Ethernet Category 5 cable is far and away the best choice for a home network. It's fast and almost always trouble free. Ethernet can transfer data at 100Mbps if your NICs and hub are up to it. In my opinion, the only reason to opt for a connection type other than Ethernet is if you can't or don't want to run cable through the walls of your house. In this situation, you have some other good, but slower, options. Here they are, in the order in which I'd recommend them.

1. Telephone Lines

You can use your existing telephone lines to connect your network. Telephone-cable networks use telephone-line bandwidth that voice communication doesn't use, so your telephone lines are still available for ordinary household telephone use, including a modem. Network adapters are available in the form of bus NICs, USB connectors, and parallel port connectors and are priced about the same as Ethernet components.

Today's telephone-line NICs can transmit data at 10Mbps (until recently, only 1Mbps connections were available). Don't mix and match adapter speeds; autosensing for telephone-line speed doesn't work as well as it does for Ethernet.

Every computer must be near a telephone jack, which limits your choices for computer placement. Of course, you can run telephone cable from one room to another through the walls or along baseboards. The maximum distance between any two computers is about 1000', but that limitation shouldn't present a problem in most houses.

To use telephone cable for home networks, you just connect a regular telephone cable between the NIC or USB connector and the telephone wall jack. You can use your wall jack for both a telephone and a network connection by plugging a modular duplex jack (also called a splitter) into the wall jack. Plug the telephone cable into one of the splitter's connectors and the network cable into the other connector.

If you're setting up shared Internet access, only one computer needs a modem. If that computer has an external modem, plug the modem into the second side of the splitter instead of the telephone. Then plug the telephone into the appropriate connector on the modem. If the computer has an internal modem, you need a Y-connector instead of a splitter.

All NIC and USB connector vendors support Windows XP, Windows NT, Windows Me, and Windows 9x; most provide drivers for Windows 2000. Gateway devices are available to connect a telephone line network to a cable modem or DSL modem.

You can't route a network phone cable through the phone jack outlet of a surge suppressor, and you can't use the phone lines that you use for a digital PBX phone system for your network. However, if the computers on your network are near each other, you can install telephone adapters in them and daisy-chain the computers together with telephone cable, ignoring the phone jacks in the wall.

2. Radio Frequency

Several sets of radio frequency (RF) standards exist for small networks. The various standards can't coexist; you should choose one and stick with it. The two most popular are HomeRF and 802.11b. A new standard, 802.11a, delivers much greater transmission speed. Another new standard, 802.11g, is currently under development. If it ever reaches the market, it's supposed to be compatible with 802.11b, providing much faster transmission speed than is currently available with any RF technology.

HomeRF. HomeRF devices are designed to transmit data at rates of up to 10Mbps. The bandwidth you get will vary depending on the distances between computers and interference.

HomeRF adapters are available as NICs, PC Cards, and USB connectors with antennas that are transceivers (they transmit and receive RF signals). The adapters cost about the same as Ethernet devices. HomeRF devices use the Frequency Hopping Spread Spectrum (FHSS), which sends a small amount of data, then shifts frequencies to send another small packet of data. This tactic makes FHSS devices less prone to interference from other RF devices and your network less vulnerable to infiltration by someone outside your home.

Choosing HomeRF means living with a maximum transmission distance of 75' to 125'—150' or more if you don't have barriers, which include large bodies of water and metal. The metal problem can be serious if you want to scatter computers around an old house. However, you should be fine if all the computers can go in one room or if your house is new enough to have PVC drain pipes and drywall walls.

HomeRF equipment manufacturers typically have drivers for Win2K, NT, Windows Me, Win9x, Windows CE, and Macintosh PowerBook G3.

802.11b. The 802.11b RF standard is an upgrade of the original 802.11 standard that has been around for a long time for a wide variety of cordless devices. The big improvement is speed: 802.11b transmissions can move data at 11Mbps (compared to the old rate of 2Mbps). Recently, the prices for 802.11b network adapters dropped to a level comparable with those of HomeRF devices.

Instead of FHSS, 802.11b uses the Direct Sequence Spread Spectrum. DSSS generates a redundant bit (called a chip) for every bit of data that it transmits to ensure that data is received accurately, even when the signal is weak because of interference or distance.

The antennas on the adapters are capable of transmitting and receiving signals at distances of 100' to 500' indoors. You can extend this range by creating multiple networks (e.g., one on the first floor and another on the second floor) and installing an access point for each network that facilitates communication between the two networks.

802.11a. Several vendors now offer NICs that can deliver speeds of up to 72Mbps.

3. Infrared

Infrared (IR) technology uses a beam of light to create a direct signal between computers. Most laptops and many laser printers have a built-in IR connector. You can buy IR network interface devices for desktop computers; the most common device type is a USB connector. The prices are slightly higher than for Ethernet connectors.

Most of the home network IR devices are built for Direct IR, which means that the IR connectors must "see" each other. However, you can buy devices that support Diffuse IR, which bounces the signal around the room, enabling you to connect more than two computers on your network.

IR technology doesn't travel through walls or around corners, so it's suitable only for networks in which all the computers are in the same room. This arrangement is more commonly found in small business offices than in homes. However, the limitation also means that your network is secure against someone outside your house with a computer.

The computers need to be within several feet of each other (more than 8' or 9' can cause problems). The transmission speed varies between 1Mbps and 4Mbps, depending on the manufacturer and on computer placement. Bright sunlight can interfere with the signal.

4. Electric Lines

In the past, this technology has been unreliable, but recently it has undergone a complete overhaul to improve its reliability and efficiency, and the new standards should provide an easy-to-install, stable, relatively speedy home network. Data travels as encapsulated Ethernet packets, and the electric-line topology recognizes attached peripherals, such as printers, the way Ethernet does. The raw data rate is about 20Mbps, but built-in error correction functions mean that the actual rate is about 14Mbps.

The new hardware uses a broader bandwidth (84 channels) and can automatically turn off the use of any frequency carrier that could cause interference. Additionally, the hardware has built-in surge protection.

Electric-line networking works with an inexpensive three-part hardware device for each node on the network: an adapter that attaches to the computer (usually through the parallel port or a USB connector), a proprietary electrical device that plugs into the power outlet on the wall, and cable that connects those two devices. OEMs will provide drivers for all versions of Windows.

Electric-line devices don't actually use electricity to transmit data, they send data along the bandwidth that isn't powering electric devices. Therefore, the topology has no effect on your electric bill. The best part of electric-line networking is the convenience, because any room in which you want to locate a computer has a power outlet.