Home Wired Home

SAN FRANCISCO (05/01/2000) - Dad's crunching spreadsheet numbers on his PC upstairs. Mom's writing a grant proposal on her machine downstairs. Junior's browsing the Internet in his room. But what happens if Dad wants to get on the Net, or if Mom wants to use the color printer that's attached to Junior's computer? This family needs a home network.

With a network in place, everyone in the house can share printers and files without shuffling floppy disks or an Iomega Corp. Zip drive. The most attractive feature: Your entire family can share a single Internet connection and surf at the same time.

Sounds great, but installing a wired network can be a pain. If all the PCs are in the same room, you can hide the ugly ethernet cables behind the furniture.

Usually, though, the PCs are in different parts of the house, forcing you to drill holes in the walls for stringing cables through and to connect other pieces such as faceplates and hubs. You must also decipher arcane network settings in Windows. Fortunately, some networking alternatives don't need ethernet cables. These solutions make it much easier to connect all the computers in your home without punching through the walls.

Home networking kits come in three versions besides the traditional ethernet-based design. Phone-line networks use your home's existing telephone wiring--without interfering with phone calls (they operate at a higher frequency than telephones do). Power-line networks operate across the same wires and outlets that your appliances use, but they suffer from poor performance and are not considered further here. Wireless networks use radio waves and require no physical connections. All three types of kits have been available for a couple of years, but they've been plagued by slow speed, high cost, or both.

The latest home networking kits tout speeds of 10 or 11 megabits per second (mbps), substantially faster than the older 1- and 2-mbps products. The new specs equal those of a conventional 10Base-T ethernet network. That kind of bandwidth lets you listen to MP3 audio files located on another computer on the network. It also allows you to do several network-challenging tasks at once.

For example, you can print a file to a printer connected to another computer, copy a file from a third PC, and download a file from the Internet--all at the same time. Multitasking finally hits the home market.

Falling prices are another inducement to set up a network. Phone-line adapters cost $70 to $80 each--more than conventional ethernet cards--but they obviate the need for an expensive hub, which ethernet networks require. Wireless networks cost as much as $180 per computer still, but their price should drop this summer as more kits arrive.

Phone It In

To see how well these kits work, we put six of them through their paces. We looked at five 10-mbps phone-line networks: 3Com's HomeConnect, Diamond Multimedia's HomeFree, Intel's AnyPoint, Linksys's HomeLink Phoneline 10M, and Netgear's Phoneline10X. We also tested an 11-mbps wireless home network, the Dell 4800LT (the only wireless kit available by our deadline). For a baseline comparison, we also tested a typical entry-level networking kit that uses ethernet cables, Netgear's DB104 Network Starter Kit. By the time you read this, networking products that connect your computer's USB port to your phone line will hit the market; they'll cost about the same as the PCI card versions.

Intel's AnyPoint phone-line network won our Best Buy rating, thanks to its easy setup, overall speed, and value. Though few of the products we tested were hard to install, none could beat the AnyPoint's thorough installation software and documentation. Granted, at $158 for a two-PC network, AnyPoint is the most expensive phone-line product we looked at. But it's still $200 cheaper than Dell's wireless network.

The five phone-line networks we tested averaged at least twice the speed of Dell's 11-mbps 4800LT wireless network. Their main drawback: Every PC must be situated near a phone outlet. The look-ma-no-wires Dell 4800LT let us roam the house and yard with a laptop. But if you get too far away from the server with a wireless product, performance degrades--or breaks off entirely because you lose the connection.

Installing The Home Network

To test installation and performance of each product, we set up a network of three identically configured PCs in a typical home, one in a room downstairs and the other two in separate upstairs bedrooms. The two upstairs PCs were 11 feet apart (as measured through a wall); the downstairs PC was approximately 17 feet from each of the upstairs PCs (measured through the ceiling). We tested the desktop versions of Dell's wireless product, plus a PC Card version for notebooks, which we installed in a Dell Inspiron 5000 laptop.

All of the products require you to remove the cover on your PC, install a PCI adapter card, and connect a cord from the card to a phone jack. Then you must install driver software for the adapter card and set up file, printer, and Internet sharing. In all cases, the PC with the modem and phone-line connection becomes a server for Internet sharing, while the other networked PCs become clients. The server PC must be turned on and logged on to the Internet if you want to enable everyone in the family to surf and print as they please.

