Wild Wired Home

SAN FRANCISCO (03/06/2000) - Your home may soon be as networked as your office.

We look at the latest technologies, products, and gizmos to separate the help from the hype.

Smart home. Wired home. Networked home. Whatever the term, we've been hearing about this mythical abode for years. You know the place: the digital dwelling where your PC talks to the refrigerator, which orders dinner over the Internet, which sends phone messages over your LAN to the TV screen. Well, hold on to your remote control, because some of this technology is finally ready to appear. Over the next six months, PC vendors will push a raft of new products designed to make your home the envy of George Jetson. Some products will come from big names like 3Com Corp., Compaq Computer Corp., and Dell Computer Corp.

Others will hail from less familiar companies such as 2Wire, CMi, and Panja.

To separate the wired from the weird, we spoke to vendors and industry analysts, and we also sampled three of these new housewares. We tried the first high-speed wireless LAN for the home; a residential gateway device that connects the Internet to a TV and stereo system; and a portable TV/Internet device designed for your kitchen. The good news: Acquiring and installing some of these products won't require the budget--or staff--of a multinational conglomerate. But other devices will likely suffer from the maladies that afflict many cutting-edge technologies: high price, limited features, and incompatibility with other products.

Better Homes And Networks

If you own two or more home PCs, you've probably thought about connecting them so they can share files, peripherals, and an Internet connection. Traditional wired-network kits have been available for the home for several years. They are relatively inexpensive (about $50 per PC), but installing them can be tricky.

And you still have to deal with the ugly cables either by fishing them through walls or by draping them across the floor and behind furniture.

More recently, the budget choice for people whose PCs sit near phone jacks has been a phone-line network. You add an adapter to each PC and plug it into a phone jack; data then travels over your home's existing telephone wiring without disturbing phone calls. The latest phone-line products, based on the HomePNA 2.0 specification, transmit data at a snappy 10 mbps; the adapters for each PC cost less than $80 apiece. By the end of the year, this option will look even better: We expect to see 100-mbps kits that should blow away every other type of home network.

This year, Net developments and broadband demand could make a home network more tempting. The Internet will soon supply even more of our information and entertainment. In May, Clickmovies.com will launch the first extensive selection of downloadable, pay-per-view movies. Blockbuster is expected to follow suit by the end of the year. Everyone in your household will be clamoring for separate broadband access. When you shop around for a solution, you may be pleasantly surprised. Home networking kits will be sold in a wider range of speeds, features, prices, and standards than ever before.

Is Wireless Better?

Of the options available, a wireless LAN offers the most convenience and freedom--you can share an Internet connection, send files to the PC or printer in the downstairs office, and even read e-mail on your laptop out on the patio without hassling with wall connections. The only negatives: Wireless can be expensive--up to $180 for each PC's adapter. And a standards war is brewing, so you need to understand the pros and cons of the competing technologies and choose wisely.

Last year, the first wireless 2-mbps networks for consumers arrived, based on proprietary schemes from a handful of vendors. This year, wireless networking kits for the home will come from numerous companies in one of two flavors:

Wi-Fi (also known as 802.11b ) and HomeRF.

Kits based on the heavy-duty Wi-Fi ethernet standard can transmit data at up to 11 mbps, as fast as your office network. By the second half of the year, expect Lucent and others to offer home Wi-Fi products.

We tried Dell's 4800LT kit, one of the first Wi-Fi kits for home PCs. Dell's easy setup and speed wowed us.

By June, the first kits based on HomeRF, a competing (and incompatible) wireless standard, are expected to ship from Compaq, IBM, Intel, and Proxim.

Like Wi-Fi, HomeRF lets you wirelessly network your PCs at distances up to 150 feet. But HomeRF transfers data at a much slower pace, 1.6 mbps. HomeRF's main advantage is its lower price: Adapters will cost as little as $99 apiece.

So which type of wireless network is for you? If you want to buy now, a Wi-Fi network may be worth the extra money, assuming each person in the household has a PC, shares several peripherals, and uses a DSL or cable modem to download and circulate large audio and video files. But if you're on a budget and have less-demanding data needs, consider HomeRF, which can handle most data-sharing chores and costs less.

If you wait until summer, competition will heat up and prices for the high-speed products should drop. That's when vendors are expected to introduce the first HomeRF kits capable of 10-mbps data transfers--almost as fast as Wi-Fi.

