14.1. Choosing a Network
Strangely enough, neither the kind of computers you have, nor the size of your wallet holds the trump card over the type of networking gear you need. Everything boils down to the location of your PCs. Are they all in the same room? Two adjoining rooms? On opposite ends of the house? Or were you hoping to use your laptop in two or three different rooms?
If your PCs are fairly close to each othersay, on different sides of the same roomyou'll want to set yourself up with a wired network. Connecting your PCs with wires creates the cheapest, fastest , and most dependable network possible.
If, on the other hand, your PCs are in different rooms, out of wire's reach, you should consider the alternative method: a wireless network. Wireless networks bypass wires by broadcasting information to PCs using radio waves; the PCs translate the waves back into files or Internet access.
Don't be afraid if you have a few adjacent PCs in one spot and one or two humming away in a back room, out of wire's reach. Many people mix wired and wireless networks, a fairly easy task as technological advances pack more and more features into the same small box that lies at the heart of a network: the router (more on that device in a moment).
The rest of this section explains these different kinds of networkswired, wireless, and mixedin more detail. As you read this chapter, grab a piece of paper and sketch out a floor plan showing your PCs' locations, and the location of your broadband modem. Think about where you want you and your PCs positioned, and then make your decision.
Note: Don't have broadband? See the box "Networks and Dial-up Connections" on Section 14.2.2 for suggestions on networking if you're still living in dial-up land.
14.1.1. Wired Networks
Wired networks come in two main varieties: Ethernet , which uses cheap and easy-to-use network cables, and Powerline , which backpacks on the wiring already in your home's electric system.
When most people talk about wired networks, they're talking about Ethernetthe most popular networking standard for the past 25 yearsa lifetime, in computing terms. Ethernet is cheap, easy to install, and the fastest way to shuffle information from one computer to another. It links together computers in offices and homes worldwide. When you check into hotels that offer Internet access, the broadband signal is usually piped through an Ethernet port into your room. Ethernet cables, also sometimes called network cables , are the bloodlines that help route data across an Ethernet network; these cables look similar to plain old telephone cables, but with thicker plastic plugs on the ends.
Most PCs (and Macs, by the way) come with a built-in Ethernet port (see Section 1.8.5), which gives you a place to plug in the cable. If your PC lacks an Ethernet port, you can install one fairly easily; mass production has made them the cheapest adapters on the market (see Section 14.2.2 for details on how to install an Ethernet adapter).
Ethernet's biggest shortcoming? Having to run all those wires through your home. If your PCs are in different rooms, you might want to summon an electrician and get an estimate of what it would cost to snake cables through walls, ceilings, and floors. Some people tuck the cables beneath carpeting; others staple them along the floorboards and hope nobody notices.
18.104.22.168. Powerline (HomePlug)
Although Ethernet easily wins the "Best Networking" award for its price, speed, and popularity, it assumes people have no qualms about stringing wires through their homes or offices. To save people from trying to tuck wires under their carpeting, an alternative standard called Powerline takes advantage of the hidden wires already connecting every room in your home: your electrical system and its conveniently positioned power outlets.
Note: You might sometimes see Powerline referred to as HomePlug that's the name of the official networking standard that all Powerline devices use. Some hardware makers also slap their own names , like HomeLink or PlugLink, on top of their Powerline products.
A Powerline adapter, shown in Figure 14-1, looks sort of like an electric bar of soap with a network port. Plug the adapter into any power outlet, and you've instantly added an Ethernet port to the room. Of course, you need a pair of these thingsone for each PCto set up a two-PC network; add more to include additional PCs.
Powerline adapters reduce your wiring needs to a short Ethernet cable to reach from your wall outlet to each PC on your network. Best of all, when you move your PC to another room, simply unplug the adapter and plug it into the other room: instant portability. The adapters include built-in security to keep your network from spilling over to the neighbor's outletsespecially important if you live in an apartment building.