Functioning as the Internet connection point for multiple PCs consumes some of a system's CPU cycles, but we didn't notice any appreciable slowdown on the server. (For an alternative to leaving your PC on, see "Home Servers Serve Up Files for Connected Users," page 152.)Any product here will share a modem or broadband connection among multiple connected computers. To set up sharing, you can use Windows 98 Second Edition's Internet Connection Sharing, but you must add it in the Add/Remove Programs control panel (Windows 98 SE doesn't install it by default). Several of the products include third-party applications to make setting up sharing even easier.

Though we got our network running within a couple of hours in each case, the kits varied widely in ease of setup. Intel's AnyPoint phone-line network and Dell's 4800LT wireless LAN were simplest to install, followed closely by 3Com's HomeConnect and Diamond Multimedia's HomeFree. NetGear's Phoneline10X has an automated setup that obscures some installation details, which might confuse network newbies. If you want to see everything that's going on, you may be disappointed by the product's lack of detailed documentation. Linksys HomeLink's manual installation is almost as challenging as that of Netgear's wired ethernet network kit.

To add the Dell laptop to our wireless network, we installed a driver and inserted the PC Card, which carries a built-in antenna. None of the phone-line companies offer PC Card adapters for laptops, but Xircom says that, by the time you read this, its RealPort PC card will allow connections to phone-line networks.

Wired Ethernet Still Rules

To test each product's speed, we copied, opened, and printed files across the network. As you might expect given its 100-mbps rating, Netgear's wired network easily captured the performance honors. It was two to three times faster than the phone-line networks on some tests, but not ten times faster as its rating seemed to promise (it did transfer data up to ten times faster than the Dell wireless network). For example, a PC equipped with the Netgear ethernet setup copied a 36MB file from another PC on the network in only 14 seconds. In contrast, the phone-line products took an average of 40 seconds, and the Dell wireless network took 1 minute and 34 seconds.

Among phone-line products, 3Com's HomeConnect maintained a slight advantage, beating the others by 5 to 10 seconds in many tests. But for the most part, we could barely distinguish one phone-line network's performance from another.

That's not surprising, since these kits all support the same HomePNA (Phoneline Networking Association) 2.0 specification--a standard created by a consortium of networking companies--and they all use the same Broadcom controller chip.

Dell's 4800LT wireless network turned in a somewhat disappointing performance compared with the phone-line setups. Though rated at 11 mbps--slightly faster than the 10-mbps phone-line products--the wireless system took more than twice as long to perform most tasks (except printing, where speeds were similar). For instance, the Dell network copied a 47MB folder from the server to another PC in a little over 2 minutes, compared with a minute or less for the phone-line networks. When we put the systems under stress by working with applications on each PC while they were sending files over the network, the Dell setup bogged down dramatically, taking almost 40 percent longer to copy the same folder to the server. The phone-line products handled the increased load better--their times remained relatively consistent. For example, 3Com's HomeConnect slipped slightly from 46.3 seconds to 47.4 seconds.

We won't know whether slower performance is characteristic of wireless networking systems until more home wireless LAN products become available for testing. (We did not examine Apple's AirPort because it works only with Macintoshes. For a preview of Lucent's Orinoco Home Networking System, see "More Options Are Coming for Wireless Home Networks," page 147.) But the likeliest explanation for the Dell network's leisurely performance numbers is that wireless LANs gradually lose speed as the distance they traverse increases. Transfer rates slow further when radio waves pass through walls and other barriers. Though Dell says that 4800LT-equipped PCs should be able to communicate across as much as 150 feet of space, they must be within 20 feet to achieve top transmission speed.

We conducted two other experiments, both designed to test transmission quality.

In the first, testers played Quake 3 Arena head-to-head. Overall, the game looked fine to us on the phone-line networks and on Netgear's ethernet product.

The occasional choppiness was probably due to a delay in hard disk access rather than to network limitations. Quake was slightly jerkier on Dell's wireless network, but not bad enough to spoil the game.