Gateways To The Future

Once you have a network and a high-speed Internet connection, you'll probably want to connect them, so everyone in your house can share the broadband wealth.

This year computer makers, cable providers, and phone companies will begin offering a device called a residential gateway. This product is a consumer-friendly variation on the complex, heavy-duty routers and gateways used in businesses to connect and manage different types of networks and Web connections.

A start-up called 2Wire will be offering HomePortal, one of the first residential gateways to reach market. This $299 silver-and-black barbell-shaped box incorporates a DSL modem and a port for connecting to a phone-line network.

It also has USB and ethernet connections, a firewall, and browser software that links to an online area where you can set up a family calendar. 2Wire says that once the requisite services and appliances are available, the device will include more esoteric features, such as management of home appliances to save on energy costs.

And according to a Cisco Systems spokesperson, in the first half of this year Cisco will provide regional phone company GTE with a residential gateway box for its customers. The box will include a DSL modem along with a phone-line home network connection.

Well-known PC makers will weigh in, too. This summer Dell expects to sell a base station--with a built-in 56-kbps modem and a broadband connection--for its wireless network.

Meanwhile, Panja, a Dallas-based company, is selling one of the first residential gateway products designed primarily to organize and deliver music and video to home entertainment systems--without requiring a PC. Though the $2500 product is pricey, it provides a glimpse of where this technology is heading.

Home Entertainment

The internet (or any network) is only as handy as the devices that connect to it. The big news this year will continue to be information appliances. These inexpensive products dispense with boot-up procedures, hard drives, and other sources of standard PC hassles to give you a lightning-fast way to hook up to the Internet or, in the future, to a home LAN.

Some products will focus on entertainment. For instance, by year's end Virgin Entertainment will offer a limited number of Net devices designed for listening to RealAudio sound clips. The Virginconnect Webplayer will have a 10-inch screen, a 56-kbps modem, stereo speakers, and a headphone jack. For $100, you get the device, three years of Internet service, and discounts at the music giant's Web site.

At least two other companies hope that stand-alone Internet radios will soon be as common on countertops as toasters. The $300 Kerbango Radio features an art deco-ish look and plays both streaming audio and MP3 files. AudioRamp.com's $399 IRad has similar capabilities but can also play CDs. Both are expected to ship this spring.

CMi's ICEBox (more formally known as the Information Communication Entertainment Box), expected to ship this summer, is designed for the kitchen.

The $499 machine consists of a small portable television, one-button Internet access, a CD-ROM drive, and a food-proof keyboard.

A more-expensive version will sport a 12-inch LCD screen that attaches to the underside of a kitchen cabinet like a roll of paper towels. This flip-screen product will include bigger stereo speakers, a DVD player, and an ethernet connection (so you can use a cable or DSL modem instead of the built-in 56-kbps model). The device looks like a slick candidate for upscale kitchens, but it will sell for a jaw-dropping $2200.

By April, Acer is expected to sell an information appliance based on Microsoft's MSN Web Companion specification. The machine, about the size of a laptop, will be preconfigured with MSN, Hotmail (the Web-based e-mail service), and a version of the Windows CE operating system. When turned off, it can display any digital photograph that the user chooses. The Acer device is expected to sell for $199.

The Web Companion has competition. Late this spring look for Web tablets--portable Internet-access devices designed to be carried around the house--that run on the Linux operating system and use processors from startup Transmeta.

And if electronic games are your bag, look soon for your choice of Internet-enabled consoles from such well-known companies as Sega, Sony, and Nintendo. First out of the gate is the $199 Sega Dreamcast, which last fall became the first console users could connect to the Internet for browsing and e-mail. Sega was scheduled to add a head-to-head Internet gaming capability on March 2. Eventually, you'll be able to upgrade the device's 56-kbps modem for broadband. As for Nintendo, its next-generation console, due out by the winter holidays, will feature Net access and a DVD player. Finally, Sony's Playstation2 will debut in the United States by this fall and is expected to add broadband Internet access at a later date.

It's A Wired, Wired World

In the wired home of five or ten years from now, futurists predict, all devices--PCs, TVs, utilities, and even kitchen appliances--will be connected.

But exactly what technology this ubernetwork will use and whether consumers will care seem to be anyone's guess. Microsoft says its Universal Plug and Play protocol, which debuted in the Windows Millennium Edition operating system, will patch together the disparate mini-networks our homes have. Arch-rival Sun Microsystems is developing a competing networking technology called Jini.

