Just a few short years ago, home networking was too complicated and expensive for most people. How things have changed. A sweeping series of technical improvements--combined with consumer education--has transformed home networking into a multimillion-dollar market. Today, you can choose from a range of inexpensive home-networking solutions, each designed to address particular needs. And, as with all technology, home networking gets simpler and more powerful all the time. Let's look at some of the many options available today.

Wired Ethernet Networking
The old standby--wired Ethernet networking--is still the most popular option for connecting two or more home PCs. Available in 10Mbps, 100Mbps, and 1Gbps speeds, traditional wired networking is still the best performer of all networking types and is generally the least expensive, although the 1Gbps hardware is still relatively pricey. Ethernet networking is appropriate for any use, including Internet connection sharing, email and Web access, digital-media streaming including video (at 100Mbps or faster), LAN- and Internet-based gaming, remote PC access, and virtually any other use you can imagine.
Ethernet networks use standard CAT-5 cabling, which resembles a phone line but is a bit thicker. Although you can attach two PCs directly with a special patch cable, you'll want an Ethernet switch (as opposed to the earlier hardware devices), called a hub, to connect two or more PCs and peripherals.
Ethernet networking can sometimes be complicated to set up, although modern OSs such as Windows XP and Mac OS X obscure the details and often provide Plug and Play (PnP) networking functionality that works instantly. When things go wrong, however, look out: Under the covers, networking is a complicated piece of technology, and you'll need an understanding of the basics to perform effective troubleshooting. But XP, in particular, has excellent online help that can guide you through any networking problems.
The biggest problem with Ethernet, however, is logistics. What happens when you want to connect a PC in a second-floor bedroom with another PC in the home office, which is located in the basement? Home-networking experts often "wire" their houses with Ethernet cable, making it possible to plug into the network from any room in the house. Unless you do this as part of new construction, however, the process of wiring a home is expensive, messy, time-consuming, and disruptive. For this reason, other forms of networking with less egregious space restrictions have become quite popular.

Wireless Networking
During the past 2 years, wireless networking based on Wi-Fi, the 802.11b wireless standard, has taken the home-networking market by storm. Touting a connection speed of 11Mbps, Wi-Fi rarely achieves more than 4Mpbs or 5Mbps, which makes the technology woefully inadequate for high-bandwidth applications such as video streaming, massive network file copies, or Internet-based gaming. However, wireless networking is perfectly suited for the tasks most consumers need, such as Internet connection sharing and simple file copying. And newly emerging standards, such as the recently ratified 802.11g version of Wi-Fi, offer much faster speeds. For example, 802.11g, rated at 54Mbps, actually delivers data at about 20Mbps to 25 Mbps while maintaining backward compatibility with the many existing Wi-Fi networks.
Like Ethernet networking, Wi-Fi can connect PCs without a central switch (i.e., an access point--AP), which can save money. But because wireless bandwidth is shared, you want a real AP to connect two or more devices.
Wi-Fi is pervasive and convenient. Virtually all PC and Macintosh notebook computers today ship with Wi-Fi capabilities built in, and adding Wi-Fi capabilities to desktop boxes is relatively simple. Although Wi-Fi is increasingly available in bookstores, coffee shops, airports, and other locations, the best use of this technology is still in the home. You might not find the home office confining now, but the first time you browse the Web from the couch or bed, you'll see that a whole new world has opened up. In my home, for instance, I usually leave a wireless-enabled notebook computer near the couch, at hand when my wife or I see something interesting on TV and want to learn more about it. Wireless access is liberating, and we miss it when it's not available.
Wi-Fi's limitations, alas, are legion. Signal range is a problem. In my house, the wireless speeds slow dramatically as you move into the far reaches of the second floor. The problem is even more severe with 802.11g-based equipment, which seems to offer only two-thirds the range of 802.11b equipment, albeit with much faster speeds. Wi-Fi can also be complicated to set up and even harder to troubleshoot because it adds the uncertainty of wireless on top of the complexity of networking. Because wireless is still a relatively new technology, it's evolving quickly, and early adopters often find themselves left with obsolete hardware they can't upgrade. As I mentioned above, 802.11g is backward compatible with 802.11b, albeit at the slower 11Mbps speed. Another high-speed variant, 802.11a, offers slightly faster speeds than 802.11g but is incompatible with 802.11b.
Finally, most wireless networks are insecure out of the box and for various reasons are difficult, if not impossible, to secure against intrusion. You should seriously consider investigating wireless security if you're concerned about neighbors or even passersby accessing your Internet connection and internal network. New and upcoming wireless security standards such as Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) will fix this problem in the months ahead. But the majority of wireless networks in homes today are completely open to attack.

More About Home Networking
In the next issue of Connected Home EXPRESS, I'll look at phone line and Homeplug networking, Bluetooth, and the modern OSs that make home networking better than ever. If you haven't yet jumped on the home-networking bandwagon, now's the time.

