A network switch—not to be confused with a light switch or a Nintendo Switch—is a box that you connect to your home router to gain more Ethernet ports. Think of it as functioning like a USB hub but for networking.
Because home routers usually come with three or four Ethernet ports built in, and because almost everything on a home network—laptops, phones, game consoles, streaming boxes, and smart-home accessories—uses Wi-Fi anyway, most people don’t need a network switch. But a switch is useful if your router doesn’t have enough Ethernet ports (like the Eero mesh router, which has only one port free after you’ve connected your modem), if you have a lot of wired devices in one place (such as in an entertainment center), if you’re trying to use wires to improve your speeds or cut down on wireless interference, or if you’re installing Ethernet ports in your home’s walls.
For adding a few more ports
The most common kind of switch, at least for homes and small businesses, is called an unmanaged switch. That means the switch itself has no settings or special features, and it exists only to add more Ethernet ports to your network. Your router continues to handle your Internet connection, letting your devices talk to one another and restricting what certain devices can do through parental controls or other settings—the switch is effectively invisible. In contrast, the kinds of things that managed switches do—such as monitoring traffic on individual ports or setting up virtual networks (VLANs) using the same switch—are really important only for large corporate networks.
Because unmanaged switches are so simple, models from different manufacturers all perform about the same. Simply find a Gigabit Ethernet switch with the number of ports you need from a reputable networking company like D-Link, Netgear, TP-Link, or TrendNet, make sure the owner reviews aren’t awful (both of the models we like have 4.5 stars out of five across hundreds of reviews at this writing), and buy that one. A good five-port switch, such as this one from TP-Link—with one port to connect to an Ethernet port on your router, and four to connect to your devices—should cost $20 or less. An eight-port switch should cost no more than $30. These options are well-reviewed and inexpensive, but they certainly aren’t the only good choices.
For adding Ethernet all over your house
A good mesh-networking kit saves you from needing to run Ethernet cabling through your walls no matter how big or complicated your house is, and it’s usually cheaper too. But if you want fast, lag-free connections in every room of your house—if you play online games, stream 4K video from a local server, or transfer large files over your network every day—there’s still no substitute for wired Ethernet.
A switch is just one part of a home wiring project, and you should read a full how-to guide before you decide whether this is something you want to try, even if you plan on hiring a contractor to do the actual wiring. Putting Ethernet cables in walls has become less appealing (and less necessary) as Wi-Fi has improved, and it might not even be an option for people who rent their apartment or home (though in that case you could still run wires along the baseboards if having cables out in the open doesn’t bother you).
Decide how many rooms you’d like to wire up and how many Ethernet jacks you’d like in each room, and then buy a switch with at least that many ports; we recommend getting a few more ports than you need in case you want to wire up more later, or in case a port on the switch dies over the course of its life. A 16-port unmanaged switch such as this one from TP-Link should run you $50 or $60, while a 24-port unmanaged switch like this one from Netgear typically costs between $70 and $90. Both options are from reliable manufacturers, have decent reviews, and are reasonably priced.
Here’s what to look for in wiring your home:
Pick a place where the switch will live: This spot should be out of view—larger switches are big, ugly boxes you probably won’t want to have sitting on a shelf in the open—but easy to access for setup and troubleshooting. It should also be easy to run cables to, and it must be less than 100 meters (328 feet) from the farthest room you want to wire, since that’s the maximum length over which most Ethernet cables will reliably work.
Get some cabling: Category 6 (or Cat 6) cabling hits the sweet spot of speed, price, and future-proofness.1 It can carry a 1-gigabit Ethernet signal for up to 100 meters and a 10-gigabit signal for up to 55 meters (10-gigabit Ethernet is still rare and expensive, a situation that’s unlikely to change soon). You can find lots of different kinds of Ethernet cables, distinguished by whether they are shielded from electromagnetic interference2 and what kind of coating they use. You should at least use “riser” (or CMR) cable, which is designed to be used vertically in walls to prevent fire from spreading from floor to floor in your home. “Plenum” (or CMP) cable is for horizontal runs; it’s more expensive but designed to stop fire from spreading more than 5 feet along the cable in any direction. A 1,000-foot roll of CMR cable costs about $90, while the same amount of CMP cable costs a little over twice as much.
Get ready to cut some cables: Buy Ethernet plugs and strain-relief boots so that you can plug the cables into your switch after you’ve cut them with your wire stripper and crimping tool. This YouTube tutorial on cutting Ethernet cables is quick and clear.
Get wall jacks: First, buy wall plates and mounting brackets for all the rooms you’re wiring up—you can easily find plates for as few as one or as many as 12 ports. Then, buy as many Ethernet keystone jacks as you need—they fit into the plate and are the part that you plug your computer or game console’s Ethernet cable into.
Using wires to improve your Wi-Fi
Once a good wired network is installed, it will improve your Wi-Fi performance by reducing the number of devices competing for wireless bandwidth. But if you have an especially large house or just want to improve wireless performance even more, Wi-Fi access points such as the Ubiquiti UniFi series can talk to one another over your home’s Ethernet wiring to make sure your devices connect to the access point that will provide the best speeds, evenly distributing your network’s load to increase throughput and lower latency. These devices entirely replace your existing Wi-Fi, but you’ll still need a router—you can either turn your current router’s Wi-Fi off and continue using it as a wired router or replace it with a wired-only router like something from Ubiquiti’s EdgeRouter series.
If you plan to take this approach, you may also want a switch that supports Power over Ethernet like this well-priced, well-reviewed 16-port switch from Netgear.3 This feature removes the need for separate power adapters on those access points, giving your setup a cleaner, simpler look—connect your Wi-Fi access points to the PoE ports on the switch, and they will receive both power and data over a single cable. Alternatively, you can buy PoE injector adapters to add PoE to any switch—the result will look messier in your networking closet, but this method is cheaper.
- Cat 6 is not to be confused with the less-common Cat 6e, which can run a 10-gigabit Ethernet signal over 100 meters of cable but doesn’t matter for 1-gigabit Ethernet. Cat 6 is the best choice for home wiring projects as of early 2018. Most how-tos on wiring your home for Ethernet are a few years old—they’re still useful for planning purposes, but they may recommend older cables or switches if they haven’t been updated.
- Your home will almost certainly be fine with unshielded cabling. Shielded cabling is more common in industrial spaces, where there’s a whole lot of power and other stuff already flowing behind the walls.
- You can get smaller, five- and eight-port switches with PoE as well, but they cost three or four times as much as switches without PoE. Don’t buy one unless you need it.