Broadband Hardware

Our guide to broadband hardware leads you through the confusing world of broadband internet technology. Learn to know your modem from your router.

Broadband internet technology can be a confusing world if you don't know your megabytes from your download caps. Choosing the right package however, is only half the battle as you'll also need to equip yourself with the right broadband hardware.

Hardware is the term used for the physical aspects of a computer – such as keyboards, monitors, etc. The emergence of broadband however, introduced many new items into the computing sector, from modems to routers. However, do you really know how these pieces of technology work, what their purpose is and how to choose one from another? This guide to broadband hardware should put you on track.

What is a modem and how does it work?

Without the introduction of modems, the world would simply be a different place – for it is a modem that offers us to access the internet.

The term modem is actually a contraction of the words 'modulator-demodulator' – it modulates an analogue carrier signal to encode digital information and demodulates the signal to decode the information. In its modern form, wireless modems, which are examined in part three of this guide, convert digital data into radio signals and back.

Modems came into existence in the 1960s as a way for terminals to connect to computers over phone lines. They were first popularised however, in the 1970s when bulletin board systems (BBS) became the rage. This would see one person set up a computer along with one or more modems, while other users would dial in to connect to the board. In many respects, this was the prerequisite for instant messaging.

Originally modems had speeds of around 300bps and this was maintained until 1983 when 1200bps modems were introduced. Gradually over the next two decades, modem capacities and speeds were increased and by 1998 56kbps became the standard.

Up until this point, modems had relied on a system called frequency shift keying in order to transmit information over a telephone line. However, to take the technology to a new level, new techniques were required and designers used systems such as phase-shift keying to cram information on to the bandwidth of a phone line. However, the limit to this technology was the 56k modem.

As a result new systems needed to be found, and in 1999 modems were taken to new levels as ADSL modems emerged with theoretical speeds of up to 8Mb.

In addition to a wireless router and adaptor, there are many additional features you may choose to buy in order to get the most out of your wireless connection. Part four of the broadband hardware guide will examine what's on offer.

What else do you need for the wireless generation?

There are many questions you should consider before opting for a wireless router or adaptor.

Router

For a router, think about how easy it is to set up, whether it has an ADSL modem in-built (you will not want this if you have a cable connection), whether it will work with your laptop, what distances it can cope with.

Adapter

For an adaptor, do you really need one or is it already included in your laptop? Do you need a USB wireless adaptor or is there a slot for a card? Is the adaptor compatible with your wireless router?

There are many different manufacturers to choose from for your router and adaptor including D-Link, Netgear, Buffalo, Linksys and Belkin. Most of these providers supply 'wireless kits' which come with all of the accessories you need to make your wireless connection work. However if these are not supplied or you lose or damage any of your equipment you may need to buy replacements, such as:

  • Ethernet cables and connectors: These come in different categories based on the speeds they can hold. You must choose connectors that match the device you wish to connect to.v
  • Fibre cables: Ensure the reliability and performance of servers and storage.
  • USB cables: Connect a USB device to a PC or hub.
  • Video/sound cables: In some cases, picture and sound quality can decrease if you use ordinary cables. Consequently some cables have been designed to enhance these qualities, such as the PureAV range from Belkin. These include audio cables with better sonic accuracy; audio and video kits for high-quality connections; speaker cables; video cables with sharper detail; and portable audio that reduces interference for a more natural sound.

You can also buy devices to extend your wireless range. Signal strength is the key to picking up a good connection and making the most of your wireless service and sometimes you may need to replace the router's external antenna with one that is more efficient.

If you want to provide coverage to a specific area you should pick up a directional antenna – anything outside its narrow broadcast path will receive weak signals. Unidirectional antennas are better suited to laptops that you move around the home as the broadcast path is much wider – though they are more susceptible to breaches of wireless security.

Broadband accessories and extras

Here are some of the additional accessories that could help you get more from your broadband:

  • Bluetooth products – Establishes links between other Bluetooth products such as mobile phones and handsets. It gives you the freedom to move around without wired connections.
  • Broadband phones – The device with which you will receive your reduced cost phone calls over the internet.
  • Microphones – Used to chat over the internet in association with instant messaging services.
  • Security gateways – It is vital to secure your internet connection against external attacks. With a broadband connection you are always online, and without suitable security in place, such as a firewall, you are under constant threat. Most security packages are available as software – anti-virus, spyware/adware protection – however, there are now dedicated firewalls available which will provide a level of security your router simply cannot supply. Popular manufacturers in this area include Cisco.
  • Skype phones – One of the original VoIP phones.
  • VoIP routers – With a VoIP router you can make calls over the internet at a reduced cost, and very often for free. It works by allowing you to make calls over your high speed internet connection – it converts your phone calls into data which shoots through your connection and comes out at the other end just like a normal phone call. There is no noticeable difference. Consequently, you get reduced charges for both local and long distance calls and there is normally an extensive list of additional features including three-way calling, call waiting, voicemail, etc. Popular VoIP services in the UK include Skype and Vonage.
  • Webcams – Used predominantly in line with instant messaging devices to show yourself to the person you are chatting to. With a high speed internet connection your camera should move at a faster speed and most instant messaging services now offer a video calling option where you can see and chat to your buddies online using a webcam and microphone.

Hopefully by reading this broadband hardware guide you now feel well-equipped and know exactly what you need to make your broadband connection work for you.

Remember to use our broadband comparison tool to compare broadband packages, and check out our broadband guides section for more information and useful tips.

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