Two or More PCs? You Need a Network

Presto! With today’s new technology, you can connect equipment easily, even without wires.

September 1, 1999

Linking computers to share files and peripherals is too daunting for two or three non-techie practitioners in a home office. Right?

Wrong. As PCs get more affordable and multiple-PC homes and small offices multiply (almost half of U.S. households have a computer nowadays; nearly a quarter have two or more), it makes sense for users at different desks or in different rooms to share one printer instead of buying two.

Ditto for swiftly transferring documents without carrying disks back and forth and for using a single connection to the Internet to perform different tasks—an assistant answers E-mail while you surf the Web.

Network ease

Not only has a new crop of plug-and-play, two-PC starter kits—networks specifically designed for network novices—come to market, but the hottest trend is that some home networks need no new wires. Instead of directly plugging one PC into another, you network computers via phone jacks or AC power outlets, or zap data through walls via wireless radio signals.

Also, new homes are being built with network wiring already in place to link computers or control lights, thermostats, and appliances.

The plug 'n play set

If you don't mind the 20-minute job of installing adapter cards inside your PCs and running wiring between adapters, bundles like 3Com's OfficeConnect Networking Kit ($120) or Linksys' Network Starter Kit ($65) are bargains. If you have two fairly new PCs with universal serial bus ports, use Anchor Chips’ 4Mbps EZ-Link ($90) to plug them together in about the time it takes to read this sentence.

To link PCs in different rooms without running new wires through the walls, choose from three technologies. The first, and arguably easiest but with sluggish performance, is Intelogis' PassPort Plug-In Network ($200), which turns your home's electrical wiring into a LAN (local area network), linking PCs via their power cords and compact wall-outlet adapters.

Your second alternative is a wireless home LAN that sends data for short distances—typically no more than 150 feet, at a modest but adequate 1Mbps to 1.5Mbps—over the 900MHz or 2.4GHz radio frequencies popular for cordless phones. Products include Proxim's Symphony ($348 for one desktop and one notebook), Diamond Multimedia's HomeFree wireless kit ($200 for two desktops), and WebGear’s Aviator ($200 for two USB-equipped PCs).

For now, wireless vendors use proprietary networking schemes, so Symphony and HomeFree, for instance, can't talk to each other.

But the third type of home LAN boasts a multivendor standard, the Home Phoneline Networking Alliance. A handful of companies sell interoperable HomePNA products that link PCs plugged into your house's phone jacks, without interrupting incoming or outgoing voice calls or modem or fax activity.

For instance, there's the Linksys’ HomeLink ($90), Diamond’s HomeFree Phoneline ($100), and ActionTec's ActionLink ($100) kits, which require you to get inside your computer to add adapter cards; Intel's AnyPoint ($189) has two external adapters that plug into computers' printer ports.

Coming soon: Notebook PC Card, USB, and Macintosh adapters to bring phone line networking to more computers; and a HomePNA 2.0 standard that works at 10Mbps rather than the first generation's 1Mbps.

It's already a business necessity to connect to the biggest network of all--the Internet. If you have more than one PC, connecting to an at-home network is just as smart.

Eric Grevstad is editor in chief of Home Office Computing, the technology resource that reaches more than 500,000 home-based businesspeople each month. It covers everything from home office furnishings and tax and time management to computers, communications, Internet product reviews, and buyer’s guides. HOC is available on newsstands or by annual subscription for $19.97 (800/288-7812).

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