To test the effect of phone use on a phone-line network, we tried copying files between two PCs while simultaneously making a call on the same line. Somewhat surprisingly, every network except 3Com's ran slightly faster, not slower (3Com's performance stayed the same). According to Broadcom, which makes the chip that all the phone-line products use, the effect of telephones and fax machines on a phone-line network's performance cannot be predicted. If your telephone wiring is more than 15 years old, however, it may downgrade performance.

The prospect of setting up a network petrifies even some geeks, but Intel's AnyPoint makes it easy. AnyPoint's excellent documentation and tutorials make it the best package for novices of the seven reviewed here.

If this is your first experience setting up a network or installing an adapter card in your PC, you'll appreciate AnyPoint's installation CD-ROM, which explains the concepts and holds your hand through the entire procedure. Simple, step-by-step screens take the mystery out of sharing drives, printers, and an Internet connection. For backup, you get the best documentation package here, plus toll-free technical support. The thorough manual, which comes both in print form and on CD-ROM for faster searching, supplies extensive troubleshooting information.

Networks Compared

Traditional Wired Network

PRO: Inexpensive (starting at $60 per PC) and fast (up to 100 mbps--or 1 gbps with high-end equipment). Standardization lets you mix hardware from different vendors. Easy to expand.

CON: Running wires through walls is difficult and expensive. Running wires in plain sight is ugly. Requires central hub or switch. Software can be difficult to set up.

Home Phone-Line Networks

PRO: Reasonably priced, at just $60 to $79 per adapter card. Easy to install and operate. Uses existing telephone wiring, which eliminates the need to install separate cables.

CON: Each PC must be near a phone jack. Not as fast as a traditional ethernet LAN, and old or poorly installed phone wiring can degrade performance. Few vendors market products for connecting notebook PCs.

Wireless Local Area Networks

PRO: Wires are completely unnecessary, so PCs don't have to be situated near a phone jack or ethernet port. Easy to install and use, and works with notebook PCs. With a notebook, allows limited roaming, even outside.

CON: Currently more expensive than phone-line and conventional wired ethernet networks. Slower than phone-line and wired networks, with speed falling as distance increases.

3Com HomeConnect

WHAT'S HOT: If you follow the directions (see below for what happens if you don't), HomeConnect is easy to get up and running. The installation software provides easy-to-understand choices every step of the way. The kit also includes an excellent quick-start guide. Like any network, 3Com's product lets you use Windows Explorer to access other PCs' hard drives; but HomeConnect's HomeClick Network Center utility goes a step further by offering a dedicated window that shows which drives and printers are available on which PCs. As a bonus, 3Com throws in a CD-ROM of game samples.

WHAT'S NOT: The host system must be running Windows 98 SE to share an Internet connection. Client PCs do have the option of using Windows 95 or Windows 98, but HomeConnect won't let you designate a PC with Windows 95 or even the first edition of Windows 98 as the host. That's because HomeConnect depends on Microsoft's Internet Sharing software, which is included only with the second edition of Windows 98. To smooth the way for users of older versions of Windows, however, HomeConnect comes with a single-license upgrade from Windows 98 to Windows 98 SE. The other phone-line products bundle a third-party utility to let you share the Internet connection, because Microsoft's utility is harder to use. Microsoft's software instructs you to install the HomeClick software before adding the adapter card, but it doesn't tell you what will happen if you reverse the order. If you install the card first, the installation won't work, and you'll have to remove the card and start over.

WHAT ELSE: HomeConnect is the only product here that automatically installs the network software drivers required for its adapter cards, without making you use Windows' Add New Hardware Wizard. After you've installed the basic setup software and restarted your PC, HomeConnect searches for printers on the network and asks whether you want to share them. Setting up Internet access is also largely automatic; the software asks you if you want to share the Internet connection on the server PC.

DELL 4800LT

WHAT'S HOT: The only wireless network kit we examined for this story, the Dell 4800LT is almost as easy to install as AnyPoint's phone-line network--and it frees you to set up PCs anywhere in the house (unless your house is the Gates mansion; distance can be a problem). The only clue that your PCs are networked is the 4-inch-tall rubber antenna that extends from each card. Best of all, you can network your laptop in two simple steps. First set up a desktop PC as your Internet access server, then insert Dell's wireless PC Card into your laptop--and you'll be able to share files, print documents, or surf the Internet from virtually anywhere in your home, or even outside on the deck.

