My office is equipped with three desktop computers, one laptop, a multifunction color printer, and a monochrome laser printer, but until recently, none of these machines talked to one another. The reason for their failure to communicate was simple: My equipment wasn't networked, because setting up a local-area network (LAN) is about as much fun as chewing tin foil.
Trouble was, I couldn't work efficiently when my equipment was working in isolation. Avoiding LAN duty meant that I had to upload large files to the Internet, just so I could download them to another computer in the next room. I'd swap files using a Zip disk so I could print them out. I even had my three desktop systems running simultaneously on three separate phone lines, using three different Internet connections. And when my assistant came in to help manage my administrative nightmare, we couldn't work together because my machines weren't working together.
More and more free agents and small offices are facing the same dilemma. As home offices and small businesses grow -- adding more people and acquiring more gear to support them -- the pace of work actually slows when computers can't communicate.
Fortunately, these days you don't need to have Novell certification to network your computers. Within the past few months, several simpler Windows-compatible networking tools have hit the market. They let people who are working at home or in small offices share peripherals like printers, scanners, and Zip drives.
Each of these networking products is designed for a different work space -- and therefore works differently. Some are wireless, some work off of phone lines, and one even uses a home's electrical wiring. If you own a small business or use a home office on weekends, these off-the-shelf packages hold out the promise that your computers will finally be on speaking terms with one another. That's why I gave these packages a test run: to help you decide whether it's time to get networking.
Your Work Space: You occasionally work with an assistant in your home office, and you need to share files across one phone line.
Check Out: Intel's AnyPoint Home Network
The Promise: The system runs off of a single phone line, so there's no need to add phone jacks or install special networking cables. And unlike your teenager, AnyPoint won't tie up your phone line -- even when you use the same line simultaneously to make calls and transfer files. Best of all, the module plugs into the back of a PC, so you don't have to open the system to install special networking cards. Intel throws in all the plugs, cables, and cords you'll need to make the connections; the software and instructions are all first rate.
The Package: The external version of the basic AnyPoint package includes two modules, about five inches long, that network two PCs. (To connect additional PCs, you need to purchase a stand-alone module for $99.)
The Reality: While you don't have to venture into your computer to install expansion cards, you do have to give up your parallel port. AnyPoint needs a parallel port to connect to your PC. Trouble is, your printer needs that same port. You can get around the problem by using Intel's pass-through connection (included in the package) to share the port. But because of the technical requirements of scanners, external Zip drives, and multifunction printers especially, many of these devices won't work through the pass-through. So make sure that your go-to peripheral can run off of the pass-through before you choose the AnyPoint.
The Connection: One of your computers acts as the host or server; the others act as the clients. Plug the AnyPoint module into each computer's parallel port and a phone line, and the network gets to work. (All of the networked computers must be on the same phone line.)
The setup took me a total of 40 minutes, thanks to the easy-to-follow software that walked me through the process. Once I installed the network, AnyPoint connected my computer -- pretty much without my intervention -- and I could seamlessly trade files and surf the Net from either system. One problem: My printer/scanner/copier could now only print. To remedy that problem, Intel will be introducing an AnyPoint package that uses USB ports instead of parallel ports.
The Bottom Line: AnyPoint is the speediest of the new home-networking systems (as fast as 2 Mbps), but the package comes with a couple of caveats: To use AnyPoint, each PC must be situated near a phone line, and you can't run a multifunction printer on the network using the current AnyPoint package.
Coordinates: $189. AnyPoint Home Network, Intel, www.intel.com
Your Work Space: Your computers lack access to phone lines, and you need to share a Web connection.
Check Out: PassPort Plug-In Network
The Promise: Because PassPort uses the same electrical wires that run through your house, you don't need a phone line in every room that has a computer. And unlike wireless systems, PassPort doesn't require computers to be close to one another: Systems can be up to 2,640 feet apart and still network.
The Package: PassPort includes two plastic networking modules, each about the size of a pack of cigarettes, that plug into an outlet, and two parallel cables that connect the modules to the PCs. To ensure that your printer and the PassPort don't compete for the same parallel port, the package includes a special network module for the communal printer. The printer module also lets any computer on the network print, even when the other computers are turned off.
