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Making connections in a house divided

Almost everyone starts out the same way: overwhelmed. But you really can become a master of home networking.

6 min read
"No Mac is an island," John Donne didn't write. "No PC, printer or TiVo, either; I've got a smokin' home network."

About 22 million American households have connected computers and other machines, according to Jupiter Research, and they have plenty of motivation. First, a network can save you money. It allows one cable modem, DSL box or printer to serve all the computers in the house.

Second, a network lets your computers share information. You can copy files from one computer to another. You can sit upstairs at your Windows PC, listening to the iTunes music collection from the Mac in the kitchen. You can check the whole family's calendar from any computer in the house, thanks to networkable calendar programs.

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Finally, there's the convenience factor. A network enables a TiVo to display photographs, or a SliMP3 box to play music files, that actually reside on a computer somewhere else in the house. And once you start playing networkable computer games against other family members, you may never leave the house again.

Plenty of people have set up their own home networks and lived to tell the tale. Others pass out just thinking about it. In between are the legions who wouldn't mind having a home network, but assume that setting one up is, like tuning a car engine, something you hire somebody else to do.

Almost everyone, however, starts out the same way: overwhelmed. Here it is: your clip-and-save Frequently Asked Questions sheet for home networking.

Which kind of network should I set up: wired or wireless?
In the olden days, people connected their computers using fat wires known as Ethernet cables. This method still has a lot to recommend it. It's supercheap, it moves data superfast, and, compared with wireless networks, it's extremely secure. (More on this topic in a moment.)

All Macs and many Windows computers have built-in Ethernet ports, which look like overweight phone jacks. The idea is to connect all your computers to a small box called a router (about $40 for one that accommodates four computers). The router lets all of the computers communicate with one another, and with your cable modem or DSL. Most routers also act as firewalls to keep out Internet no-goodniks.

The disadvantage of Ethernet is that it means trailing cables along your floors or, worse, snaking them through your walls, which is nobody's recipe for a pleasant weekend.

The most promising alternative is the wireless network, also known as Wi-Fi, 802.11 or AirPort. This system works something like a cordless phone: you buy an access point (wireless router; about $45) that blankets your house with a network signal. A wireless adapter lets each computer receive the signal. Most new laptops have this feature built in; others can be retrofitted with a Wi-Fi card adapter. You can make a desktop computer wireless by adding a USB Wi-Fi adapter, about $30.

Now, with very little setup, you've united your computers and cable modem into one glorious, harmonious unit, without drilling a single hole in the walls.

What if I have two desktop computers and two wireless laptops?
In that case, consider buying a combination box called a multiport wireless router (about $60). It has jacks for, say, four Ethernet cables, as well as antennas that broadcast a wireless signal to your Wi-Fi laptops.

I've heard that if I use a wireless network, snoopers can rifle through my stuff.

It's theoretically possible for electronic eavesdroppers to intercept text that you send wirelessly, including passwords that you type. On public wireless networks that don't require a password to get online, like the ones in hotel lobbies, there's not much you can do about this risk.

The odds are far smaller that anyone would be interested in spying on you at home--unless you're some kind of Defense Department engineer with clever enemies hiding in the bushes outside your house.

Still, if you're concerned, you can thwart most of them just by turning on your base station's optional password feature. Most base stations offer something called WEP encryption (much better than nothing); newer ones offer what's

called WPA (much better security, fewer problems). The base station's manual explains how to turn these on.

Does that mean I'll have to type in a password every time I want to get online?
Nope. Both Mac OS X and Windows XP can memorize the password for you.

Which kind of wireless gear should I buy?
Every couple of years, the computer industry dreams up another, faster wireless standard for wireless networking. They go by annoyingly unfriendly names like 802.11a, 802.11b and 802.11g. (Then again, almost all networking terms are annoyingly unfriendly. WEP? WPA? DHCP? Hello?)

The "g" variety is faster and has better coverage than the older "a" or "b," yet is compatible with all three. In general, if you're shopping today, you should buy "g" base stations and adapters.

Unless, of course, you want "n."

The next-generation base stations and receivers will be called 802.11n. (Abandon all hope, ye who hate tech talk.) If all of your gear is "n," your network will be four times as fast as today's "g" gear.

Here's the funny part: Networking companies like LinkSys and Belkin want to start selling "n" network gear now, even though the standard hasn't been completely ironed out by the electronics industry's technical nerds. So the networking companies are calling their newest products "Pre-N." They work fine, but may not be compatible across brands.

Later, once the "n" specification is finalized, these manufacturers intend to offer a software update that will turn your Pre-N gear into proper, fully certified "n" equipment.

I can't wait. My Internet connection is so slow!
Well, don't spend a lot of money in the expectation that a faster network means faster Internet speed; it doesn't. Even the slowest home network is already much faster than the real bottleneck, your cable modem or DSL box. A faster network transfers files between your own computers faster, but generally does nothing for your Web or e-mail activity.

Will I be able to connect my old inkjet printer to my network?
Yes, indeed; take your pick of methods. The free way is to connect the printer to one Mac or PC, and then turn on that computer's Printer Sharing feature. (For instructions, search Mac OS X's or Windows XP's online help for "printer sharing.") The other computers in your house can now send printouts to that printer, as long as the main computer is turned on.

If you'd rather not have to worry about the main machine being available, you can also connect the printer to a gadget called a network print server, available in both wireless ($85) and wired versions ($65).

One other possibility: if your wireless base station is an Apple AirPort Express, you can plug a printer directly into a USB jack on the base station. This method saves you both the worry that a certain computer is turned on and the cost of an extra printer-sharing gadget.

I don't know. It still sounds like I'm in for a headache.
Setting up the network can indeed be a slog; consider inviting a neighborhood teenager over to help. Or, at the very least, visit Google.com and type in "LinkSys wireless Internet sharing" (or whatever problem you're having); the beauty of joining the home-network revolution now is that several million people have been this way before.

But look at the bright side: once your network is in place, it's yours for life. There's no monthly fee, no further learning involved, and no annual upgrades to buy and install. And in the world of computers and technology, that makes a home network a valuable investment indeed.

Chris Stone contributed reporting for this article.

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