Before buying a Powerline adapter for every outlet in your home, garage, and outdoor kitchen, however, be aware of a few drawbacks that come with this technology:
Expense . Each adapter will set you back around $35, and you need one for each PC. And that just connects the PCs. To inject Internet signals into your home wiring, you need yet another Powerline adapter.
Speed . At top speeds of 14 Mbps, and actual speeds of around 5 to 10 Mbps, Powerline adapters are fine for sharing a high-speed Internet signal between a few PCs. But that rate is kind of pokey for moving large files from one PC to another, especially if you've grown used to, say, your iPod's transfer rates of around 400 Mbps. The latest HomePlug standard, dubbed "HomePlug AV," calls for an upgrade to 200 Mbps, an eagerly anticipated improvement scheduled to arrive in the first half of 2006.
Figure 14-1. Sold under the names "HomePlug," "Powerline," "PlugLink," and, most charmingly of all, "Wall-plugged Ethernet Bridge," these adapters conveniently convert power outlets into network ports, keeping you from stringing cables from room to room. Buy one for your laptop, and plug it into any outlet, letting you work from anywhere in the house. They're easy to combine with Ethernet and/or wireless networks, as well, letting you add PCs to spots that your network doesn't quite reach.
Outlets . Powerline adapters must plug directly into an electrical outlet, not a power strip or an extension cord. And if you've added a "power line conditioner" to your home theater setup, forget about HomePlugthe conditioner treats the HomePlug's networking signal as noise and filters it out.
Note: Don't confuse HomePlug with HomePNA, a relatively obscure networking standard that runs low-speed network signals through phone lines.
14.1.2. Wireless (WiFi)
Wireless networks, often called WiFi networks, bypass the need for cables by shooting your information through the air from PC to PC. With WiFi, it's just as easy to browse the Internet from an outdoor patio as it is from an office desk. Many coffee shops and hotels offer free wireless Internet access, and many new laptops are coming with WiFi capability built-in (it's also pretty easy to add, as you'll learn in a moment).
Unfortunately, air doesn't carry information nearly as well as copper wires, giving wireless a few limitations:
Range . As with radio stations , wireless signals fade with distance. Through open air, the signals can reach up to 1,500 feet away. Place a few walls between your PCs and the transmitter that broadcasts your wireless signal (usually a wireless router; Section 14.1.3), and the signals may be stopped cold. Everything depends on the structure of your house: the number of walls, the shape of the rooms, the location of wall studs, and even the pipes inside in the walls.
Speed . The fastest wireless networks are still 20 times slower than the fastest wired networks.
| FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTION |
Megabits (Mbps) vs. Megabytes (MB)
What's the difference between a "megabit" and a "megabyte"?
Techies usually describe storage size in megabytes (MB); 256 MB is a popular size for USB keychain drives , for instance. But when measuring network speeds, the techies switch to megabits , or megabits per second (Mbps), which measures the rate at which data travels across a network. How long that trip takes can vary quite a bit depending on what kind of connection you're using.
Eight megabits equal one megabyte, so divide megabits by 8 to come up with the megabyte equivalent. But forget the techtalk. With network speeds, the actual meaning of the term isn't nearly as important as comparing different types of network's speed potential.
For example, transferring an album (about 40 MB) to an iPod takes about 10 seconds with USB 2.0 (capacity: 480 Mbps). The same album would take about 40 seconds over a standard Ethernet link (100 Mbps); nearly 2 minutes to fly over a WiFi "g" network (54 Mbps; see Section 14.1.2 for more about WiFi); and a little under 10 minutes when traveling along our ancestors ' pokey USB 1.1 cables (12 Mbps).
This table compares the theoretical maximum speeds of the different networks mentioned in this chapter (plus a few others for comparison's sake). Networks never run at their theoretical maximum, due to things like the distance from a WiFi or Powerline transmitter, the amount of traffic flowing through the wires, and the quality of the adapter. When looking at these pie-in-the-sky figures, count on receiving anywhere from 40 to 80 percent of their rated speed.
