By Matthew Wade
More and more families are finding themselves with more than one laptop or desktop PC at home, which means the benefits of a wired or wireless local area network (LAN) are just a few quick steps away. Why are connected computers so much more useful? What kind of network is right for your bunch? And can this be easily set-up if you’re a non-technical type? Find out as Windows Middle East answers these questions and more…
|~|Networking---m.gif|~|A wireless network - with an access point or router/gateway product at its centre - means no cable clutter and the possibility of 'hot desking' (or 'hot chairing') around your building. |~|Any desktop PC or laptop bought in the last couple of years can be connected to a wired network and, in most cases, a wireless set-up too. Should your kit be a little older, but still very much doing the do, you’re probably just a quick and easy upgrade away from this wireless functionality. Either way, you’re close to enjoying the advantages a home network can bring.
What are these benefits? Well the chief advantage is the capacity for sharing. With machines able to see and communicate with each other, you can swap and share all manner of content and share network devices between users.
Let’s start with an example: individual files and folders for instance. Say your office desktop is connected to your network and your laptop, also LAN-connected and holding most of your digital music library, is in your bedroom). If you’re beavering away in the study and want to enjoy some MP3s whilst you work, you can quickly jump to Windows’ My Network Places window, hop onto your laptop’s shared My Music folder, and then either copy the files you want onto your PC or simply play directly the tunes you want. And all without moving more than your mousing muscle. Lazy? Yes, but convenient too.
This ability to access content and enjoy it at the same time as other family members in other rooms also applies to movies such as DivX downloads say, and of course documents, entire folders of varied content and more. Should you run a business from a room in your house with two or three (or more) staff, a network can allow you to centralise your database files, digital brochures and so on – either on one computer or a dedicated small business server (depending on the amount of data you have). With a home network then, the days of flash disk swapping and CD burning are truly a thing of the past.
In addition to file sharing, this sharing also applies to devices, such as printers. So long as your printer purchase is LAN- or WiFi-ready, you can connect it to your network – as you would any other PC – and that way all your users can print when they like, without you having to turn on the PC that your printer is connected to.
And of course, last but not least, a network allows you to share one broadband internet connection amongst your whole team. There are various ways in which to do this, two of which we explain later in this feature (see the links at the end of this feature).
Sticking with the basics then, your first choice network-wise is whether to connect your PCs with wires or ‘go wireless’. When it comes to making this decision, we suggest you digest the following points and compare this data with how you think your network is likely to be used (i.e. Will you be using it to share large files? Will you simply be sharing your internet connection and swapping the odd MP3?).
The default network standard for a wired ‘local’ (single location) area network (or LAN) is 10/100Mbps, which means that data transfer speeds of up to 12.5 megabytes per second are possible over this. However old your PC or laptop is, it will have a LAN connector jack around the back (AKA an Ethernet connection - as Ethernet CAT5 cable is the common home network wire used). This means that bar some CAT5 cable (costing roughly $4 per three metre cable), so not very much at all), you’re set to get cracking straight away.
The pros and cons of this wired approach are these: on the plus side, the 10/100 network speed is perfectly whizzy, so if you’re watching high-def movies over the network you won’t experience sound lagging or dropped frames, or if you’re transferring a large file from PC to PC, this will complete much more quickly than it would over a WLAN. Obviously, on the flipside, a wired network means just that – cable running around the edge of your rooms and across the floor. Unless, that is, you have carpets and can bosh it underneath, or you fancy fitting it within the walls and floor (we’re guessing you probably don’t).
Another advantage of employing a cable-based network is that your network connection should - providing you don’t trip over and pull out any cables – remain connected all the time. This isn’t always the case with wireless LANs. Related to this, wireless networks are also prone to ‘dead spots’, which can be created by the design of your office or home (in terms of the walls themselves and their construction), and electronic devices that use the same frequency as a WLAN can also interfere at times with the WiFi signal, comprising its strength.
If running a business from home, with all your PCs in one office space, the chances are that you can live with this space housing a little cable-clutter as it’s really a negligible price to pay for content, printer and internet sharing. Just be sure however that you cover wires as best you can (with rugs for instance),in order to avoid employees tripping up and injuring themselves.
Footloose and cable-free?