WHAT'S NOT: Performance didn't meet our expectations--or the product specs.

Sending small files from one PC to another without wires took twice as long as on the slowest phone-line network. And the 4800LT bogged down even more when we assigned each PC nonnetwork tasks. Also, at $179 for each PCI card and $139 for the PC Card, a Dell wireless network can cost more than twice as much as a phone-line network. The server must be on for the client machines to access the Internet (but Dell plans to offer an external base station this summer that will permit client-to-client and Internet access whether the server is off or on).

WHAT ELSE: Wireless LANs use radio waves, so installing them requires a couple of extra steps. You must set each client PC with the same encryption code so that data sent over the network cannot be intercepted and read by others. When you install the server software, you may either write down the code and type it in yourself on each network PC, or create a floppy disk that automatically inserts the correct entry on the other machines on the network. While the product bears Dell's name, it works with other vendors' PCs as well. Should you run into problems, Dell's documentation ranks with the best. A video on the CD-ROM walks you through the installation and troubleshooting tips. A 42-page getting-started manual amplifies on a fold-out poster that covers the basics.

Diamond Multimedia HomeFree PCI

WHAT'S HOT: At only $130 for a two-PC kit and $70 for each additional PC, HomeFree is among the most affordable products here. Like Intel's AnyPoint and 3Com's HomeConnect, it's also easy to set up, with virtually automatic installation. Diamond throws in a software MP3 player so you can listen to music files stored anywhere on your network. Another plus: HomeFree can create a directory on each PC and let you restrict other network users' access to it.

WHAT'S NOT: Like 3Com's HomeConnect, Diamond's HomeFree bundles the Internet Explorer browser--but it's the older version 4.01, which is less secure than IE 5 (so you'll have to download the newer version once you get set up).

WHAT ELSE: HomeFree is the only product we tested that requires you to specify which drives on each PC you wish to make available to others (other products automatically assume that you want to share all drives). HomeFree's approach is not a bad idea, especially if it helps remind you that your hard drive contains sensitive information--your finances, say, or private correspondence. Diamond does a fine job with documentation, including a four-page fold-out installation brochure and a thick getting-started manual. The CD-ROM has a useful FAQ section and an expanded Adobe Acrobat version of the getting-started guide.

Intel AnyPoint Home Network PCI

WHAT'S HOT: AnyPoint's setup was the most automated and least troublesome among the products we tested, thanks in large part to a great installation routine and terrific documentation. If you're a novice, the guided-tour video on AnyPoint's installation CD-ROM is well worth watching before you crack open your PC to add the expansion card. One foldout poster covers hardware installation, and another does the same thing for the software. You also get a comprehensive manual. Installation took us only 20 minutes per desktop system (compared with 30 to 45 minutes per PC for the other products). And setting up the network to use a broadband connection couldn't have been easier.

WHAT'S NOT: The AnyPoint does cost a little more than the other phone-line products. A two-PC network costs $158, $37 more than the Linksys HomeLink kit, the cheapest here.

WHAT ELSE: We liked AnyPoint's Network Sharing and Mapping utility. It lets you choose which drives and printers to share and automatically assigns a letter to drives available on other PCs. Sharing an Internet connection is easy, too.

Specify whether the PC you're installing the software on is a server or a client, and AnyPoint handles everything else, including tweaking the settings on the client machines' browsers. For now, you're limited to networking desktops; Intel doesn't offer a notebook version.

Linksys HomeLink Phoneline 10M

WHAT'S HOT: Though it's not our pick for beginners, HomeLink offers prospective buyers several inducements. First of all, it's the cheapest phone-line product here--only $121 for a two-PC network. For users concerned about protecting their new network from Internet-based attacks, HomeLink's LANBridge utility adds a basic firewall that isolates the server and all client PCs. Parents who want to keep tabs on their children's surfing habits will appreciate SurfWatch, a bundled software filter that blocks access to sites based on content and restricts client PCs' Internet access to certain hours.

