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Home Networking: The Missing Manual by Scott Lowe

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Chapter 1. Planning Your Home Network

Sure, there are a heck of a lot of products in the networking aisle down at Big Giant Computer Store, but don’t be overwhelmed. Planning a home network is a lot like picking the types of telephones you need when you’re moving into a new home: you can choose between old-fashioned landlines and snazzy wireless cellphones, corded and cordless handsets, speakerphones and headsets. Nowadays, you can even get walkie-talkie features or the ability to make calls over the Internet. But, thankfully, in order to choose from this smorgasbord of options, you don’t need to know anything about the phone system’s underlying technology. You do, however, need to understand some telephone basics, like the fact that you don’t need to have a phone jack in every room if you’re going to go the cordless phone route.

Home networks are a lot like phones in that you don’t need to understand the gory details of how computers talk to each other—but you do need to know what equipment makes sense for your situation. For example, if you want to be able to surf the Web while sitting next to your pool, wireless networking—also known as WiFi—will save you from running 30 feet of ugly cable out your back door. But if you’ve got only two desktop computers in your home office, a small wired network is probably your best bet. This chapter explains the main components of a home network, a few variations on the theme, and how to decide what’s best for you.

Home Networking Hardware

To set up a home network, you need three things (beside computers, electricity, and a little bit of moxie):

  • A router. This device distributes your cable or DSL (digital subscriber line) Internet connection to the computers on your network. It’s like the clerk at the train station giving everyone on your network a ticket to ride. Figure 1-1 shows a picture of both a wired and wireless router. .

    Whether they’re wired (top) or wireless (bottom), your network’s router keeps the traffic moving along your network and divvies up that high-speed cable or DSL connection, distributing it from your Internet service provider to all the computers connected to your home network.Routers designed for wired networks typically have jacks on the back so that they can connect (via network cables) to a modem and all the PCs that are on the network. Wireless routers, on the other hand, have jacks to hook up to your broadband modem and maybe one other network device. But wireless routers use invisible radio waves to connect to PCs that are within range.
    Figure 1-1. Whether they’re wired (top) or wireless (bottom), your network’s router keeps the traffic moving along your network and divvies up that high-speed cable or DSL connection, distributing it from your Internet service provider to all the computers connected to your home network. Routers designed for wired networks typically have jacks on the back so that they can connect (via network cables) to a modem and all the PCs that are on the network. Wireless routers, on the other hand, have jacks to hook up to your broadband modem and maybe one other network device. But wireless routers use invisible radio waves to connect to PCs that are within range.

    You connect the router to your cable or DSL modem with a cable, and, depending on the kind of equipment you choose, you connect your individual computers to the router either with cables or using wireless technology.

    Note

    It’s possible to set up a home network that doesn’t use a router and simply links all your computers to each other to share files. But since one of the biggest reasons to set up a home network is to share a high-speed broadband connection among several computers, the heart of most home networks is the router.

  • Cables or wireless signals. Whether they’re colorful strands of plastic-coated cable (Figure 1-2) or invisible radio waves (not shown, because invisible doesn’t photograph so well), these are ways you connect your computers to the network.

    Computer network cable is available in varying lengths and many festive colors from most computer stores. You need one cable for every computer you want to connect to your network. You should also make sure the cable is long enough to reach the router. Chapter 2 tells you everything you need to know about picking out the right type of cable.
    Figure 1-2. Computer network cable is available in varying lengths and many festive colors from most computer stores. You need one cable for every computer you want to connect to your network. You should also make sure the cable is long enough to reach the router. Chapter 2 tells you everything you need to know about picking out the right type of cable.
  • Network adapters. This term is really just a fancy name for the jack on the back (or side) of your computer where you’ll plug in your cables or exchange wireless signals. You need one of these doodads on all the computers and devices (such as a printer) that you want to add to your network.