As mentioned, a wireless network brings with it the possibility of great convenience, but on the flipside it also takes a bit more setting up. Before we get to these requirements however, it’s important to understand wireless technology on offer, as this knowledge will help you buy the right wireless networking kit for your needs.
The two wireless ‘standards’ (or specifications) around at present, which you’ll see mentioned on the packaging of wireless access points and routers, are 802.11g (commonly referred to as the ‘g’ standard) and 802.11n.
The 802.11g wireless standard operates at a frequency of 2.4GHz (the same frequency used by cordless phones, microwave ovens and the like – which can lead to some interference at times) and offers bandwidth of up to 54Mbits/sec. As there are eight megabits to a megabyte, this translates to a maximum data transfer rate of 6.75 megabytes per second.
The next-generation wireless standard meanwhile, 802.11n, is billed as a massive boon to wireless technology. Due to operate on either a 2.4GHz or 5GHz frequency, this standard has yet to be ratified, meaning its maximum bandwidth has yet to be set. However, you’ll notice that ‘pre’ and ‘draft’ n products are already on the market, from vendors such as Belkin, Linksys and Netgear. In our recent Windows tests these products have generally offered bandwidth of around 90Mbits/sec (11.25Mbytes/sec); better than ‘g’ but still notably lower than the widely predicted ‘n’ figures of around 500Mbits/sec.
To compare the two types of network then, our Windows team’s tests to date have rarely found that a wireless network can move data around at the same speed as a wired set-up . Using a pre-N standard Belkin router for example (see our April 2007 issue), we moved our 238Mbyte test file from one PC to another in a minute and 41 second, whilst previously a 3Com-based 10/100 wired network had managed the same task in just 35 seconds.
As pretty much every desktop PC and laptop feature Ethernet jacks, setting up a wired network requires simply that you purchase CAT5 cable and maybe also a hub or switch.
The cable-only approach means you’ll connect your computers directly. This is an easy way to connect just two machines and cheap too as you don’t need to buy a hub; you only need to connect the PCs’ network adapters using one cable. If you have three systems however, each PC still needs to connect to every other PC, meaning each system would need two network cards installed. This means a lot of installing and faffing around when a hub or switch could do the job more easily and give you what’s called scalability. Buy a 16-port hub or switch then and this box, which all the PCs connect to directly, will simply sit between all these systems and pass data between them without the need for double network adapters inside each rig.
The difference between a hub and a switch is this: switches are basically ‘smart’ – rather than ‘dumb’ hubs. Therefore, when you ask a switch to send data from PC 1 to PC 3 on your LAN, it won’t do what a hub would, which is to try sending this information to every PC just to work out which is number 3, it will instead know which is PC 2 and send it direct the first time. So switches are quicker at moving your data around than their brainless cousins.
Should you not be a speed-hungry downloader and decide wireless is for you, the first step is to check your PCs are all wireless enabled.
If you have an Intel Centrino laptop, this is by definition wireless (as its wireless chip makes up one third of its Centrino ‘suite’ of three technologies). If you own an AMD laptop, you can find out whether it has wireless functionality from its manual, the vendor’s online product page, or by heading to Start/Settings/Control Panel/System/Hardware/Device Manager. (Click ‘Network adapters’ and see if a wireless component (802.11xxx etc.)is mentioned.)
As for desktop systems, if your PCs aren’t modern they might not be WiFi-ready, so you’ll need to buy and install a wireless network adapter. These usually take the form of PCI cards, which you add by opening the PC case, grounding yourself, slotting into a spare PCI slot and installing the driver software. Expect to pay roughly $40 for one of these.
Hopefully this section has helped you understand the advantages to be had from running a small network and, in addition, put you on the right track to deciding which is the network type for you. To read more on setting up the network you want, check out our list of links below.
The kit you need and the role it plays
Ethernet CAT5 cable (for 10/100Mbps speed network)
This is used to connect PCs to each other (the ‘ad hoc’ method) or to a network hub or switch
All your PC’s plug into this central box via their Ethernet cables.
Plug your internet cable into this and plug it in turn into your network hub or switch.
Wireless network adapter
Most often a PCI card, this internal PC component is used to give a desktop wireless capabilities. External USB and internal PCMCIA versions for laptops are also available.
Wireless access point/gateway
Used to create the wireless network ‘zone’ that your PCs can then connect into.
Required if your access point or gateway doesn’t include this type of functionality.
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