My father was recently in town visiting and after he saw the Apple iPod in my car, we started talking about digital media and home networking. As I walked him through all the digital music, photo, and video tasks I perform at home with my PC, I realized that all this modern technology can be overwhelming; my father was constantly amazed at what is possible today. Most amazing, of course, is the price of this technology: Most of it is inexpensive, although it can often be time-consuming to figure out.
What ties the technology all together, of course, is a home network. A PC typically sits at the center of this network and can often be the gateway to the outside world through a cable, DSL, modem, or satellite connection, although hardware-based home gateways are also popular. Until Freestyle-type PCs—which will generally sit in the living room —are available, you'll usually find PCs in a home office or spare bedroom. So a home network can help make connections between the PC and other physically separated devices.
The topic of network type immediately comes up during any discussion of home networking. Last month at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), I spoke to Microsoft representatives about home-networking concerns in general and Freestyle in particular. A Microsoft product manager mentioned power-line networking as a viable alternative to wireless for home networks because most people don't want to rewire their homes for Ethernet. When I scoffed at this idea, he reminded me that everything you'd want to network needs power. So every device will always have a power outlet nearby. Point taken.
Other forms of networking are available. In my home office, I connect desktop PCs with 100Mbps Ethernet and use a switch, rather than a port-sharing hub, for the fastest possible speeds across the network. My laptops and Pocket PC are connected wirelessly through an 802.11b connection point attached to the switch. This connection lets my wife and me balance the checkbook, browse the Web, check email, and perform other tasks anywhere in the house; it has really changed the way we approach computing. I spend a lot of time browsing the Web in bed before going to sleep, for example; it's a nice way to catch up on news.
A home office isn't the ideal location for all connected devices, however. My best stereo system is in the den with my big-screen TV. But because I took the time to rip my entire audio CD collection onto the computer, I wanted to play that music on the good stereo. So I picked up a SONICblue Rio receiver, which connects to the media PC back in the home office through phone-line networking, which—at 1Mbps—would be slow for computing but is perfect for this task. As my father noted during his visit, the sound reproduction is excellent—no pausing, skipping, or weird audio artifacts.
If you want to put a second PC in your house in a location that's far away from the primary PC, you have all these options to choose from. Networking PCs lets you share resources such as files, folders, and printers. Office printing products from Hewlett-Packard (HP) and other companies began appearing almost a decade ago. These products let you attach a laser printer directly to the network, rather than associate it with a PC. This arrangement makes printing easier to manage because no one has to worry about sharing individual printers attached to individual PCs. And because the prices of network printers have recently come down, they're affordable at home as well as the office.
HP has taken this concept even further with a cool new technology that I think will catch on: the wireless print server. This little device connects a printer directly to your network—wirelessly. You connect the printer to the print server—which is about the size of a wireless connection point—and the server connects wirelessly to the network. You can place the printer anywhere you want in your home, home office, or workplace, and access it from PCs or Macs, even when wired Ethernet isn't available. I recently tested HP's wp110 wireless print server with an HP LaserJet and instantly wanted one. If you could see the rat's nest of wires in my home office, you'd understand: With the wireless print server, the printer can sit on a small shelf isolated from the PCs, without any messy wires crossing the floor. I highly recommend it.
Another cool home networking add-on, of sorts, is Microsoft's TV Photo Viewer product, which connects to a TV set and displays photo slide shows that you load off a floppy disk. In this sense, the TV Photo Viewer isn't a connected device per se (unless you consider Sneakernet a network), but a future version will be. Microsoft tells me that the company is looking at a new version that will load photos over the home network from your Windows XP-based PC, eliminating the need for local storage and dramatically increasing capacity.
Want to take advantage of a digital video recorder (DVR) but you're not interested in spending $300 or more on a TiVo device or something similar? Then look into PC-based DVR solutions such as the excellent SnapStream Personal Video Station (PVS), which connects your PC to a TV for recording purposes. You can also network SnapStream so that one person can watch a recorded TV show on the PC, and someone else can watch live TV. Best of all, you can leverage the hard disk(s) in your existing PC for TV-recording purposes. Digitally record your favorite shows, and watch them on your TV. It's your choice.
Home networks have many more uses—including security and surveillance, remote video chatting, digital-media streaming, and more—but I'm out of space. However you decide to connect your home, you're headed in the right direction. Everything comes together with a home network.