WHAT'S NOT: We had no major problems setting up HomeLink, but we don't recommend it if you've never installed a network, because you must input all the settings manually. You also have to install adapter card drivers, set up network protocols, enable file and printer sharing, and share and map hard drives yourself. Though the manual covers installation in detail, it can get confusing, and a single mistake can prevent the network from functioning. If you use the firewall and filtering options, you'll spend at least 45 minutes setting up the server. Linksys doesn't include a hard copy of the manual; it comes only on the installation CD-ROM.

WHAT ELSE: For users who are working with higher-end operating systems at home, HomeLink can run on Windows NT 4.0 and--according to Linksys--Windows 2000. On the other hand, the manual we received contained no installation instructions for the latter operating system. Hard-core gamers will appreciate the bundled copy of Descent 3, a combination flight simulator and Quake-like multiplayer game.

NetGear DB104 Network Starter Kit

WHAT'S HOT: NetGear's standard wired ethernet network is inexpensive and fast, and it lets you add PCs to the network wherever a cable can go. NetGear's $120 two-PC kit includes two 10/100-mbps network cards, two 25-foot ethernet cables, and a 4-port hub. In our tests it transferred data two to three times faster than the phone-line networks and up to 13 times faster than the Dell wireless LAN.

WHAT'S NOT: Despite its name, the Starter Kit isn't for beginners. It comes with no automatic installation software, just a floppy disk with drivers.

Documentation consists of nothing more than a foldout that describes how to install the adapter card, cables, hub, and driver. The Starter Kit leaves users clueless about how to set up file and printer sharing. Windows help does tell you what to do, but that information isn't easy to find.

WHAT ELSE: We found the Starter Kit easy to install--as ethernet networks go.

But if you're interested in setting up a simple two-computer network, you can forgo the hub and connect the PCs directly via a crossover ethernet cable. The kit doesn't include a crossover cable, and the manual doesn't mention it at all, but you can find the necessary cabling at virtually any computer dealer.

Prices start at around $10 for 25 feet of cable, and go up as the length of the cable increases.

NetGear Phoneline10X

WHAT'S HOT: Phoneline10X is fairly easy to set up, with the same type of automatic installation software we found on most network kits we tested.

Setting up printer and drive sharing is straightforward. We also liked that the software asked what type of Internet connection we were using (we could choose modem, cable, DSL, or even "none of the above").

WHAT'S NOT: The only documentation included with the Phoneline10X is a six-page foldout covering basic hardware and software installation. Unfortunately, the steps shown for installing the hardware driver concentrate on Windows 95. The process for Windows 98 is somewhat different, though you probably won't have any problems with it if you pay attention to the installation screens.

WHAT ELSE: We ran into a glitch with the setup software--it failed to give our client PCs Internet access. A technical support person had to help us tweak the browser settings to overcome this problem. But despite its skimpy manual, NetGear provides thorough on-screen explanations of some networking concepts that no other company covered.

Stan Miastkowski is a PC World contributing editor. Robert Hummel is a computer programmer, author, and commentator based in New Hampshire.

Home Networking Systems

More Options Are Coming for Wireless Home NetworksFast wireless networks for the home are less common than 10-mbps phone-line kits, but a formidable newcomer will soon arrive.

Lucent Technologies' 11-mbps Orinoco Home Networking System is based on a $179 PC Card, which you can use in a notebook computer to roam free and stay connected. Or you can install it in a desktop system, with a $69 adapter card.

Unlike Dell's wireless product, the 4800LT, Lucent sells ISA adapters for older PCs.

Cross-Platform LANs

Orinoco works with both Windows and Macintosh computers, so with the right software (such as Miramar Systems' $199 PC MacLAN), you can set up a cross-platform network. Lucent also makes the hardware for Apple's wireless product, AirPort, whose cards cost only $99. Apple builds part of the circuitry (including the antenna) into its newer systems, however, and leaves this circuitry out of the AirPort cards; as a result, Airport cards won't work in PCs. Meanwhile, older Macs--which lack the new circuitry--can use Orinoco cards.