    Way back in the 1990s, having a computer with a network jack already installed was a rare, beautiful, and expensive thing. These days, network jacks (and sometimes even wireless network adapters) typically come standard on new machines. In fact, you’d be hard pressed today to find any computer for sale without a wired network adapter, which is also known as an Ethernet connection or Ethernet port. Wireless network adapters—usually called WiFi cards—are increasingly standard on laptops, and you can add them to any computer (Section 3.3.4).

    There are three kinds of network adapters, as shown in Figure 1-3, each of which connects to a computer in a different way:

    • A Peripheral Component Interconnect (or PCI) card plugs into the motherboard (a circuit board inside the computer). The card endows your computer with a connection jack that peeks outside the PC’s case.

    • A USB adapter plugs into the USB port on any kind of computer and parks itself on the outside of your machine. (See the box “Catching the Universal Serial Bus” on Section 1.2.)

    • A PC card plugs into a special slot on laptops.

Network adapters for the computer come in all shapes and sizes.Top: This PCI card plugs into a slot inside the computer and provides one Ethernet jack for connecting a network cable. (You need to open up your computer’s case to install one of these.)Middle: PC cards work with laptop computers. The card plugs right into the PCMCIA slot and supplies an Ethernet jack for a wired network connection. (You can also get similar-looking cards to use with a wireless network.)Bottom: This USB adapter plugs into the computer’s USB port and saves you the trouble of wrestling the machine apart to install a network card. USB adapters can be quite convenient but require the full-time use of one of your computer’s USB ports.
Figure 1-3. Network adapters for the computer come in all shapes and sizes. Top: This PCI card plugs into a slot inside the computer and provides one Ethernet jack for connecting a network cable. (You need to open up your computer’s case to install one of these.) Middle: PC cards work with laptop computers. The card plugs right into the PCMCIA slot and supplies an Ethernet jack for a wired network connection. (You can also get similar-looking cards to use with a wireless network.) Bottom: This USB adapter plugs into the computer’s USB port and saves you the trouble of wrestling the machine apart to install a network card. USB adapters can be quite convenient but require the full-time use of one of your computer’s USB ports.

Note

If your computer doesn’t have a network adapter at all or if you want to install a wireless adapter, take a stroll to Section 2.1.3.

As if the term “network adapter” weren’t geeky enough, the electronics industry also calls these devices network cards, Network Interface Cards (or NIC), and Ethernet adapters, to name a few possibilities—all adding to the swirling mess of nerd words now inside your head. Despite the intimidating names, they’re all just jacks for your network cables or receiving points for wireless signals.

That’s it. You just need three basic pieces of hardware to build a rollicking network to make everyone in the house incredibly happy. “Okay,” you say to yourself. “‘Three pieces of hardware’ sounds pretty easy.”

But what about software?

Home Networking Software

Good news: the software that lets your computers hop onto a network is already part of your operating system! You don’t need any other complicated software, just maybe a little program called a driver, which is a piece of code that comes with your networking hardware and lets it talk to your computer’s operating system.

As far as networks are concerned, all operating systems are created equal. Your network can play host to computers running just about any operating system out there—Windows, Macintosh, Linux, DOS, you name it. But like the pigs in Animal Farm, some operating systems are more equal than others.

Sleek and modern, Windows XP and Mac OS X are particularly good for home networkers, because they’re both designed to run multiple accounts and they’re compatible with all WiFi equipment. (The term “accounts” here has nothing to do with banking; computer systems like Windows XP and Mac OS X allow each person using the machine to create his own user account with a separate name, password, settings, and files, for both security and aesthetic reasons. Chapters 5 and 6 tell you everything you need to know about accounts.) If your computers are running older versions of Windows or the Mac OS, you can still, of course, join the network party, but you’ll have a little more setup work to do. Throughout this book, you’ll find specific tips and instructions relevant to all flavors of Windows and the Mac OS.

Note

If you’re an all-Microsoft house (using Windows XP, Windows 98, Windows ME, or Windows 2000), you’ll find Windows specifics in Chapter 5. Mac mavens will be interested in Chapter 6. And if you’ve got computers running a mix of Windows and Mac OS X, Chapter 7 walks you through this sort of cross-platform setup.

