By Joseph Moran

Not too long ago, the greatest concentration of devices on a home network was likely to be in whichever room housed the broadband router. After all, that’s where you’ll typically find a desktop PC and many other networked devices, like printers and NAS drives. Networking them is pretty easy — just plug them all into your broadband router’s Ethernet ports, and you’re done.

But today’s home networks increasingly host a variety of entertainment-oriented devices clustered around the family TV, making the living room or den another network focal point. These include things like game consoles, digital video recorders, set top boxes (think Apple TV or Vudu) and other A/V-related products.

Wirelessly connecting multiple consumer electronics devices to your network can get pricey and time-consuming. That’s because many devices, like the aforementioned set top boxes and the popular Slingbox (which enables remote TV viewing), support wired Ethernet but lack Wi-Fi support. Since relatively few people have houses wired for Ethernet, a common approach is to give a wired device wireless capabilities through an external wireless Ethernet client adapter, sometimes called a wireless bridge.

Note that even when devices do offer Wi-Fi support, it’s often not built-in and may instead require the use of a proprietary add-on adapter (think TiVo DVRs and the Xbox 360). Like a wireless bridge, the adapter must be separately purchased and configured.

The upshot of all of this is that if you must network multiple consumer electronics devices in the same physical location, or plan to do so in the future, a bit of advance planning can save time and money compared to dealing with individual devices piecemeal.

Consider the following example: A friend of mine recently asked for advice about how best to link three devices in a single home theater setup to an existing 802.11g WLAN. Although each component — a TiVo HD, Xbox 360 and Slingbox — has an Ethernet port, his plan was to purchase product-specific (in this case, USB) wireless adapters from TiVo and Microsoft for about $50 and $90, respectively, along with a third-party wireless Ethernet client adapter (at least $70) for the Slingbox. This would indeed get the job done, but with not without configuring three separate devices for more than $200 in total.

Bridging the Gap

My suggestion was to network these three devices more efficiently by connecting them via Ethernet to a wireless bridge that supports multiple devices. The Netgear WGPS606 is well-suited for the task. Although billed primarily as an 802.11g wireless print server (it sports a pair of USB ports), the WGPS606’s built-in four-port 100 Mbps switch makes it a good choice in this kind of scenario. At around $80 it’s priced significantly less than half the cost of networking each device separately, and as a bonus the WGPS606’s fourth Ethernet port can connect to an additional device down the road. Plus, you have to wirelessly configure only one device instead of several, and there’s less physical clutter in your cramped A/V space.

Another benefit to using a wireless bridge can be to save you from having to dumb down your WLAN to accommodate the limitations of individual wireless devices. For example, Wi-Fi consumer electronics devices like the TiVo, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, generally support only 802.11g and WPA encryption, so even if your wireless router supports advanced features like 802.11n or WPA2, you will not be able to take advantage of them.

However, if you connect your various devices to an 802.11n- or WPA2- compatible wireless bridge (e.g., the Dlink DAP-1522, priced at about $100), you can have your cake and eat it too. Even if you’re still using an 802.11g router, choosing an N-compatible bridge can mean one less piece of hardware to buy whenever you decide to upgrade your network.

If you’ve got some unused hardware lying around, you might be wondering whether you can fashion a DIY multi-port wireless bridge by pairing a stand-alone wired switch with a single-port wireless Ethernet adapter. In most cases the answer will be no, since the latter are usually capable only of managing the MAC address of a single attached device.

There can admittedly be a downside to this connection consolidating approach because when multiple components rely on a single wireless connection, a configuration problem or hardware failure with the bridge will knock everything connected to it off the network. But if you must network multiple devices within a home theatre, using a wireless bridge is often the simplest and most cost-effective way to do it.

Joseph Moran is a regular contributor to PracticallyNetworked.