Consumer Reports - Home-networking

Jan 17 19:40 2007 Brooke Yan Print This Article

If you have broadband Internet service and more than one computer in your home, there’s growing reason to link them to create a home network.

A network allows a single broadband account to be shared throughout the home. Unfortunately,Guest Posting such networking is impractical with dial-up Internet service--one of several reasons you might want to consider broadband.

WHAT'S AVAILABLE

Home networking is getting a boost from improvements in the range, speed, and cost of wireless networks. If you own a laptop computer that has wireless capability, a wireless network now allows you to surf the Web at broadband speeds from most places in your house, yard, or apartment. Leading brands of wireless routers include D-Link, Netgear, and Linksys. Wired networking is far from obsolete, however, since it still provides the most secure and reliable connections. Indeed, for many households the best solution for sharing a broadband connection--or a printer, music files, or digital photos--among multiple computers might be a network that includes both wired and wireless.

Ethernet, or wired, networks. Wired networks are very secure by themselves, with no special security measures necessary. They are reliable, and usually immune to interference. They offer the fastest data transfer--up to 94 megabits per second for the common 10/100 type, enough for virtually any data application. 

IMPORTANT FEATURES

One drawback is that you can’t easily move your computer around the home. Routing cables throughout the home can be a hassle or expensive. Price range: $50 to $100 for one router and a cable to connect two fairly new computers. Also, there might be additional costs for routing cable through the home. Wi-Fi, 802.11g (wireless). There are no cables to connect or rout with a wireless network, and there are minimal installation costs. Mobility is the key--the wireless network supplies signals virtually anywhere around the home. You will need to take additional steps in terms of security, without which your data are vulnerable to hackers. Thick walls can reduce signal strength, which might vary in different areas of the home or even within a room. Wi-Fi networks might interfere with cordless phones, baby monitors, and other wireless devices. These networks are only 25 percent as fast as Ethernet, but they’re still fine for typical networking uses, such as Web surfing and e-mail. Price range: $200 or less for a router and client cards to allow two computers to use the network wirelessly

HOW TO CHOOSE

Plan your network. You’ll probably want to locate the router near the source of your broadband service--usually a cable or DSL modem. The router and the modem will be connected by an Ethernet cable. But the connections between the router and the computers in the network might be either wired or wireless.

Choose a wireless router. That is the official term for the models that support both Ethernet and Wi-Fi. Even if you don’t need wireless capability now, acquiring it costs little extra (perhaps $10 or so) compared with a wired model, and might spare your having to replace the router if you want to add a wireless device to it in the future.

Stick with the 802.11g wireless standard. Wi-Fi is continually evolving, with new standards designed to increase broadcast range and speed, thus increasing the network’s ability to handle new types of information. The name of the standard is usually listed on the router’s package, as a letter suffix to the technical term for Wi-Fi, which is 802.11. Currently the most common standard is known as 802.11g. We think it’s the best choice for most people.

The 802.11g networks we tested all had sufficient range and speed to provide coverage throughout most homes. The data speeds we measured fell short of the standard speed for 802.11g. But all routers were much faster than the typical speed of a broadband Internet connection.

If you already have a wireless network that uses 802.11a or 802.11b, two older standards, consider upgrading only if you find the range, speed, or reliability of your network wanting.

At the other end of the spectrum are routers that use early variants of the latest Wi-Fi standard, 802.11n. Frequently referred to with terms such as “MIMO,” “Super G,” or “pre-n,” such models might not be compatible with the actual “n” standard, which is due in late 2006. They also require that you buy matching networking adapters, even for computers with built-in 802.11g capability.

Consider one of these new routers only if you have range problems that can’t be solved in other ways. In our tests, they were better at penetrating walls than 802.11g routers, and some offered data speeds that were twice as fast. But they were just as likely to interfere with (or receive interference from) cordless phones and other devices.

Consider whether and how you’ll share a printer. A network lets you avoid the cost of putting a printer in every room by sharing one. To do this, you can use a printer with built-in network capability.

It’s possible to share a non-networked printer by attaching it to the network via a print server, a device that costs $70 to $100 and is the size of a large paperback. There may be issues of interference with some printer-management software, however. Any PC connected to a printer can also serve as a print server for the other computers on the network, though you must leave that computer on when you’re printing.

Consider networking issues for other devices. An increasing number of devices that typically connect to a single computer--PDAs, printers, and video-game consoles--are now Wi-Fi compatible. If you plan to connect any of them to your network, make sure they’re compatible with the network security you set up.

Check whether you need to buy adapters. Every computer on your network will require an adapter to allow it to communicate with the network; the question is whether it already has one built in. If you’re using Ethernet to connect a computer bought within the past three years or so, the adapter will most likely be built into the unit. The same applies to recent-vintage laptops, which should have built-in 802.11g capability.

If you need to buy a network adapter for your desktop, you can choose either an internal PC-card version, which requires opening the computer case for installation, or a USB version, which plugs into a USB port. Laptops can use either a PCI-card or USB adapter. In all cases, the cost should be no more than $60.

Resist professional installation help. Computer retailers might try to sell you on professional installation for your new network, starting at a cost of $150 or so. But wiring aside, today’s networks are so easy to set up that you shouldn’t take them up on their offer if you’re comfortable with technology.

Network gear usually comes with instructions and access to free 24/7 technical support. And you can always come back to the retailer for help in troubleshooting the network if necessary.

Shop by return policy. For all your best efforts, the network equipment you’ve bought might not be compatible with your home. For example, your walls and floors might be especially resistant to wireless transmission (which might be the case if they have a lot of moisture, metal, or other highly conductive material in them). Before you buy, check the store’s return policies. Consider a retailer with a generous one.

Copyright © 2002-2006 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc.

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