Does your home have two or more computers? Do you have an older computer sitting idle because your new PC is using the only Internet connection and printer?
Does your office use multiple printers and Internet connections?
Answer “yes,” and a network may be just the thing for you.
Mention setting up a home or small-business network to computer veterans. Eyes widen. Jaws drop. Fear and trembling sets in. Networking computers used to be a job for the real professionals.
All that has changed. The operating systems (the master control programs) in newer computers make networking a lot easier. Home networking kits also have hit the market. These “home-networks-in-a-box” include everything needed to establish a network in a home or small business - sometimes for a little as $100.
A computer network consists of computers linked together by wires or wireless signals similar to radio waves. Networks can be as enormous as the Internet, which links millions of computers and spans the globe. And they can be as small as two desktop computers linked together in your own home.
What good is a home network?
PCs are piling up in a lot of homes as people buy new computers with the latest features. That old PC still may be plenty good for connecting to the Internet and doing common tasks like word processing. Yet you may have trouble giving it away.
Old computers often go into the attic because the new PC takes over the Internet connection, printer, scanner, and devices that make a computer really useful. With a network, two or more computers can share everything. That includes files stored on their hard drives. Big files that won't fit on 3.5-inch diskettes can be transferred quickly from one computer to another over the network link.
The growing popularity of fast Internet connections - via cable and DSL telephone lines, for instance - also is boosting interest in home networks.
Sharing a fast Internet connection is the No. 1 reason why people establish home and small-business networks. You pay for just one fast connection and one modem. Yet every computer in a home or small office can get lightning-fast Internet access, with quick downloading of big MP3 music files, graphics, and other material.
There are three types of home networks, and each has advantages and disadvantages. They are conventional wired networks, telephone line networks, and wireless networks.
Wired networks link each computer with special wire. They require installation of a Network Interface Card (NIC) in each computer. This electronic board fits into a slot inside the box-like system unit. The network wire plugs into the NICs.
Laptop computers link to the network via a special modem-like “card.” Wired networks are fast and inexpensive, with kits for two computers running just over $100. But they involve running wire from one computer to another. And you need enough technical savvy to open the system unit and install the NIC cards.
Phone line networks link computers over existing telephone lines. They are inexpensive. Kits cost about $100. But phone line networks are slower - a big consideration for people who transfer big files. They may be much slower in older buildings with degraded telephone lines.
Wireless networks link computers with a device similar to a radio transmitter. Computers can be located almost anywhere. You can access the Internet or e-mail, for instance, with a laptop in the backyard. Speed drops, however, as distance between the units increases. Wireless networks are the most expensive, with kits going for several hundred dollars.
For more information on networking, including the connection kits, search “home network” on the Internet. And watch for several future columns on the topic.
Michael Woods is the Blade's science editor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.