The Reality: Because PassPort is reliable and easy to set up, it offers a promising solution for home offices. But if your small business is located in an office complex, the power company's ac transformers may interfere with the network's signals. I also had to set up one computer as the main modem server and another computer as the client. Not a big deal, but it wasn't as easy as having the software automatically do it for me.
The Connection: After spending 10 minutes piecing the hardware together, I was ready to plug in the system. Installing the software was also painless. Unfortunately, PassPort is really slow: It runs at a speed (350 Kbps) that's about one-third that of the other networks reviewed here, so printing a file or transferring it to another computer can take minutes instead of seconds.
The Bottom Line: PassPort is the simplest package to set up -- by far. It's fine for sharing an Internet connection, because it's still faster than high-speed modems. But sharing anything else on PassPort, such as a printer or very large files, is a time-sink.
Coordinates: $199.95. PassPort Plug-In Network, Intelogis Inc., www.intelogis.com
Your Work Space: You work with both a laptop and a desktop computer, and you need to get them in sync -- without tapping into a phone line.
Check Out: Diamond Multimedia HomeFree Wireless Combo Pac
The Promise: Diamond's wireless networking package lets you forget about wires and cables. The system uses radio waves to beam data across your network. And the package won't compete with other peripherals for your computer's lone parallel port.
The Package: The Combo Pac comes with an internal card for a desktop PC and a PC Card for a laptop. (A $200 Desktop Pac comes with two internal cards.) A 1.25-inch antenna, which transmits the network's signals, sticks out of the back of the internal card. Diamond estimates that computers can be as far as 150 feet apart and still interact -- assuming there's no major obstruction.
The Reality: You must reach inside your computer (which isn't all that difficult) to install the network cards. After I plugged the ISA (network) card into my Windows 98 NEC, the computer recognized the new card and then asked me for the installation software. Ditto for my IBM ThinkPad. With both computers running, the HomeFree antennae "recognized" each other, noted that I had an ISDN Web connection, and set up the network -- no sweat.
The Connection: The network worked seamlessly when the computers were within 35 feet of each other. But I found that communications slowed as the distance between the two machines increased to 100 feet. (The network is rated for a maximum of 1 Mbps.) That's because the antenna is in a fixed position on the adapter card, so you can't adjust it to improve reception.
The Bottom Line: If your computers are more than 100 feet apart, the HomeFree system may be too slow to share a single high-speed Internet connection. Although the Proxim network (described next) is faster, the HomeFree system is an inexpensive wireless network for computers in a small office, especially if you're on a budget.
Coordinates: $230. HomeFree Wireless Combo Pac, Diamond Multimedia Systems Inc., www.diamondmm.com
Your Work Space: You need a wireless network connection for your roving laptop.
Check Out: Proxim's Symphony Cordless Networking Suite
The Promise: Just like the Diamond package, the Proxim system reportedly eliminates typical network hassles. There are no wires to deal with; you don't even have to plug the Symphony network into a phone line. Proxim's basic setup and requirements are the same as Diamond's, although the Proxim network is supposed to be a little speedier (1.6 Mbps versus 1 Mbps).
The Package: There are several Proxim Symphony packages on the market. I used a Symphony PC card for an IBM ThinkPad laptop with a cordless Ethernet Bridge, so the notebook could join the other systems on my Ethernet LAN. If you want to put a desktop machine on Proxim's wireless network, you have to (you guessed it) open up your computer and insert a Symphony Cordless ISA or cordless pi card. But there's an upside: Each internal card is topped with an antenna, which you can adjust, like those old TV rabbit ears, for better reception -- a definite advantage over Diamond's fixed antenna.
The Reality: Setting up the hardware took about 10 minutes. The Ethernet Bridge, which is smaller than a paperback, plugged right into my ISDN router; the Symphony PC card slipped easily into the laptop's slot. Installing the software and running tests to ensure that everything worked took about 30 minutes.
The Connection: When I put more than a couple of walls between my laptop and the Ethernet receiver/transmitter, I lost the connection. (When I put the other packages through the same test, they each held the connection but slowed down considerably.) Then again, swapping files between computers was a tad faster than the Diamond system, and my Internet connection didn't seem to drag as badly.
