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Supercharging Your Connection

Professional photographers are keenly aware of the benefits of keeping their computers up to date, often upgrading to the fastest models as soon as more powerful versions come out. There’s a clear and direct correlation to the speed of a computer and the speed with which one can edit files and get them ready for output.

Fewer photographers spend time thinking about the latest networking technology, which is understandable, as the manufacturers of routers and cables and chipsets don’t spend nearly as much time and effort marketing the latest multi-band WiFi technology as Apple spends promoting its newest computers. Heck, most of the networking equipment guys spend less on marketing their gear than Apple spends promoting things like its iPad keyboard. (Read our recent review of the new Mac offerings from Apple and how to best configure them for creatives.)

That’s a shame, because the speed with which we connect to other devices, both inter- and intra-office, have a huge impact on efficiency and workflow. Shave a few seconds off a file download here, speed up the progress of an Internet backup there, and the result could be hours or even days of time saved every year.

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There are two areas where recent advances result in a significant boost to connectivity and networking, one in Internet connectivity and one in wireless networking. If you can feel your eyes glazing over already at the un-sexiness of those topics, stay with me, as you might be able to significantly upgrade your productivity.

The Internet Era

Broadband connectivity in the United States is painfully behind that of many other industrialized countries, both in terms of the ubiquity of connectivity and the speed of the connection.

Luckily, at least for those in many high-density markets, the top speed of premium-level Internet service is skyrocketing while the price is dropping out as companies battle to own the voice, data and TV streams of the largest number of customers.

Internet speed is measured in megabits per second, or Mbps, and it’s a measure of how much data is able to flow through a customer’s connection. Most places have “broadband” that’s in the high single digits or low double digits—the typical speed you’d find at most Internet hotspots. Within the last years, numerous providers in the larger metropolitan areas began to offer services around 70 to 80 Mbps, 10 times faster than most standard broadband plans.

Thanks to heavy-hitting players like Google, Verizon and CenturyLink, which have been dragging fiber-optic connections to the homes of users, the race for the fastest home and office Internet connection is on, and the cable companies are racing to try to keep up.

For example, Verizon’s massive investment in its FiOS fiber-optic service is starting to pay dividends on the East Coast, as the company has recently introduced Internet connectivity at a blistering 750 Mbps or better for the same price as its previous 75 Mbps service. The West Coast’s CenturyLink is pushing toward the middle of the country from its Seattle base while Google Fiber (which has been on-again, off-again with its plans while it shuffled management around) has targeted markets all across the country.

My house was the first Verizon FiOS installation in the county, more than a decade ago, and was recently the first installation of the gigabit Internet service. For around $80 a month (that’s an introductory offer, so it’ll change in a few years), I get speeds as fast as 940 Mbps downstream and 880 Mbps up.

This has allowed me to collaborate in a way that would previously have been impossible. I can send editors the 4K footage from my cameras without having to FedEx a hard drive, for example. Clients can receive the RAW files from a shoot instead of a rendered JPEG. The broadband speed has allowed me to enhance my archiving and backup strategy, too. I’ve long used the Internet-based backup service Backblaze, which works in the background to upload files from my drives to cloud storage. With the faster gigabit connection, I’ve been able to upload multiple terabytes of data—entire drives of original files are now backed up, instead of the JPEG copies I used to archive to not cap out my connection. I can almost back up original RAW files as fast as I can import them from a card reader.

The cable companies are having a hard time keeping up—the technology they use to deliver the broadband signal doesn’t have the ability to transmit data as fast as a fiber-optic cable, but they can max out above 100 Mbps, and they’re starting to drop prices to win away fiber customers.

It’s Coming From Inside The House

As the speed of Internet connections starts to approach gigabit speed, it’s necessary to evaluate the networking equipment inside the studio or office to make sure it can keep up. When WiFi-equipped computers started to show up, many people were still connecting on slower connections like DSL and even dial-up. The speed of data flying through the air over WiFi vastly outstripped the speed of the data coming in from the Internet service provider.

With gigabit-level speeds, plain-vanilla WiFi devices can’t keep up. Many home routers are only able to move 40 to 60 Mbps of data. Get a gigabit Internet connection and connect it to your old WiFi router, and you’re going to throw away most of your speed.

