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LAN Building Much Easier Than It Used To Be

lbmeMost people approach the installation of a local area network (LAN) with the same enthusiasm they reserve for IRS audits and root canals. First, there’s all that confusing terminology: Ethernet, 10BaseT, hub, router, and so on. Then there’s the labor: opening the computers to install special cards, running cables all over the place, messing with the operating system to enable its networking capabilities. Pretty daunting stuff.

But no more. Today, new networking solutions and improvements to existing technologies have taken the ability to connect computers out of the hands of brainy geeks and into yours. You might think that setting up a LAN requires a lot of time and expertise, and you’d be right–if the year were 1995. But thanks to a new generation of smarter software and faster PCs, you can connect all of the computers in your home without breaking a sweat or reaching for the aspirin. With some products, you won’t even have to open your PC and pop in a networking card.

Why should you network your home? Right now, each computer is an island–every time you want to move a file from one machine to another, you have to hop into a canoe and paddle across the channel. Likewise, if your printer is on Island A and you want to print a document from Island C, it’s hack into the canoe. If you had a bridge, you could retire your paddle and get hack to work.

With a LAN, you can build that bridge without breaking your back. Instead of buying a printer for each PC in your office, you can route all documents to a single printer. Instead of installing a new phone line for each PC, you can allow them to share a single Internet connection (even if it’s a speedy cable or ADSL link). And then there are the benefits of instantaneous file sharing. This not only saves you from having to manually transport data from one PC to the next, but enables simultaneous network-wide access to things like your contact manager, sales database, and presentation files.

Here’s all the network news you need to build speedy, reliable bridges between your PCs in your entire home. And like different styles of houses and computers, there are several different methods for making your machines speak to one another. We tell you how to connect PCs and notebooks via cables and wires, radio waves, telephone lines, and, in the future, through your electrical outlet. Let’s get connected!

Basic Cable

Windows users, prepare to be jealous: Offices powered by Macintosh systems can deploy a network in about the time it takes to read this paragraph. That’s thanks to the built-in Ethernet capabilities most Macs have, which permit the implementation of a LAN with little more than a $50 hub (a little box that links the different machines) and some cables.

For the rest of us, there’s a bit more to it. As noted, both new and existing technologies are available for creating a LAN with Windows-based systems. Let’s look at the tried-and-true stuff first.

If you have only two PCs and simply want to share data and a printer, the most inexpensive solution is Windows 95/98’s Direct Cable Connection. All you need is a $10 null-modern cable, which links the two systems by their serial ports. (The parallel ports will work too, but that takes your printer out of the equation.) Tweak a few Windows settings, and you’re off and running. Of course, if you ever want to add a third PC to the equation, or you find the connection too slow (serial ports are notoriously sluggish), you’ll have to move up to a bona fide LAN.

What you’ll most likely create is a peer-to-peer Ethernet network, which supports anywhere from two to about a dozen systems. Each PC requires an Ethernet card–installed in an expansion slot–linked together with either coaxial cable (similar to the kind that brings cable television into your home) or twisted-pair cable (which resembles a phone cord). With that hardware in place, all that’s left is to load a few software drivers and enable Windows’s built-in networking capabilities. If all goes well, you’ll soon be sharing files, printers, peripherals, and Internet access.

When do things not go well? On the hardware side, you never know when a PC will refuse to recognize a new expansion card. If a system is already pretty loaded with stuff, the network card may cause a conflict with some other device. Fortunately, problems like these can usually be solved–leaving you to deal with the software. Windows 95/98 incorporates fairly robust networking capabilities, but getting them properly configured can be a hassle. This is one reason to consider one of the many small-office networking kits currently available–they usually handle the Windows grunt-work for you. You can save a few bucks by buying your network components piecemeal, but you should do this only if you’re an advanced user.

All Wired Up

If the thought of taking a screwdriver to your PC is too much to bear, fear not–new technologies promise to eliminate the need, and will even turn networking into a plug-and-play affair. Case in point: the Universal Serial Bus (USB) and the local-area network seem like a match made in heaven. Like the aforementioned Direct Cable Connection, USB requires no special cards, instead connecting computers via their built-in USB ports. However, a USB connection is significantly faster than a serial one, and it doesn’t limit you to just two PCs. What’s more, USB’s plug-and-play design makes it a natural for adding notebooks to the network, or for creating a network comprised solely of USB-equipped notebooks.

There is one caveat: Each system must be running Windows 98 or the last revision of Windows 95 (known as OEM Service Release 2.1 or OSR 2.1). Only these versions of the operating system have the necessary software support for USB. It’s not enough for your PC or notebook to have USB ports; they also need an operating system that knows how to use them.

Several companies are already offering USB networking kits, and more are sure to follow. At press time, cable manufacturer Belkin Components (800-2-BELKIN, www.belkin.com) had introduced its USB Direct Connect Adapter, a $99 entry-level kit designed to network two PCs (hut only two). A similar product, Anchor Chips’s EZ-Link Instant Network (Anchor Chips, www.ezlinkush.com; $90), is designed to connect two or more systems.

For obvious reasons, USB isn’t the best solution if you have only older PCs or notebooks in your office. You can install USB ports on desktops that don’t have them. But you can’t add them to notebooks. And because USB is a new and still-developing technology, an add-on USB connector may not work as well as one that’s integrated into a PC.