BeComm offers the most intriguing vision. The company's media routing software not only will connect all electronic devices, it also will let them act as conduits for one another. As a result, you'll be able to take telephone calls on your television set, view the contents of your PC's hard drive on your palm-top device, or phone your VCR and have the video appear on your PC at work, says BeComm founder (and ex-Microsoft engineer) Edward Balassanian. The first BeComm-based products are expected by the end of 2000.

For now, shopping carefully can save you time, money, and aggravation. When you are ready to network your home PCs, be sure to buy all your products from a single well-known vendor. That way you won't accidentally mix incompatible networking components. And if you plan to install a broadband connection for your home network, ask your provider which gateway products will involve the least amount of hassle. Remember: Getting broadband up and running is a task in itself; connecting it to a home network can increase the complexity exponentially. If you just want simple, inexpensive access to the Internet from different rooms in your house, you can bypass the LAN altogether and consider an Internet appliance.

Then kick back and enjoy your first foray into the networked home of tomorrow.

This summer, your refrigerator may not yet be smart enough to warn you that you are running low on Ben and Jerry's, but checking your e-mail wirelessly from a deck chair is a pretty good start.

A Fast, Friendly 11-mbps Network

If you've been considering a home LAN, here's a product that's worth a look: a high-speed wireless LAN boasting top performance and easy installation. I tested one of the first such products--Dell's 11-mbps 4800LT Wireless Network--and had it up and running in less time than it takes to walk my chocolate lab.

The 4800LT is a peer-to-peer wireless network designed to connect as many as 15 PCs at distances up to 150 feet. It's available as a PCI add-in card for desktops ($179) and as a PC Card for notebooks ($139); bundled Sygate software enables you to share an Internet connection across the network. For now, this setup requires you to use one of the PCs as an Internet server. But this summer Dell expects to ship the 4800LT Base Station, a stand-alone wireless gateway permitting Internet access from any PC that's equipped with the 4800LT wireless LAN card. Pricing on the base station, which will include both a built-in 56-kbps modem and a network card for cable or DSL connections, wasn't available at press time.

Dell supplied us with a Dimension desktop PC and an Inspiron notebook, both equipped with preinstalled 4800LT cards and software. The desktop version has a 4-inch flexible antenna, which screws into the rear of the card. The PC Card's antenna is integrated into a small module that extends an inch outside the notebook case.

In my tests, both systems connected to each other automatically after start-up, and I could transfer files, run applications remotely, and access the Internet, all while roaming around inside my home at distances up to about 50 feet. Data transfer speeds were comparable to those of a standard ethernet-wired 10-mbps network. The system is supposed to work outdoors, too. But I hit a snag in attempting to test the LAN at greater distances because the outside air temperature hovered just above zero in my New Hampshire location, and the notebook stopped working within a couple of minutes. It became a truly frozen PC. Perhaps poolside in California, it could display its open-air talents to better advantage.

To test ease of installation, I put the PCI version of the 4800LT into a Quantex desktop PC. Dell has taken a comprehensive approach to simplifying this procedure, providing a how-to video on the setup CD-ROM, and an excellent step-by-step manual. Software setup is to a large extent automatic, and the product takes care of otherwise-difficult network steps such as establishing Internet sharing. And with just a couple of mouse clicks, you choose the drives and printers to be shared. We were up and running about 15 minutes after opening the PC--half the time the job took with other wireless and home phone-line networks we've tested.

Dell has brought the assembling of a high-speed wireless LAN within the grasp of the average PC user. Dell; 800/388-8542; www.dell.com--Stan MiastkowskiAn Early Look at Home Net-TainmentThe Panja 1000 arrives in a cardboard package labeled "The Ultimate in Web Lifestyling"--a heretofore unknown mode of existence. The snazzy multipiece system lets you display or play Internet content on your TV and/or stereo. But with costly, tricky setup requirements, a limited range of content, and a $2500 price, the Panja 1000 is not a change in lifestyle most people will be adopting anytime soon. The Panja 1000's hardware includes two 17-by-10-by-1-inch boxes that would look at home in most stereo cabinets. The remote-control unit has a 6-inch color touch screen. The product is designed to let you view news, sports, and stock info on the remote-control unit, or play streaming music and video on your stereo and/or TV.

But caveats abound. First, you must have high-speed Internet access--DSL or better. And you need multiple IP (Internet Protocol) addresses. This usually means paying extra to your Internet service provider.

