by Gareth Branwyn for Digital Living Today
The future arrived in force the day I found myself sitting in my backyard, soaking up some delicious rays, a kick-butt 400MHz Pentium II multimedia portable in my lap, surfing the Net for an article. There I was, cooling it in my shorts and shades, surfing the big muddy of cyberspace and making money at the same time! Now thats liberating technology. This newfound mobility was thanks to a wireless network Id (almost) effortlessly installed in my house. If youre a multi-PC household, for just a few hundred dollars, you can do the same.
Home networking found its market in 1999, as computer prices plummeted, allowing many households to get a second (or third) computer. A home network lets you share a single printer, access and transfer files, play multi-player games, and use a single Internet connection/account. There are four basic flavors of home networks:
- Ethernet Found in offices everywhere, Ethernet is the favored (and fastest) system for wired networking. It certainly can be used in the home, but youll need Ethernet cards in all of your machines and youll need to run Ethernet cables between them. Home networking systems take a more plug-n-play, no-wires approach.
- Phone Net This ingenious system uses the two free wires in your homes phone lines to transmit data between computers. These systems require a plug-in card or stand-alone interface box and access to a phone jack for each machine you want to connect.
- Electrical Net This system works exactly like the phone net, but uses your homes electrical wiring to transmit data between computers.
- Wireless Radio waves do the trick here, beaming data between transceivers connected to each computer in the network.
Weve tested all of these types of systems here at Digital Living Today, and were partial to wireless. The big advantage is mobility. While other systems like Ethernet and phone nets offer greater transfer rates, youre chained to desktops (or a laptop on a short leash). Wireless lets you roam with your laptop into the den (you havent lived until youre surfing the Net, responding to instant messages, and watching Malcolm in the Middle all at the same time), kitchen, bedroom, and into the great outdoors. Most wireless systems cover from 150 to 250 feet, even through walls and floors. One drawback to wireless is interference from portable phones, microwave ovens, etc., but the interruptions are short-lived (and you can arrange antennas to lessen their impact).
Of all the wireless systems weve tested, here are our favorites:
- Symphony Wireless Home Network (www.proxim.com)
This system is by far the easiest to set up and use but you pay for it. Each PCI card unit (for your desktop PC) cost $130 and each PC Card unit (for laptops) cost $150. The range is good (this is what I used to sunbathe/work in my yard) and the transfer rates are excellent not Ethernet excellent but fine for home use. The system is an absolute breeze to install (though you do need to plug in a card into your PC).
- HomeFree Wireless (www.diamondmm.com)
This system has absolutely gorgeous software and no-brainer step-by-step installation. Our performance was the slowest of the lot, but still fine for home use (although the lag on multi-player gaming was unacceptable). If youre on a budget, and you want the easiest hardware and software installation, HomeFree Wireless is the way to go. A desktop/laptop combo pack is $130 and the desktop to desktop system is only $100.
- Webgear Aviator2.4 (www.webgear.com)
Aviator2.4 provides all the hardware and software you need to connect two desktops (or a desktop and a laptop) for $200. The price is right, but the installation is gnarly, and weve heard hit and miss reports on performance (some say its the best, others say throughput stinks). This seems to be a “your mileage may vary” kind of product. Wed recommend this only if youre on a tight budget and dont mind a fairly tedious installation.
Which system you choose depends on what youll be using the network for. If you have a home business and youll be transferring lots of files and need of high-speed Internet access, the Symphony system is worth the investment (or perhaps even an Ethernet set-up). If you want a mid-level performance, low-cost system, and youre not afraid to poke your head under the hood of your PC and are already familiar with networking software, the Aviator2.4 might be for you. If youre looking for a low-traffic network with basic file sharing and casual Web surfing from the couch and the chaise lounge, HomeFree is a steal of a deal. Whatever system you choose, make sure to wear plenty of sun block while you lounge by the pool and swim through cyberspace.
***DLT Tip: If youre concerned about the security of wireless systems (e.g. the neighbors intercepting you and your spouses late night computer-to-computer chat between the den and the bedroom), dont be. These systems use spread spectrum technology so that the data hops around from one channel to another. Even if youre neighbors have the exact same set-up, youre sweet little data packets are for your screens only.
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