There are several new wireless technologies that take advantage of the new speeds possible with today’s connectivity—as well as boost their range—and also one tech just over the horizon that promises to allow you to get rid of your modem and router entirely, and might just merge your office connection and that on your mobile device.

Office and home-office workers often run into issues where their wireless networks have trouble penetrating through walls and floors, leaving some spots with slow or nonexistent wireless Internet connectivity. There are two solutions to this problem, one of which uses networking brute force and one that uses networking finesse to get the signal to problematic areas.

Synology RT2600ac Router

Please Take A MIMO

The first way to get signals to the entire studio uses a technology called MIMO (Multiple Input Multiple Output) to broadcast the same signal over multiple powerful antennas to a device with multiple receiving antennas in order to avoid obstacles like walls and columns. “Traditional” WiFi routers send out a signal using one or two antennas, and when that signal hits an obstacle (like a wall) the signal breaks apart, decreasing speed or eliminating coverage.

A MIMO router, often distinguishable because of the several large antennas sticking out from the top, sends out multiple signals from the arrayed antennas to devices that also have multiple antennas, which makes them more likely to catch some of the transmitted data thanks to MIMO’s ability to use the scattering of data and multiple antennas to assemble the original data quickly.

You might not be able to tell, but computers, like the 2016 MacBook Pro, have MIMO antennas built into the chassis in order to work with MIMO routers. Specifications will often talk about things like 2×2 MIMO or 4×4 MIMO; this just refers to the number of antennas inside the transmitting or receiving device. (A 4×4 MIMO-capable laptop like the MacBook Pro has four MIMO antennas; a 3×3 MIMO laptop has three, etc.) Generally speaking, the greater the number of antennas, the stronger the signal and the faster the data transmission.

Another term used with MIMO is MU-MIMO, which stands for Multi-User MIMO, which simply means that the router can communicate using MIMO with multiple devices at a time—think of an office with several computers, some phones and an Internet-connected TV—versus the original implementation of MIMO, where each receiving device needed its own transmitter. MU-MIMO used to be called by the ungainly name 802.11ac Wave 2, so you may see this on some packaging or product descriptions.

To test the ability of MIMO-driven routers to provide fast connectivity, I took the Synology RT2600ac router and connected it to my home’s FiOS gigabit connection. I live in a Victorian home and networking dead areas abound, thanks to the lathe-and-plaster walls and other building materials. To get complete coverage in my house, I currently use two Apple AirPort Extreme base stations, one on the first floor and one on the top floor just above my wife’s office. The walls of that room are particularly difficult for WiFi to penetrate, so one of the AirPort routers is right above her office ceiling. Typical throughput onto an early 2016 MacBook Pro is about 200 Mbps, and typical throughput in her office is about 80 Mbps.

I replaced the downstairs router with the Synology RT2600ac and pointed its antennas skyward. The theoretical top speed on the RT2600ac is 1.73 Mbps, almost 700 Mbps faster than the gigabit Internet connectivity and with enough headroom to transfer large files quickly between computers in the studio.

I spent a few minutes configuring the device (not quite as easy as the Apple interface, but much easier than most other routers I’ve used), unplugged the AirPort Extreme routers and began to test the speed across my home, comparing it to a computer connected directly to the Verizon modem. The connected Mac showed a download speed of 926 Mbps and an upload speed of 914 Mbps.

Standing five feet from the WiFi router in line of sight, my test MacBook Pro downloaded at 550 Mbps and uploaded at 600 Mpbs. The office that traditionally had no connectivity was able to sustain instead 200 Mbps up and down, and the farthest room from the router maintained about 350 Mbps in both directions.

Straightening Up The Mesh

The second advance in wireless networking is the advent of plug-and-play mesh connectivity. Unlike the MIMO acronym, mesh doesn’t stand for a technology but a system of using a series of interconnected devices that pass information along in order to extend coverage.

Mesh devices are easy to set up and can cover even the most difficult office environment—though you might need a number of devices to do so. Google, Linksys, Netgear, Portal and others all sell mesh systems. Simply plug them in, do a bit of configuration, and you’re on the Internet. Place units about every 30 feet to extend the connectivity.

While the coverage increases with each unit, the systems aren’t based around the fastest WiFi technologies, so they’re not as fast as MIMO routers. The devices tend to be rather expensive, too, but in many office and home environments they’re the only way to reach through walls and to different floors.

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