But before you dash off to Computer Cathedral to buy your network’s goods, you first need to decide whether you need a network that’s wired, wireless, or both. That’s what the rest of this chapter will help you figure out.

Wired Networks

While you may have heard lots about wireless networking, wired networks are often the easiest to set up, the cheapest to buy, and the most stable to maintain. Wired networks come in two main flavors:

  • Ethernet uses cables that look like fat telephone wires. Ethernet is by far the most common type of network in use today because it’s fast, cheap, and reliable. How fast? It runs anywhere from 10 to 1,000 megabits per second (see the box “A Bit about Bits” for detailed information about these data speeds, but for now, just imagine that at 10 Mbps, you could transfer the entire contents of a 40-gigabyte iPod in about 9 hours across your network; with a 1,000 Mbps connection, you’d be done in under 6 minutes). Practically every piece of home-networking equipment in existence includes Ethernet ports. Even wireless networking equipment includes Ethernet capabilities so that you can easily connect it to a wired network. This standardization is particularly important because it makes it a lot easier to mix and match networking technology.

    Note

    The speed of your Ethernet network depends on your hardware. 100 Mbps is the most common speed today, and 1,000 Mbps, (also called Gigabit Ethernet), is gaining popularity. 10 Mbps is going the way of the vinyl record.

    The only downside to Ethernet is that if you want to connect computers in more than one room, or if you want the freedom to use your laptop on the sofa or in bed, you have to run unsightly cables to every computer in every room you want to connect to your network. Chapter 2 covers Ethernet in detail.

  • Powerline, which is also called HomePlug, uses your existing electrical lines to carry your network’s data. This type of network is even easier to set up than Ethernet, because you don’t need to buy and run cables from room to room. To set up a Powerline network you need just a few Powerline adapters (Figure 1-4), which easily connect your computers and your router to your electrical wiring, and come equipped with either Ethernet or USB connections.

    The great thing about Powerline networking (unless you live in a yurt or an old New York City apartment) is that you probably have electrical outlets in every room, which makes it easy to extend your network throughout your home.

    On the downside, Powerline networks are not as fast as most Ethernet networks. They run at 14 Mbps—still nearly 10 times faster than most broadband Internet connections (see the box on Section 1.5 that explains the difference between your Internet connection speed and your network’s internal speed). In addition, Powerline adapters must be plugged directly into the wall, so you can’t use an extension cord or most power strips. If all this sounds workable, check out Chapter 4, which covers Powerline networking in detail.

The blocky Powerline Ethernet adapter makes hooking your computer to the network as easy as plugging in a hair dryer. Just plug the adapter into a nearby power outlet and plug one end of a network cable into the jack on the bottom. Connect the other end of the cable to the Ethernet port on your computer, and you’ll be surfing the Web in no time.
Figure 1-4. The blocky Powerline Ethernet adapter makes hooking your computer to the network as easy as plugging in a hair dryer. Just plug the adapter into a nearby power outlet and plug one end of a network cable into the jack on the bottom. Connect the other end of the cable to the Ethernet port on your computer, and you’ll be surfing the Web in no time.

Wireless Networks

Wired networks have lots of advantages, but they can require enough wiring to reach Mars—and they keep you chained to your nearest network connection. Enter wireless networking, which uses radio signals instead of cables to transmit data. It can be a handy alternative to having your desk chair get tangled in a mass of Ethernet cable spaghetti, and it lets you roam as far as your signals reach, like out under the shade of a tree on a nice summer day. In addition, if you have a laptop that’s ready for wireless, you can hop online at an ever-growing number of places—known as WiFi zones or hot spots—that broadcast Internet signals, like airports, public parks, and trendy coffee shops.

Note

Engineers, when not making up complicated names for things, develop wireless networking technology according to a series of rules. An international association—the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, known as IEEE (pronounced “eye triple E”)—creates those rules, or standards, which specify how wireless devices work: what part of the radio spectrum they use and how they talk to each other. “WiFi” refers to the predominant family of wireless standards.

