The Internet is a terrific resource for busy families. Dad can use it to find cheap airfare for business travel and family vacations. Mom goes on there to download songs for her budding MP3 collection of showtunes. And the kids pop on every day to instant-message friends and bone up on current events before a big test at school.
It’s a shame you can’t all be on the web at the same time—or can you? A home networking system can enable multiple PCs to access the Internet all at once.
That means no more waiting in line; you can get on when you want from whatever PC you want. Plus, you’ll all be able to swap files, share a single printer and exchange digital photos and music between machines.
The most versatile type of network, particularly if your household uses laptops, is one that requires no wiring whatsoever. The hub of a wireless computer network is a router. This modem-sized box, which attaches to your existing modem, splits your high-speed Internet connection so multiple computers can get on the web at once.
Routers come in a variety of flavors. Two of the most important features to consider in a router are range and speed. If you live in a sprawling house or plan to use your laptop all over the property, look for a router with a long range—around 150 feet is the longest you can find, and it is typically found in routers that distribute signals over the 5-GHz bandwidth.
The speed of a router determines how much information can be transferred at once. Faster routers may be slightly more expensive, but they are the best choice for most families, says Ismael Matos, a networking specialist at the Geek Squad. The two fastest types of routers utilize either 802.11a or 802.11g technology, both of which zip information around the house at about 54 megabits per second (Mbps).
No matter what type of router you buy, it will need to plug into an electrical outlet and either a phone jack (for a DSL modem connection) or cable TV outlet (for a cable modem connection). The router can reside with the rest of your office equipment or you can hide it away inside a closet. Just keep the range of the router in mind when you select a spot. If you tuck it in a bookshelf at one end of your house, the laptops at the other end may not be able to “reach” it, so it’s best to locate the router in a central location.
One of the most appealing features of a wireless network is being able to access the Internet from outside. You can surf the web while relaxing on a deck chair, tinkering around in the tool shed or roaming around the backyard. For outdoor computing, you’ll probably need to extend the range of the router. This can be accomplished by adding an access point to the network.
Finally, you may need to purchase a card adapter if your laptop doesn’t have wireless capabilities built in.
Other Pieces to Network
Shared Internet access is not the only benefit of a wireless network. Use a network to share a single printer—you’ll need to add a print server to the network—as well as all kinds of computers files. Store digital pictures on one computer, but view them from any other machine in the house. The same goes for music. Use one PC to compile and organize audio files, but distribute them to other PCs so that you can hear the music throughout the house. With the addition of a media server, this music can also be played through your home stereo system. Games, documents and other information can also be distributed to multiple computers. Keeping memory-hogging files on the computer with the biggest hard drive is not only a good way to keep your pictures, music and other information organized, but frees up space on your smaller PCs.
Setting Up a System
Many of the products that comprise a wireless network are widely available at national electronics retailers like Best Buy and Circuit City. Setting up a network yourself isn’t rocket science, but it’s no walk in the park either. Configuring the settings can be confusing and time consuming, says Matos. If you’d rather spend your weekends golfing than fiddling around with your computer, most stores can send a technician to set up the system for you. In most cases, it’ll take no longer than an hour. Before you head to the store though, see if your cable or phone company offers wireless networking services. They may have all the equipment, and service, you’ll need.
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Lisa Montgomery has been writing about home technology for 15 years, with a focus on the impact of electronics on a modern lifestyle.