After a lot of research, I've settled on a distribution panel for our multimedia structured wiring system.
Structured wiring distrubution panels are to household multimedia what electrical boxes are to lighting and power: it's the point at which everything enters the house and then makes its way to where it gets used. The difference is that electrical panels distribute electricity while structured wiring distribution panels distribute information like music, television, telephone, and the Internet throughout your home. What they have in common is a focus on organizing the distribution of their respective content throughout a home in a rational way.
But given these similarities, there is one major difference--while it rarely matters what brand of electrical box you buy, the distribution panel you purchase has major implications for future capabilities and costs. To use another analogy, making this choice is a lot like choosing a disposable razor system--when you buy the handle (or "panel") your basically buying that company's razors (or in this case "modules") for the life of the product, too. Because of this, I did as much research as I could before buying.
When I started looking, I found out there are plenty of manufacturers out there. In fact, it's overwhelming. Major brands include:
All of these systems offer a standard box and then a variety of "modules" that plug in to support various custom configurations. Major modules include an Internet router, satelite/cable distribution, and phoneline distribution. Some systems also address such specialized features as home security or whole house audio. This lets homeowners or builders create a system specific to the needs of a particular home. Therefore, there are a lot of options that require legwork to compare.
Evaluating our own needs came down to three criteria:
2) expansion capabilities, and
Structured wiring can be very confusing, so good usability serves the purpose of easing anxiety of the installation as well as making future maintance and changes easier. In this sense all structured wiring panels offer value over the chaos they are designed to fight. That said, FutureSmart's QuickNetwork system seemed most promising to me. Its design runs all outgoing cable up out of the box from a continuous series of panels that run along both sides (view image). The surface of each module also provides space for special instructions or labels on front. Most others manufactures offer more flexibility, but that can be their undoing if that flexibility offers a tangle of modules and cables strung throughout the box.
As for capabilities and expansion, our planned design must support 8 locations around the house with a possibility for 12 over the long term. Our data needs it will require an Internet gateway and router for computers, a video amplifier and distribution panel for video, and a telephone distribution panel with support for two lines. (I'm also running fiber optical cable to future-proof my system, but I don't have a practical use for that now.) Here all the major manufactures passed in general by offering modules for each of these uses. However, Leviton stood out for offering higher capacity modules (i.e., more rooms) that were still at a reasonable costs. (Note: I'll cover how I identified the right the modules in a future post.)
Finally, cost was a major differentiator among our options. Some of these systems (like the FutureSmart system) are clearly aimed at the high end of the marketplace...those Bill Gates-inspired homes you see on Lifestyles of the Rich and Fameous. Other manufacturers (like Leviton and Pass & Seymour) aim at the average consumer. I initially did my cost comparisons online but in the end I was surprised to find that my local big box retailer beat them all on cost. I'd suggest shopping around, though, as I found a huge range and prices can always change.
After plenty of research, I've decided we're going to use Leviton's Structured Media Center. It supports the full range of modules, seems well designed and is relatively inexpensive. It also benefits from being one of two products distributed by a major retailer--as of this writing Best Buy carries Leviton while Lowe's carries Pass & Seymour Legrand.
Leviton's panels come in four varieties for different sized systems and homes:
For our situation I picked out the 280, which is the largest size our local Home Depot carried. Leviton says it is for homes up to 2,000 sq/ft but I think it is better to judge your needs on a solid plan on how many access points you'll want around the house.
So, my next step will be to prepare for and conduct the installation. More on that when the time arrives...!
P.S. During my research, I became really confused about the various computer networking options. If it is confusing to you as well, here is a good description of the difference between a hub, switch and router.