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  PC-Net's PC News - January 2000
Don Watkins

How to Set Up a Home Network

By Don Watkins



Why create a home computer network?

For one, computer prices are dropping fast and many families are able to afford more than one personal computer, just as most of us have more than one telephone. A network can give you immediate benefits. Your computers will be able to share files, printers, and other resources. It's also possible for computers to share a single Internet connection. The Learning to Share article in the PC Communications forum will give you an idea of what methods are available. Also, Windows 98SE supports modem sharing.

Networking 101
There are several kinds of networking. At work, you might use your computer to connect to a company server. That kind of networking is called client-server networking. "Client" refers to the computer that needs information. The "server" is the computer that has the files or resources that the client needs. Large businesses use client-server networking.

Home users rarely need that fancy kind of networking. We have our own kind, and it works just fine. Homes have computers that are equal in status. They don't have clients and servers. Every computer is a "peer." Networking for homes is called peer-to-peer networking unless, of course, you're running a server.

Peer-to-peer networking is about as simple as computer connections can get. You run a wire from one computer to another and adjust Windows 95/98 network settings on each computer. The first step is making sure each computer has the right network hardware.

The first pitfall: Vendors have come up with all kinds of non-standard ways to connect computers, but I stay away from things like that until they're proven. So concentrate on the standard way to set up a home network, called Ethernet.

What you will need

Cable: You will need cable that is like a heavy-duty version of telephone wire. The connectors on each end look like large telephone jacks. There are fancy names for computer networking wires, but don't even bother learning them. Just go to a computer store and say you want to buy Ethernet cable. Get a longer length than you think you need because you may have to run the cable behind desks or whatever, so you may lose half the length just getting from here to there. For what is it cable is incredibly overpriced in my opinion. If you have to snake it into another room (perhaps you want to share an Internet connection with a kid or better half) you'll be better off buying the raw cable and connecting tool at Home Depot and making the cable ends yourself. Cisco has a really nice diagram of the pin outs here (PDF file, you'll need Adobe Reader) on page 5. Alternatively you may want to go wireless. See my experience with wireless networking here.

Network interface card (NIC): These are the hardware devices PCs need to network. Each computer needs one. Be a pro at the store and call them by their geek name of NICs (pronounce it 'nicks'). If you get a blank stare tell then you want a network card or better yet walk out, you know more than they do. You will need a NIC for every computer that you plan on putting on the network. For laptops there are a ton of NIC PCMCIA cards.

In either case I have used expensive NICs and cheap ones. Netgear has given me good price/performance. You can pay more and you can pay a bit less, but I've found them solid.

Hub: This is the device that "concentrates" all the cables into a central unit. If you have more than two machines to connect you'll need a hub. No need to spend a ton of money for a home hub, again check out Linksys or Netgear equipment, I've used both and they work fine. Note that there are two speeds here, 10Mb and 10/100. The former only works at 10Mb while the latter will work at both. For home use 10Mb is pretty fast and if you need more than that you're more than a casual user so consider the cost of a 10/100 over a 10 hub and make an informed decision. The number of ports is an issue as well. Chances are you'll never run more than three machines and a router or DSL/cable modem. But if that chance exists you may want to consider an 8 port hub. Upgrading from 4 to 8 later on may be more money than you want to pay so plan ahead. Again I have found that Netgear gives me good price/performance.

If you're only running two machines a hub isn't required. You will need a special kind of cable wired in a "crossover" method. Many computer stores and online retailers will call this a "gaming" cable. Note carefully that a crossover cable will NOT work when connected to a hub, only another NIC!

Dare to install
NICs are circuit boards that slide into slots on the inside of the PC. Installing a PC card isn't hard. Turn the PC off, unplug it, and take off the PC's cover. Touch the chassis to ground yourself. Find a free slot, unscrew or remove the back cover for the slot, and slide in the new card. You may have to press hard on the card to get it to slide in, so go ahead and push. Be sure you hold the part you're pushing against with your fingers so you don't bend it.

When you put the cover back on and restart, Windows usually tells you it found something new. At this point, follow the directions that came with the card. Chances are you won't need to do much, but some cards require more help getting Windows to work properly with them.

Until next time, best in computing.


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