The Network Comes Home

Hooking up your PCs is simpler and cheaper, and they can work together faster

The arithmetic is simple. Sales of new PCs into households that already own at least one computer is the fastest-growing segment of the market. High-speed Internet access in homes, through cable or DSL phone lines, is exploding. Two or more computers plus one Internet connection equals a need to share access through some sort of network.

Networking is going to become increasingly important as a variety of information appliances join computers in the home. You may have a powerful computer in your home office, a couple of no-frills versions in the kids' rooms, and stand-alone Internet browsing devices in the kitchen and the workshop, all sharing a fast connection.

The industry is rising to the occasion. It has been a little more than a year since products appeared that made the sort of networking long used in schools and businesses practical for the home. The second-generation hardware and software now appearing offers faster speeds, lower costs, and simpler setups. While it's still not as easy as I would like it to be, home networking is well within the reach of anyone willing to put in a bit of effort.

The two basic approaches to home networking use existing phone wiring or radio waves to connect computers. Dedicated Ethernet cabling, which can be up to 100 times faster than other methods, only makes sense if a home has already been wired or if you are hooking up two or more computers in the same room and can just string wires.

The first choice for most homes will be plug-in cards or external adapters that send data over the phone lines. All equipment certified by the Home Phoneline Networking Alliance (HPNA) should work well together. Newer adapters run at 10 megabits per second, but the older, less expensive 1 megabit systems are perfectly adequate for most home users. The two types can be mixed on the same network, but the link between any two computers is limited to the speed of the slower one.

Some new PCs are shipping with HPNA hookups installed. You can add a computer to a home network by connecting a phone line to either a card or an HPNA device plugged into a universal serial bus port. Producers of the adapters include Intel, 3Com, Linksys, and Farallon. The cards are cheaper, at about $50 for a 1 megabit version vs. $80 or so for a USB adapter, but USB is a lot simpler. You can also get adapters that attach to a printer port, but they are trouble-prone, and I don't recommend them.

What if you want to put a computer where there's no phone jack? Wireless networking offers an answer. But the picture is a bit confusing, with an assortment of proprietary systems giving way to two standards.

Compaq and Intel are working with Proxim to bring out products based on HomeRF Working Group standards, which allows data transfer at up to 1.6 megabits per second. Adapters are likely to cost about $150 per computer. The alternative is a standard called 802.11b, which was developed for commercial use and carries data at 10 megabits per second. Apple's AirPort uses this approach, as do coming products from 3Com. Although Apple is selling AirPort cards for $149, expect to pay more for other models.

One area where there has been big improvement is in the software needed to set up and run a network. Microsoft made the Internet Connection Sharing Wizard part of Windows 98 Second Edition, an $89 upgrade that comes bundled with 3Com HPNA products. While much easier than trying to set up network software on your own, it's still a bit tricky. You have to reboot your computer, for example, after even the smallest change in network configuration.

The software that comes with Intel's HomeConnect products is easier to use. Oddly, for a company that prides itself on ease of use, the setup of Apple's $299 AirPort Base Station is mindnumbing. But Farallon Communications offers HPNA networking hardware and software for both Windows and Macs.

Home networking is still a project for the adventuresome, but it is bound to become more important. Today, you can link your computers. Soon you'll be adding other devices. Eventually you can even add your washer and dryer, your entertainment center, and your security system. But before that happens, the networks will have to become easier to use and more reliable.

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