To set up a wireless network, you need a wireless router or base station (the term Apple prefers), which broadcasts your network traffic (including your Internet connection), over the airwaves. Depending on the type of wireless technology inside, wireless routers usually beam their signals over an area of about 50 to 150 square feet. Any computer with a wireless network adapter (Section 3.3.4) can join the network. Figure 1-5 shows you how it works.

Your broadband modem plugs into the wireless router. Computers outfitted with wireless adapter cards can access the network and communicate with both the Internet and each other.
Figure 1-5. Your broadband modem plugs into the wireless router. Computers outfitted with wireless adapter cards can access the network and communicate with both the Internet and each other.

While WiFi offers terrific convenience, it does have a few disadvantages. It’s not as fast as old, wired Ethernet; 54 Mbps is the current speed limit. Configuring the system can be tricky (but Chapter 3 is here to guide you through the process). And interference from other devices that use radio waves, such as cordless phones and microwave ovens, can drag down and diminish the stability of your network.

In fact, radio waves from your neighbors' wireless networks can interfere with your system. And physical objects or barriers like pipes or thick walls can also degrade your signal. Finally, while no network is airtight, wireless networks can be especially susceptible to hackers if you don’t set up some safeguards. (Section 3.6 tells you how to dig the virtual moat and pull up the digital drawbridge around Castle Wireless Network)

Choosing Between Wired and Wireless

Deciding between a wired network, a wireless network, or a hybrid network—that is, one that uses both wired and wireless components—depends on what type of equipment you plan to connect, how you want to use the network, and the layout of your house. (After all, people living in glamorous, Donald Trump–sized mansions probably have different network needs than people living in 300-square-foot studio apartments.)

It may be obvious to you right off the bat that your house calls for an all-wired or pure wireless network. For instance, if you just moved into a spiffy new condo with Ethernet cabling built into every room and all your computers are desktop models, WiFi may be a waste of money and radio signals. Or, if you’re just going to connect a couple of computers that happen to be in the same room, an Ethernet network will work just fine and is quite easy to string up. On the other hand, if you have a killer outdoor deck, and you want to use your laptop to surf the Web while soaking up the rays, WiFi may be your sunniest option.

But if you’re not sure whether to go wired or wireless, don’t worry: you can experiment and build your network over time. You may even find that a combination of wired and wireless technologies works best for you. For instance, you may discover through trial and plenty of error that the wireless router in your top-floor home office won’t reach the kitchen on the ground floor. The solution? Extend your network with Ethernet cables or Powerline, and off you go, browsing those food sites on the Web for the perfect side-dish recipe while you whip up the main course.

To help you figure out what’s best for you, this table compares the network types:

Table 1-1. 

Ethernet

Powerline (HomePlug)

WiFi

Speed

10, 100, or 1,000 Mbps (100 is typical).

Up to 14 Mbps currently. A new standard increases this speed to a much higher level but is not yet available.

Anywhere from 11 to 54 Mbps.

Ease of installation

Single rooms: piece o’ cake. Multiple rooms: a bear unless cabling is installed during home construction.

An exercise in simplicity.

Simple. Requires only setting up the router and possibly installing network adapters.

Cabling

Specialized—not found in most houses, but easy to buy in stores.

Electrical cable—multiple jacks in every room of the house. Uses either USB or Ethernet to connect to computer.

Wireless = no wires.

Security

Very secure.

Very secure.

Runs the gamut from somewhat secure all the way down to “more open than Denny’s after an all-night party.”

How does its future look?

Excellent.

Good.

Excellent.

Cost

Low.

High.

Medium–high.

The next three chapters tell you what you need to know to actually set up a network. If you’ve decided that you’d like to start with an Ethernet network, head to Chapter 2. If pure wireless is your desire, leaf over to Chapter 3. And if Powerline is most likely to meet your needs, Chapter 4 is the place to go. Each chapter also includes information about setting up hybrid networks.

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