Network equipment connected with cables has gotten a speed increase to 1Gb, 1000Mbps – ten times faster than the 100Mbps that was standard for years. All of your network-related purchases from now on should be 1000Mbps – gigabit speed. That’s routers and switches and cables and more.
We’re talking about the speed that data travels between devices that are connected with network cables. Wireless speeds are increasing, too, but that’s a whole different world with different acronyms.
For today, focus on the numbers 10, 100, and 1000, and assume we understand the “Mbps” part. It means something but the details don’t matter for now.
At one time network speed was irrelevant, and frankly it still is for many people. Most people’s Internet connection arrives at a speed of 1.5Mbps on DSL, 6Mbps on cable. The original generation of network equipment operated at 10Mbps; even then, that was sufficient to handle Internet traffic at full speed with room to spare. You’ll still run into DSL and cable modems whose network connection runs at 10Mbps, which is more than adequate.
The next generation of network equipment operated at 10 times the speed, 100Mbps. The Internet traffic isn’t an issue at that speed; now you’re looking at how quickly files and print jobs can be moved from computer to computer inside the network, and 100Mbps was fast enough to last for years.
Two things happened: business networks got bigger, with more devices creating more simultaneous traffic to use up that bandwidth; and we started moving larger files around and streaming video and music at home. At some point, whether you’re in a business or a home network, 100Mbps speeds begin to seem a bit poky.
Fortunately the next generation – 10 times faster again, 1Gb, 1000Mbps, “gigabit” – has now dropped in price to be the obvious choice. You’ll find as many options for gigabit equipment as for 10/100 devices, and the prices are now very similar. It requires only a small investment to plan for the future. Here’s a random anecdote about a tech writer’s experience moving to gigabit two years ago – prices are lower and features are standardized now.
All of your new computers will arrive with 1Gb network connections but you’ll only get that speed if all of the equipment between two points on the network supports gigabit speeds. If your computers have gigabit NICs but your router runs at 100mbps, traffic will move at the lower speed.
Cables are easy to overlook. Cat5 cables have been standard for a long time and they can carry gigabit traffic sometimes, but they will frequently cause the devices on either end to conclude that speeds should be dropped back to 100Mbps.
From now on, buy or install Cat5e cables or Cat6 cables, which will carry gigabit traffic reliably. Cat6 cables have extra twists in their piezotroids or god knows what – the difference isn’t meaningful yet but might be someday. Here’s more details on the differences between Cat5e and Cat6. It is worth installing Cat6 cables at a small extra price anywhere that is difficult to access – they’re capable of even higher speeds and you might still be using those cables in the walls when those higher speeds become important.
You might not notice the extra speed right away but it pays off quickly if you get a network-attached storage device. You might want to move large quantities of files to and and from the NAS unit, or stream video from it, and its only connection to the world is a single network cable. A gigabit network makes it respond almost as fast as any other hard drive.