You have to plug the product into a router or home network hub via included ethernet cables. Panja's illustrated manual capably guides you through the somewhat complicated installation. After hooking up the power and myriad cables, you must go to Panja's Web site to enter TCP/IP settings and other information.

I found that I could get headlines, sports, and stock prices on my remote-control unit, but I couldn't check the quality of the music and video because Panja's content-provider partner was on the blink. Right now, content consists mostly of rebroadcasts of radio programs, MP3 tracks from small independents, and movie trailers. But we'll almost certainly see more streaming-media offerings in the course of the next few years, and Panja executives expect that the system's price will dip to $1000 a year from now. So while most people will probably pass on the Panja 1000 for the moment, the system may well foreshadow the Internet's impact on home entertainment in the years to come. Panja; 877/370-9598; www.panja.com --Yardena ArarNow You're CookingI hate waiting for my PC to boot just so I can check e-mail. And I would love having a TV in the kitchen. So CMi Worldwide's ICEBox sounded like an Internet appliance after my own heart. How could I resist a 9-inch Samsung TV with a one-button Internet connection, a built-in CD player, and a cooking video thrown in to ice the cake?

I looked at a beta version of the ICEBox, set to ship in July for $499, and found it almost as tempting as dinner out. The petite, putty-colored ICEBox weighs 16 pounds and takes up about a square foot of counter space. The front has buttons for adjusting volume, changing TV channels, and controlling the CD player. The wireless keyboard and handheld remote are encased in food-proof plastic.

Peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich in hand, I put the ICEBox through its paces.

Setup is simple: Plug its cables into a wall outlet, a phone jack, and your cable connection (or use the included TV antenna). Then sit back to control and flip among the Internet, TV, and CD modes.

Pressing the Internet button takes you directly to CMi's portal--a site with six colorful AOL-like channels for e-mail, news, shopping, and culinary tips, among its various topics. You're stuck with the company's portal as your home page, but from there you can venture anywhere you like on the Web.

The TV picture on my ICEBox looked good, and music CDs sounded fine on the petite 4-inch built-in speakers (the bass might have been deeper). I could easily become addicted to cooking videos. It was tres fun watching the chefs in CMi's Essential Techniques CD-ROM prepare dishes like Steak Marchand de Vin.

Would I buy the ICEBox? Maybe. Five hundred bucks seems like a pretty low price to pay for a portable TV, a CD player, and quick Internet access. But I can't see going back to a 33.6-kbps modem, and I'm not crazy about using an Internet service provider somebody else (namely, CMi) chooses and then paying a second subscription fee on top of the one that I pay for service on my primary computer.

It's too bad. E-mailing my friends, catching ER, and listening to my favorite CDs was beginning to sound like a painless way to watch the stove. CMi; 800/897-8554; cmiworldwide.com--Carla ThorntonBeComm's routing software will let you take phone calls on your TV set or call your VCR and have it show videos on your PC at work.

Clock to Coffeemaker: Let's Talk

O, brave new world, where alarm clocks have modems, and microwaves surf the Web! That's right: appliances that connect to the Internet will be in stores within 12 months.

Sunbeam, maker of the esteemed Mr. Coffee, has announced the most impressive lineup. The company plans nine interconnected appliances, led by a smart alarm clock called TimeHelper. Among its other talents, TimeHelper can beep when Sunbeam's Smart Coffeemaker runs low on water. TimeHelper can also use Internet-derived traffic reports to set your alarm to an appropriate hour and automatically turn off your electric blanket. The appliances communicate over your home's electrical wiring using built-in chips. TimeHelper will cost between $40 and $80.

Electrolux, GE, and Whirlpool are betting that the fastest way to convert families to Net-surfing kitchenware is through their stomachs. Their Internet-enabled refrigerators will track grocery lists, monitor diets, and shop online. Wireless touch screens on the fridge door will let families surf, watch TV, and listen to music. Truly lazy cooks will love Samsung's $600 Intelligent Microwave. Using an onboard database that reads the bar-code labels on packaging, it will download instructions from the Internet and "cook food to absolute perfection."

Still not convinced? One likely selling point is easier maintenance. Companies can monitor their appliances' performance over the Internet and have a repair person at your door with parts in hand before you can shout, "The dishwasher's leaking!"

Nice, but whether you'll want to pay for such convenience is an open question.

--Carla Thornton

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