Once upon a time, gigabit Ethernet switches could be found only in data centers, and the high cost per port made them impractical for all but the most demanding backbone applications. But times have changed, and the price per port has dropped dramatically. Most desktop computers now have built-in gigabit Ethernet ports and a number of consumer products are beginning to adopt gigabit as the default. And with the explosion of video and audio data that consumers are starting to move around their networks, gigabit starts to make a lot of sense.
There are three classes of gigabit Ethernet switches. The simplest, most cost-effective gigabit switch is an unmanaged switch. D-Link, Linksys, NetGear and Trendnet all sell a five port unmanaged gigabit Ethernet switch for less than $50. An unmanaged switch is a very simple deviceyou take it out of the box, plug it in and connect your Ethernet cables. No configuration is required, or in most cases, even possible. These switches perform a basic switching function at prices that are starting to rival 100 Mbps switches and give you a significant boost in performance if the attached devices are also gigabit capable.
At the other end of the continuum, you'll find fully managed switches. These switches offer the maximum amount of configurability and have a correspondingly higher price. These are the devices that you'd most likely find in a corporate data center. But be forewarnedfully managed switches are complicated devices that generally suited only for networking pros.
NOTE: Managed and smart switches come in Layer 2 and Layer 3 flavorswhich refers to the OSI model layer. All of the switches in this roundup are Layer 2 devices. This means that they recognize and operate on packet MAC addresses, can implement functions based on data source and destination. Layer 3 devices operate at the protocol level and can perform functions based on packet port numbers (among other things).
Between unmanaged and fully managed switches, you'll find a hybridthe so-called "smart switches". These switches offer a subset of the functions found on fully managed switches, but at a fraction of the price. For many small offices, these switches are the ideal solution.
For this roundup, we decided to see how far we could stretch our dollars. With a target price of around $250, we contacted a number of vendors and requested their most fully-featured all-gigabit "smart" switch. D-Link, Netgear, and Trendnet each sent a 16 port smart switch. Linksys, which says it makes only unmanaged and fully managed switches, sent an eight port managed switch.
All switches are supplied with rack mounting hardware and will install in a standard "1U" rack space. To avoid redundancy and to facilitate comparison, we created a features chart to accompany the reviews. We've also included a slide show of screen shots to give you a taste of the user interface for each product.
We'll be looking at the following products in this roundup.
- D-Link DGS-1216T
- Linksys SWR2008
- Netgear GS716T
- Trendnet TEG-160WS