The Bottom Line: Proxim is more expensive than any of the other home or small-office networking systems, but it's worth the extra dough if your computers can't take another cable or connection. Still, Proxim is slower than Intel's AnyPoint -- enough to make a difference if speed is a concern when you're sharing a printer or trading multimegabyte files.
Coordinates: $149. Symphony Cordless PC Card; $399. Symphony Cordless Ethernet Bridge, Proxim, www.proxim.com
So there you have it. These off-the-shelf packages will connect you with your other computers and your coworkers, but you'll find that the connection isn't nearly as speedy as a corporate network. And while these networking tools are user friendly, they're not exactly plug and play. Installing a system requires a bit more effort than connecting a VCR to your television. You'll probably need a weekend to get everything working smoothly.
Is the end result worth the effort? That's a question that only you can answer. But I, for one, will never let my computers work in isolation again.
John R. Quain (email@example.com) is a contributing editor at Fast Company. he appears regularly on CBS News and MSNBC.
Action Item: Fit to Be Tied
Most off-the-shelf network packages will add to your rat's nest of cables. To keep everything neat and tidy, get yourself a set of Belkin Velcro Cable Ties, which come in packs of six and cost less than $7.
Belkin's Out-of-Sight Cord Concealer holds half a dozen cables in a flexible, six-foot-long plastic tube. At $10 a shot, the tubes prevent pets from chewing up cables and bringing down the network. The Concealer also includes color-coded labels, so you can keep track of which cable goes to which device.
Coordinates: Belkin Components, www.belkin.com
Sidebar: When to Go Wireless
If you're looking for advice on setting up a wireless network at your small office, look no further than Joe Krysztoforski, managing director of PDS Research Associates, a management advisory firm in Hunt Valley, Maryland. Using the Proxim Symphony system, Krysztoforski has connected three laptops and two desktop systems to a standard, eight-computer Ethernet network. Here are four of his top tips for going wireless.
Check Your Office: Make sure that the systems you want to connect are fewer than 150 feet apart. Anything beyond that distance won't give you a reliable connection. check your building To avoid interference, make sure that there aren't many concrete and steel walls separating your various computers. Brick and wood structures create the least interference.
Do a Head Count: Go wireless only if you have fewer than six people who work online, simultaneously sending email, sharing a printer, and surfing the Web. If you have a larger staff, look for a package that runs off of phone lines.
Know the System's Limits: If you want to connect more than 10 PCs, or if you've got eight people who are constantly pounding away on a database server, you'll find that the Symphony wireless is too slow.
Coordinates: Joe Krysztoforski, firstname.lastname@example.org; PDS Research, www.pdsresearch.com
Sidebar: Take the Fast Router
Setting up a traditional Ethernet LAN isn't fun: You've got to install all of the hardware and special Internet network cards, and then set up a server with special software. That said, an Ethernet LAN is about 100 times faster and more reliable than any of the alternatives. To install one, you'll need to get Ethernet cables (about $10 for a good 14-foot cable) and network interface cards (NICs) for each networked computer. Fast Ethernet NICs cost from $40 to $80 each. But the most important component is a router -- a box-shaped device for plugging in your Ethernet cables, so you can share a high-speed Internet connection. Fortunately, software packaged with today's routers will almost set up the LAN for you. Here are three user-friendly routers that are primed for the fast route to the Internet.
Fast: Most of us use 56-Kbps modems to get online. With 3Com's OfficeConnect four-port Ethernet hub, you can share that connection with four users. It's not the fastest router around, but this modest solution is easy to install and convenient for a burgeoning home-based business.
Coordinates: $299. 3Com, www.3com.com
Faster: ISDN lines are fast, but expensive. Installing one can cost several hundred dollars, with monthly service starting at about $50. But you can share one 128-Kbps ISDN connection using the Netgear Remote Access ISDN Router. The router can accommodate four Fast 100-Mbps Ethernet connections, allowing four computers to share files and printers and to get on the Web fast.
Coordinates: $449. Netgear, www.netgearinc.com
Fastest: Digital subscriber line service, available in parts of California and other areas, offers the fastest connection to the Internet. Netopia's R7100 SDSL Router takes advantage of such speed. It can handle a two-way, 1.568-Mbps Internet connection, which can then be shared by eight PCs connected to its Ethernet 10Base-T connections.
