings from England!

    “I am running Windows 7 and find that my .mpg video files have, under Properties in the Details tab, rating stars, year, genre, and description fields. But there’s no apparent means to edit these. There is an Apply button, which would suggest it’s possible to do so, but it is grayed out. I’ve tried running as Administrator and lots of Googling without success — can you help?”
Greetings from New England, Steve!

The simplest way I know to access media file ratings is through Windows Media Player. (See Figure 2.) It gives you one-stop access to all of the extended attributes.

easily change ratings in windows media player
Figure 1. In Windows Media Player, you can either click directly on the ratings stars when they’re visible or right-click on a title and select “Rate” (circled in yellow) from the context menu.

If you haven’t tried Windows Media Player in a while, you might be pleasantly surprised! It’s come a long way from its primitive predecessors.

For information on Windows 7’s Media Player, see Microsoft’s introductory article, “Windows Media Player 12” — or the more detailed Help & How-to instructional, “Getting started with Windows Media Player.”

Windows can’t ‘see’ an external USB drive

Phil Schelinski’s external drive has failed in a mysterious way.
  • “I’ve exhausted every known Windows Web site to solve this problem.

    “I can no longer use my USB External Drive under Windows XP SP3. I even reinstalled the OS. I plugged, unplugged, powered up, powered down, and changed USB ports — it doesn’t help.

    “Device Manager is empty; no mass storage device appears in yellow.

    “Can you point me in the right direction?”
With external devices, there are usually only three places where trouble can occur: in the PC, in the external device, or in the cable connecting them.

It sounds like you’ve already explored many troubleshooting options on the PC itself, so it’s time to look at the other two options.

First, try replacing the current USB cable with a new or known-good one — one you’re 100% certain is working OK. USB cables are often cheaply made, and the internal connections and wires are prone to breakage. Sometimes, it’s a complete break; other times, the break is intermittent, depending on the angle and tension of the cable. Either way, swapping out the cable will let you see if that’s the problem.

If the cable’s okay, try plugging the external drive to a different PC — one you know works with other USB devices. If the drive doesn’t appear on that system, then the problem is with the drive. It’s not uncommon — external drives tend to suffer more problems than drives mounted inside a PC. Check with the vendor or manufacturer for possible remedies.

When you know that the drive and cable are good, it’s back to square one. The original PC’s built-in USB hub may have failed. Try other known-working USB devices on the PC, such as USB thumb drives. If none works correctly, then the problem is inside your PC.

On-the-motherboard USB hubs are typically not user-replaceable. But you can buy separate hubs on plug-in cards, adding new, working USB ports to your desktop system. Web-search the phrase usb card to find many options.

A bad USB hub in a portable PC is far more difficult to remedy, especially since notebooks don’t accept plug-in cards. Unless your portable takes a CardBus or ExpressCard adapter or is still under warranty, you’re probably out of luck.

Let’s hope it’s something simple and inexpensive — like a bad cable!

A specific type of backup — just device drivers

Rick Bradley wants a very specific form of backup:
  • “I was given a used laptop. It’s modest, but then so are my requirements. My problem: it needs a reinstall of Windows, but I have no setup disks and can’t find drivers for the laptop hardware anywhere online. How can I mitigate the risk of reinstalling Windows only to find out too late that I’m missing necessary drivers?”
There are a number of free tools made for just this circumstance, Rick. They let you selectively back up driver software from a current, working Windows installation and save the drivers for possible future needs.

Perhaps the best-known is BooZet.org’s Double Driver (info/download page), followed by Aporah’s aptly named Driver Backup tool (info/download).

And eHow.com offers complete, step-by-step instructions on how to use those tools to create your own custom driver repository.

Very handy, and it’s all free!

Feedback welcome: Have a question or comment about this story? Post your thoughts, praises, or constructive criticisms in the WS Columns forum.

Fred Langa is a senior editor of the Windows Secrets Newsletter. He was formerly editor of Byte Magazine (1987–91), editorial director of CMP Media (1991–97), and editor of the LangaList e-mail newsletter from its origin in 1997 until its merger with Windows Secrets in November 2006.
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Fred Langa

About Fred Langa

Fred Langa is senior editor. His LangaList Newsletter merged with Windows Secrets on Nov. 16, 2006. Prior to that, Fred was editor of Byte Magazine (1987 to 1991) and editorial director of CMP Media (1991 to 1996), overseeing Windows Magazine and others.