Wireless b (802.11b)
HomePlug Powerline 1
Wireless g (802.11g)
Ethernet 100 (Fast)
HomePlug Powerline AV
Ethernet 1000 (Giga)
Expense . Wireless networks require one wireless transmitter (often built into a router) and a wireless adapter on each PC to pick up the signal. While costs for all this WiFi gear have been dropping, setting up a wireless network will usually cost you about 20 to 30 percent more than a wired Ethernet network.
Interference . Wireless equipment shares the same radio frequency as cordless telephones, microwave ovens, fluorescent lights, and even other nearby wireless networks, including Bluetooth (Section 14.10.5). When the signals interfere with each other, the network speed drops . If you're nuking some popcorn and talking to your sister on a cordless phone, your online poker game may become unbearably slow.
| UP TO SPEED |
Wireless Networking Speeds
Wireless networking gear comes in two main speeds: the older, and slower, 802.11b standard (maximum speed: 11 Mbps), and the newer , five-times-as-fast, 802.11g variety (54 Mbps). But don't count on ever enjoying either of these connections at their full speeds.
Although both standards offer a theoretical range of 1,500 feet in an open field and 300 feet indoors, the signal rarely arrives intact. It's a rare and happy day when the signal reaches from one end of a house to another at full-strength. Parts of the signal disappear when they hit your wall's pipes, electric cables, and metal inserts , forcing the transmitter to resend missing parts. That slows everything down until all parts of the signal arrive.
The highest speeds arrive only when you've got a straight, line-of-sight connection between transmitter and receiverwhat you might get when you finally move into that artsy downtown loft, for example.
The speed of your network doesn't matter much if you're just browsing the Internet; even your broadband signal rarely moves into your home faster than 5 Mbps. But you'll feel the crunch when copying files between PCs (or when trying to route a hefty video file between your PC and a network-connected TV). In either of those cases, you can easily experience network lulls, since the data you're moving is, in effect, larger than the size of your network pipes.
If you've got a mix of "g" and "b" equipmentsay, a g-flavored wireless router (Section 14.1.3) and a b-rated wireless adapter (Section 14.2.2) on your laptopthe network will drop down to the lower speed. One more network speed oddity: today's stores carry super-fast -but-experimental "MIMO" and "Pre-N" gear that promise even more speed and greater range. Since the powers-that-be are still thrashing out the next upgrade to the WiFi standardcalled 802.11nmanufacturers simply guess at the specifications, and release their equipment early with a Pre N or MIMO name. (MIMO stands for Multiple-Input Multiple-Output.)
Buying equipment that uses experimental standards is risky business, though. These devices do offer higher speeds, but only when talking to other gear that uses the same company's standard. But even when not working at those tweaked higher speeds, they're still compatible with the older standards used by every company. Finally, the manufacturers all promise to release firmware upgrades (see Section 17.2.9) that offers full compatibility with the real 802.11n standard when it arrives in late 2006.
Security . Unless you live in a windowless , concrete-and-rebar building, your wireless broadcasts won't stop at your home's walls. They almost always spill over into your neighbor's homes and apartments, as well. To keep these folks from accessing your network, you need to encrypt your wireless network with a password, an undertaking many find intimidating (full and friendly details await you on Section 14.5.1).
Even with its faults, wireless networks can be pretty darn attractive when you find yourself trying to snake wires through heater vents, attics, drywall, or basements.
Note: Wireless mice (see Section 2.2) and keyboards (see Section 2.1.1) also communicate using radio waves. However, they chat on a different frequency, so they don't interfere with a standard wireless network.
14.1.3. Mixing Wired and Wireless
Some people are lucky enough to stick with wired networks all the way; others choose wireless to string together distant PCs. But many people find it easiest to combine both : connecting their closest PCs with wires, adding some wireless capability to serve roving laptops, and tossing in a few Powerline adapters to service far off nooks that neither wires nor wireless can reach.
Creating a network often turns into a game of mix and match to reach every place in the house. Don't think you need to be a purist and go completely with one or the other.