It’s possible, however, to mix and match USB with a traditional network setup. If you have, say, three PCs on a twisted-pair network, and only one is USB-equipped, you can branch off from that system to include other USB-equipped computers. Ultimately, assuming you have the hardware and software to support it, USB can eliminate a lot of the time and hassle normally involved with network installation.

Radio Free Networking

Of course, whether you opt for USB or coax or twisted pair, you’re still talking about running wires all over the carpet. If your computers are too far apart to make cabling practical, or they’re separated by an entire floor, you might want to consider a wireless solution. New technologies have made wireless networking more affordable and less complicated than in years past, to the point where it’s worthwhile for even the smallest offices.

Last August, Diamond Multimedia Systems (800-468-5846, www.diamondmm.com) introduced HomeFree, a wireless networking kit that costs less than $100 per computer. Where some wireless solutions require an unobstructed line of sight between each PC, HomeFree uses radio waves to pass data through walls and floors–at a range of up to 150 feet. In more radio news, Proxim has entered the radio networking fray with Symphony for Windows 95/98 (650-9601630, www.proxim.com; prices start at $150), its family of cordless networking solutions. You’ll still need to install a special card in each PC (or a PC Card in each notebook), but there are no cables to string. And you can’t trip over radio waves.

You can, however, interfere with them, and create network hiccups in the process. As any cordless phone user knows, wireless communications are subject to all kinds of interference. If your office has some stray waves bouncing around, your network might not achieve peak performance. On the other hand, the new breed of 900MHz phones suffers from very little interference, so it stands to reason that a 900MHz network would work accordingly. InnoMedia’s InfoWave (408-562-3535, www.innomedia.com) promises interference-free wireless connectivity, and costs a mere $250 for two base stations. You can connect these to two PCs, two notebooks, or one of each. The company promises transmission speeds of up to 170Kbps (slow, but adequate for most networking applications) at a range of up to 800 feet. Let’s see a hard-wired network do that.

Easy File Sharing on Line 1

Coming soon to a home office near you is another technologically advanced networking solution: the telephone line. Okay, so phone lines aren’t all that advanced, but using them as an in-home network pipeline certainly is. Spearheaded by Intel, the new Home Phoneline Networking Alliance (HomePNA) plans to provide fast, inexpensive, easily accessible networking by taking advantage of existing phone lines. Alliance members ranging from Compaq to Intel rival AMD have agreed on a 1Mbps phone line standard based on Tut Systems’s HomeRun, a networking technology that uses plain copper telephone wires.

At press time, not every detail about this telephone technology had been released, but Intel and its allies promise that you won’t have to stop speaking on the phone or dialing into the Internet whenever your PCs are connected over the same phoneline. The HomePNA standards make certain that the network keeps running when your voice phone rings or you’re visiting your favorite Web site. According to an Intel representative, you’ll most likely pay about $100 per connection for a HomePNA network, but will have to wait a little longer–Intel plans to debut its Windows 95/98-based phone networking kit by the first quarter of 1999. If the HomePNA standard proves as affordable and convenient as it sounds, it could emerge as the preferred network solution for home offices.

Over and Outlet

An even more magical solution than phone or radio-wave networking is the PassPort Plug-in Network from Intelogis (www.intelogis.com), which eschews phone lines in favor of the other wiring in your office–electrical outlets. PassPort sends data through ordinary AC wires, meaning you can network any PC that’s near an available outlet. It works with notebooks, too. because the only connection it requires is a parallel port. Now shipping, the $250 PassPort comes with the equipment needed to network two PCs and a printer. You can add more computers and printers for $100 and $60, respectively. The catch? PassPort transmits data at only 350Kbps-faster than today’s modems, but far slower than most other networking technologies. But things may be speeding up for power outlet networking: Intel is reportedly working on a way to connect different PCs through power lines and may have a product to announce by 2001.

Indeed, none of these emerging technologies is as fast as a generic 10Mbps, let alone today’s 100Mbps, Ethernet setups, but so what? Few home office workers will be affected y the speed of their LANs, unless you’re talking about a dozen machines all sharing a single Internet connection. For printer and file sharing between a few systems, speed is almost a nonissue. Convenience and flexibility are the key considerations behind these new efforts-important given the inconvenient layouts of many home offices.

Teaching Old Style Networks a New Trick: Simplicity

Not only are there new, no-sweat networking solutions, but even traditional networking kits have jumped on the simplicity bandwagon, as well. These easy yet powerful bundles cost anywhere from $80 to $300, depending on how many Ethernet cards come in the box and whether or not a hub is included. A hub makes it easier to add more systems to your network, though hubs only support a fixed number of PCs, usually four or eight. LinkSys’s Network in a Box (LinkSys, www.linksys.com; $150) comes with two Ethernet cards and 15 feet of coaxial cable; it’s a pretty basic LAN package for a two-PC office. 3Com’s OfficeConnect Networking Kit (3Com, www.3com.com; $120) also includes two Ethernet cards, and comes with a four-port hub and two 25-foot twisted-pair cables.

The Network in a Box setup essentially daisy-chains your PCs together, like lights in a Christmas tree. This is fine for two or three systems–any more than that and the arrangement becomes impractical. A hub-based setup like OfficeConnect is more analogous to spokes in a bicycle wheel; each PC is at the end of a spoke, with the hub at the center. Removing one or adding a few more is usually pretty easy. Additionally, networks built on twisted-pair cabling are generally faster than their coaxial counterparts, though there aren’t many small-office LAN applications in which speed plays a factor. More importantly, twisted pair allows you to add a notebook to the network, whereas coaxial cable does not.

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