Take Two Tranquilizers Before You Network At Home

You need grit--and time. And many products are incompatible

I admit it: I'm a technology writer, yet I dreaded the prospect of trying out home networking. Sure, I was intrigued by the idea that I could zap files easily between my desktop and laptop computers, use one printer to print out documents from either, and surf the Net from both machines simultaneously. But I was acutely aware of how tough this would be. My biggest fear? That I would somehow damage one of my computers. After all, Windows 95 is a fragile beast, and these machines are my lifeblood--how I pay my bills, stay in touch with friends, and do my job. So I procrastinated. I watered the yard, made calls, and read the paper.

WARNINGS FLASH. Finally, at 11 o'clock Saturday morning, I hunkered down to try my first home network. I started with the HomeFree Wireless Network from Diamond Multimedia Systems. For $200, it lets you connect two or more PCs using nothing more than radio waves. The setup process started off easily enough. I had no trouble installing a card into my PC and laptop, and the software worked flawe guy from IBM. Then I spent three more hours tinkering by myself. All to no avail.

Shortly before dinner, I admitted defeat and turned my attention to unpacking another networking product--the Intellogis PassPort network. This $180 kit uses AC electric wiring in the walls to send data from one PC to another. It's incredibly easy to connect: You plug modules that resemble oversized bars of Ivory soap into wall sockets, and link them via six-foot cables to the printer ports on your PCs.

This time what tripped me up was my house. An Edwardian-era flat, it has few wall sockets--a problem because PassPort must be plugged into the wall, not into power strips. So each computer must be within six feet or so of a wall socket. To test PassPort, I had to put my desktop PC on the floor of my study, the printer on a chair in the dining room, and the laptop on my bedroom dresser. So much for convenience.

The good news? It worked. I could call up files on my laptop hard drive from my desktop PC. When I told my PC to print a document, the sound of the printer kicking into gear in the next room provoked near-elation. I ate dinner with glee.

CORRUPTED. Alas, my work was not done. The PassPort is supposed to let you share a single Net connection between two PCs, but the software for that comes from a different company and isn't well integrated. That meant I couldn't get the laptop to dial up an Internet service provider. Another defeat.

Discouraged, I put off my next trial until Sunday. The product this time was the $160 Intel AnyPoint network, which uses telephone wiring in the walls to send data. Excellent instructions made installing a card and software on the desktop PC a snap. But the software refused to load onto the laptop. I threw in the towel and watched 60 Minutes, start to finish.

It wasn't until Monday morning that I found out that I had a software compatibility problem. So I installed AnyPoint on my other home PC, which is attached to the Internet through a speedy digital subscriber line modem. I got the network up and running and could load files from my desktop onto the DSL-attached PC. Yet again I met doom. The DSL connection got corrupted. Miffed, I uninstalled everything and reset the DSL software. Peace.

I'm still determined to make one of these PC networks function. In the meantime, here's my advice: Before you try any of this yourself, get ready for a frustrating weekend.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.