Most home networks require that the PC with direct access to a modem and phone line act as server for the other PCs. The server must remain on at all times so the other PCs can access the Internet. A residential gateway does away with that requirement. Lucent's $349 RG-1000 Residential Gateway is a small stand-alone box that does not need to be connected to a PC. It has a built-in 56-kbps modem for dial-up Internet access and an RJ-45 jack for direct connection to a cable or DSL modem. So you can leave the box on, and all client PCs can access the Internet through it, rather than through a host PC. Dell should be offering a similar product dubbed the Base Station by the time you read this; pricing for it wasn't available at press time.

We tested preproduction versions of Lucent's PC Card network adapter and the RG-1000 Residential Gateway. (Desktop adapter cards were not yet available, and neither was Orinoco's automatic setup software for file and printer sharing.)We installed the PC card in our test notebook, hooked up the residential gateway to a standard, preexisting phone line, and plugged the gateway into an AC outlet.

The software for enabling Internet access through the gateway was a snap to install. On a machine accessing the RG-1000 (the Dell notebook in our case), we entered two numbers: a serial number and an encryption code (the latter for security). Then we entered our ISP's phone number, our user name, and a password. Within minutes we were walking around the house with our untethered notebook, browsing the Internet and pulling files off the server.

Lucent claims that Orinoco-equipped PCs can access each other and the RG-1000 from 1500 feet away, ten times farther than the Dell wireless network's maximum range.

Server-Based Networks

Home Servers Serve Up Files for Connected UsersYour home network is in place, and everything works great. You no longer have to carry the files you want to print from one PC to another on a floppy, and the kids don't squabble over the Internet connection. But you've noticed a few small problems. Locating a particular file on another PC is a challenge, especially if that machine is turned off. As a result, everyone in your family keeps duplicate copies of Internet downloads, including large digital video and MP3 files. And there's a bigger problem: Because you set up your PC as the Internet server, you can't turn it off or even reboot it after installing software without warning everyone else first.

Extravagant though it may seem, the answer is a home network server. Just as in the corporate world, a server at home functions as a handy centralized, dedicated location for file storage. But you don't want the kind of traditional general-purpose server your company uses--after all, you aren't a network administrator and don't have thousands of dollars to spend on specialized hardware and software. You want something simpler and cheaper--and manufacturers are beginning to oblige by offering products, ranging from $99 software solutions to $500 hardware appliances that drop easily into home networks.

SERVICE A' LA CARTE

The traditional network server is a PC with lots of memory; a large, fast hard drive; and a complex network operating system. In the next year, expect to see products that save you from having to buy such a muscled, dedicated PC. One type of alternative product will be a preconfigured software application that provides a single function or a group of related functions, such as a Web server, a combination firewall and router, or file and print services. You'll provide a PC that meets the minimum (and often extremely modest) configuration for the package, and the streamlined software installation will do the rest of the work.

Cybernet Systems' NetMax FireWall, for example, gives your network both a turnkey Internet firewall and a router/gateway package for less than $100. All of the traffic originating from your network goes through the firewall, and all of the clients share a single ISP connection. Your server PC need not have a monitor, a sound card, or many other basic home-PC features.

Washer, Toaster, Network

Network appliances combine software with custom hardware. A network appliance file server requires no monitor, video system, CD-ROM drive, keyboard, mouse, or separate operating system. Instead, it needs just a power cord and an ethernet connection. Because network appliances have to appeal to home users, you can expect these units to be relatively inexpensive, simple to install, and reliable. And because they run on the network itself and not as application software on a server, they should encounter fewer compatibility problems with other services and drivers.

If you want to add disk space to your network but don't want to open up a PC, configure drives, or designate one client to hold files, a network-attached storage file server offers a quick and easy solution. NAS servers can be configured to support more than one networking protocol, permitting cross-platform file sharing. And the NAS file server should be left on--even when your PCs aren't. Quantum's NAS, called the SnapServer 1000, provides 10GB of file space for about $500.

Gateway plans to sell a home server of its own within the year, and other mainstream PC companies should eventually follow suit. Now where was that file?

--Robert Hummel

* NetMax Firewall; $99; Cybernet Systems, 734/668-2567; www.cybernet.comPRODUCT INFO NO. 637* SnapServer 1000; $499; Quantum, 888/343-7627; www.quantum.com.

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