Just a few short years ago, home networking was too complicated and expensive for most people. How things have changed. A sweeping series of technical improvements--combined with consumer education--has transformed home networking into a multimillion-dollar market. Today, you can choose from a range of inexpensive home-networking solutions, each designed to address particular needs. And, as with all technology, home networking gets simpler and more powerful all the time. Let's look at some of the many options available today.

Wired Ethernet Networking The old standby--wired Ethernet networking--is still the most popular option for connecting two or more home PCs. Available in 10Mbps, 100Mbps, and 1Gbps speeds, traditional wired networking is still the best performer of all networking types and is generally the least expensive, although the 1Gbps hardware is still relatively pricey. Ethernet networking is appropriate for any use, including Internet connection sharing, email and Web access, digital-media streaming including video (at 100Mbps or faster), LAN- and Internet-based gaming, remote PC access, and virtually any other use you can imagine. Ethernet networks use standard CAT-5 cabling, which resembles a phone line but is a bit thicker. Although you can attach two PCs directly with a special patch cable, you'll want an Ethernet switch (as opposed to the earlier hardware devices), called a hub, to connect two or more PCs and peripherals. Ethernet networking can sometimes be complicated to set up, although modern OSs such as Windows XP and Mac OS X obscure the details and often provide Plug and Play (PnP) networking functionality that works instantly. When things go wrong, however, look out: Under the covers, networking is a complicated piece of technology, and you'll need an understanding of the basics to perform effective troubleshooting. But XP, in particular, has excellent online help that can guide you through any networking problems. The biggest problem with Ethernet, however, is logistics. What happens when you want to connect a PC in a second-floor bedroom with another PC in the home office, which is located in the basement? Home-networking experts often "wire" their houses with Ethernet cable, making it possible to plug into the network from any room in the house. Unless you do this as part of new construction, however, the process of wiring a home is expensive, messy, time-consuming, and disruptive. For this reason, other forms of networking with less egregious space restrictions have become quite popular.

Wireless Networking During the past 2 years, wireless networking based on Wi-Fi, the 802.11b wireless standard, has taken the home-networking market by storm. Touting a connection speed of 11Mbps, Wi-Fi rarely achieves more than 4Mpbs or 5Mbps, which makes the technology woefully inadequate for high-bandwidth applications such as video streaming, massive network file copies, or Internet-based gaming. However, wireless networking is perfectly suited for the tasks most consumers need, such as Internet connection sharing and simple file copying. And newly emerging standards, such as the recently ratified 802.11g version of Wi-Fi, offer much faster speeds. For example, 802.11g, rated at 54Mbps, actually delivers data at about 20Mbps to 25 Mbps while maintaining backward compatibility with the many existing Wi-Fi networks. Like Ethernet networking, Wi-Fi can connect PCs without a central switch (i.e., an access point--AP), which can save money. But because wireless bandwidth is shared, you want a real AP to connect two or more devices. Wi-Fi is pervasive and convenient. Virtually all PC and Macintosh notebook computers today ship with Wi-Fi capabilities built in, and adding Wi-Fi capabilities to desktop boxes is relatively simple. Although Wi-Fi is increasingly available in bookstores, coffee shops, airports, and other locations, the best use of this technology is still in the home. You might not find the home office confining now, but the first time you browse the Web from the couch or bed, you'll see that a whole new world has opened up. In my home, for instance, I usually leave a wireless-enabled notebook computer near the couch, at hand when my wife or I see something interesting on TV and want to learn more about it. Wireless access is liberating, and we miss it when it's not available. Wi-Fi's limitations, alas, are legion. Signal range is a problem. In my house, the wireless speeds slow dramatically as you move into the far reaches of the second floor. The problem is even more severe with 802.11g-based equipment, which seems to offer only two-thirds the range of 802.11b equipment, albeit with much faster speeds. Wi-Fi can also be complicated to set up and even harder to troubleshoot because it adds the uncertainty of wireless on top of the complexity of networking. Because wireless is still a relatively new technology, it's evolving quickly, and early adopters often find themselves left with obsolete hardware they can't upgrade. As I mentioned above, 802.11g is backward compatible with 802.11b, albeit at the slower 11Mbps speed. Another high-speed variant, 802.11a, offers slightly faster speeds than 802.11g but is incompatible with 802.11b. Finally, most wireless networks are insecure out of the box and for various reasons are difficult, if not impossible, to secure against intrusion. You should seriously consider investigating wireless security if you're concerned about neighbors or even passersby accessing your Internet connection and internal network. New and upcoming wireless security standards such as Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) will fix this problem in the months ahead. But the majority of wireless networks in homes today are completely open to attack.

More About Home Networking In the next issue of Connected Home EXPRESS, I'll look at phone line and Homeplug networking, Bluetooth, and the modern OSs that make home networking better than ever. If you haven't yet jumped on the home-networking bandwagon, now's the time.