My home network: Look Ma, no wires
April 5, 1999
by Steve Bass
(IDG) -- Remember the 1940s movie The Snake Pit, where Olivia de Havilland dreams she's trapped in a nest of vipers? That's what the floor of my office looks like. My feet are tangled in cabling -- hundreds of feet of it, spontaneously breeding at night.
So when I wanted to connect my wife Judy's PC to mine, I put my foot down (carefully): no more wires. Instead of a traditional ethernet LAN, I set up a wireless network. And by gosh, it actually did the job. Sure, it's a bit slower and more expensive than a wired network, but it's also a heck of a lot neater and easier.
Why a home network? Two reasons. First, it cuts costs. For instance, my wife and I can share one printer, and when I back up my system, Judy's gets backed up as well. And here's the biggie: We can share one fast ISDN Internet connection.
Second, networks are now much easier to install and manage. And I'll give credit to (yes, get ready, I'm going to say it) Microsoft. Windows 95, 98, and NT are all network-smart, and configuring a system is no longer a daunting task.
Snaking down the hallway
The big problem with a wired LAN is, of course, the wires. The only way to avoid drilling holes in the walls, schlepping wires through the attic, or running cables down the hall is to go wireless. Sure, it'll cost a few more bucks, but I promise that you'll be networked in under an hour.
I tried Diamond's HomeFree Wireless Desktop Pac, a $200 kit with two networking cards -- one ISA and the other PCI. Each card has a transceiver that sends and receives data. The gizmo sticks out behind the computer about an inch and operates at 2.4 GHz, safely beyond the range of devices like cordless phones or wireless keyboards. (Strangely, though, I could no longer listen to Dr. Laura through the transmitter in my teeth.)
The amazing part is how easy it was to install the HomeFree network. Windows 98 recognized the card and asked for the CD-ROM so it could install drivers. After two reboots, and one request for my Windows 98 CD-ROM, my computer was ready to go. Then I booted my wife's system and went through the installation process. HomeFree's two network cards found each other, and the LAN was installed. The network recognized the ISDN phone line on my system, and I was all set. I didn't have to tweak -- heck, I didn't even see -- any network gobbledygook.
HomeFree handles up to 16 PCs, and each one can be up to 150 feet away. I had no trouble at 50 feet (and listen, if I had a hot tub out back, I'd have hooked up my notebook and gone the distance).
Oh no, it's slow
Here's the catch: Wireless nets move data more slowly than ethernet LANs. For kicks, I installed Linksys's wired, $60 Network Starter Kit and made some comparisons. On the wired network, a 5MB file took 7 seconds to transfer; a 29MB file took 35 seconds. With HomeFree, the 5MB file took 3 minutes and the 29MB file slogged along for 20 minutes. But I saw no slowdown with Net browsing or e-mail.
The other gotcha is more basic. If my PC is turned off, or it crashes, my wife loses access to the Internet -- most likely during the last 2KB of a 20MB download. One solution: Connect an old, working PC to the network as a dedicated communication server (hey, it's better than giving it to your brother-in-law).
You can learn more about building a network at the Linksys Frequently Asked Questions page (link below). To dig deeper, try Networking Home PCs for Dummies, a super how-to book.
Next month I'll tell you about my fiasco with speedy cable modem access, and how to share an Internet connection without a LAN. But for now I've gotta go -- I feel a snake crawling up my leg.
Contributing Editor Steve Bass is a licensed marriage and family therapist and the president of the Pasadena IBM Users Group.
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