Coordinates: $449. Netopia, www.netopia.com
Sidebar: One Man's Network
To get a big picture of how a home network works, we visited Ike Nassi's one-story house in Los Gatos, California. Nassi, chief technology officer of InfoGear Technology, says his at-home network "seamlessly integrates the Internet into our day-to-day tasks -- working, shopping online, and power-using email." Here is his setup.
1. Garage: In a connection box called a "punch-down block," the two analog phone lines and the two-channel digital ISDN line from GTE mesh with the multiple-phone and LAN lines that run into the house.
2. Wall Jacks: The home's wall jacks come with three plugs: one for each standard analog telephone line, and one for the home's internal AppleTalk LAN.
3. Kitchen: The kitchen has a two-line iPhone (made by Infogear) that has a large LCD screen, so that Ronee (Nassi's wife) can shop online while doing other chores.
4. Home Office: Nassi's study is ground zero for his home network, which requires a Netopia Router that connects the AppleTalk LAN and the Ethernet network, and lets everyone share the same high-speed ISDN Internet connection.
5. Jason's Room: Two years ago, when Jason, now a 23-year-old employee of Netscape/AOL, was still living at home, his room was often set up with a desktop Macintosh computer and a PowerBook laptop connected to the home network.
6. Alex's Room: Alex, 13, needs online access that doesn't interfere with other family members' phone calls. He gets that over the network through his Macintosh 8100/100 and an America Online account.
7. Mark's Room: A 20-year-old math major at UC Davis, Mark uses the network to copy software upgrades quickly from one machine to another and to test out programming assignments on the server in his father's home office.
Coordinates: Ike Nassi, email@example.com
Sidebar: Quoin's Top Ten
Thinking about doing some networking? Before you begin, connect with these 10 commandments of network preparation.
1. Don't take on big jobs alone. If you need to connect more than a dozen PCs, you need a professional.
2. Upgrade windows. Windows 98 and Windows NT work better with these networking products, but that doesn't mean they won't crash.
3. Upgrade your drivers. Go to manufacturers' Web sites to download all new software releases for any peripherals that you'll be sharing.
4. Check your hard-disk space. You'll need at least 20 MB of disk space to get started.
5. Measure the distance. Know whether your systems are too far apart for your cables -- or for a good wireless connection.
6. Write down your dial-up settings. Chances are, when you install the network, you'll need those settings for your Internet connections.
7. Read the user's manual. Setting up a home network is more complicated than installing software.
8. Cut the power. I've seen professionals blow up network cards by sticking them into a live PC.
9. Put aside a weekend. There's a good chance that some essential device, such as a modem or a scanner, won't work the first time you install the network.
10. Back up all your files. In the confusion of setting up a server, you could delete critical work.
Philips USB PC Video Camera
What's the point of installing a network if you can't do something cool with it? So go ahead and add the Philips USB PC Video Camera. The two-tone, egg-shaped camera looks like something George Lucas designed. Better yet, it's very easy to install. Just plug the single cable into a USB port on your computer and run the software. You can then take snapshots of that prototype you're working on and send them to your laptop using your zippy network, or use the camera to hold a video conference over that shared, high-speed Internet connection.
Coordinates: $80. Philips Electronics, www.pcstuff.philips.com
3Com USB Network Interface
Most standard PCs don't come with Ethernet interfaces, which means you have to install a network interface card inside your PC. Fortunately, 3Com has a solution that doesn't force you to pry the cover off of your system. The 3Com USB Network Interface snaps into a Universal Serial Bus (USB) on the back of a PC and connects to a standard RJ-45 Ethernet plug on the other end. Just run the Windows 98 software-driver program, and you're on the network in less than 10 minutes.
Coordinates: $75. 3Com Corp., www.3com.com
HP LaserJet 2100TN
If you need to do lots of black-and-white printing, the network-ready hp LaserJet 2100TN is the way to go. The 2100TN is designed for a small network of about a half-dozen PCs. The printer can hold 600 sheets of paper; it kicks out 10 crisp pages per minute; and it includes software that tells you when the machine has run out of paper.
Coordinates: $999. Hewlett-Packard, www.hp.com