Home Networking Kits – News Briefs
Let’s give thanks for this bountiful harvest of easy home networks
SPREAD BEFORE YOU IN STORES AND catalogs is a feast of home networking products: Ethernet, USB, phone-line, AC power-line, and wireless kits. The different flavors of home networking make shopping for a system as complex as cooking Thanksgiving dinner. Do you want swift file-transfer speed, simple installation, or the freedom of a wireless connection? We tested 11 home networking kits and listed specs for several others, so you can choose the one that meets your needs.
Ethernet is the fastest home networking technology, but its hub and dedicated wires make installation complex. USB-to-USB port connectors are simple solutions for same-room networks, but offer relatively slow performance and leave ugly cables lying around. AC power-line and phone-line networks compete in the same space–connecting PCs and sharing printers and Internet connections over wires already installed in your home.
Power-line networking has a slight edge in location flexibility, because more rooms of your house have AC outlets than have phone jacks. Its rival offers greater speed and, thanks to a vendor coalition named the Home Phoneline Network Alliance (Home PNA), more interoperability–Home-PNA-certified products from different vendors can work with one another.
Wireless (also known as radio frequency, or RF) home networks offer the ultimate convenience (particularly for notebook PC users), but at this writing, at least three wireless networking technologies are vying for your attention. In our testing, we found that actual file transfers took slightly longer over the wireless than the phone-line networks.
For this guide, we picked two or three products in each category (save for power line, where only one kit is currently on the market) and put them to the test, seeing how easy they were to set up and how well they worked. We also hunted down rumors and tracked down facts about some upcoming products not available for testing (see the sidebar “Coming Attractions”–which, by the time you read this, may have reached neighborhood shelves, or evaporated.
How We Tested
We cooked up a test recipe that combined a fancy new 500MHz Pentium III-powered IBM Aptiva with a three-year-old 200MHz Pentium MMX-based Quantex desktop, both running Windows 98. We added typical tasks such as transferring a large 234K file, printing a document from one PC on the printer plugged into the other, and playing a multiuser round of Cavedog Entertainment’s Total Annihilation.
Because our older system didn’t include functional USB ports, we tested networks that used USB connectors on an alternate setup, linking the 500MHz Aptiva to a 300MHz Pentium II system. A working rule of thumb for USB is that if your system originally shipped with Windows 3.1 or Windows 95 installed, don’t expect to use USB connectors for your network. (You can check if your system is USB-capable using a simple utility called USBReady, available for download at www.usb.org/data/usbready.exe.)
How We Rated
Value in a home network is a question of how much you pay per PC (or per node, in network jargon), as well as consideration for the current going price for that technology–even the least expensive wireless network, for instance, will cost more than most Ethernet kits.
Performance is self-evident: How quickly did the network perform our tasks? Ideally, a home network’s performance should be invisible; tasks involving data transfers across the network should happen as quickly as jobs on the local computer.
Ease of use is largely dependent on the installation process because once installed, network operation becomes a function of Windows or the application you’re using. In general, we rated kits that required us to install internal adapters more difficult than those that used external plug-in devices. Even though plugging a network card into a motherboard slot is well within the abilities of most PC users, we gave such products a ceiling of 8 points on HOC’s 10-point ease-of-use scale. On the other hand, PCI network cards generally deliver a trouble-free desktop installation, while USB adapters don’t work with older PCs, and parallel-port devices often run into printer troubles.
Finally, suitability to home office use takes into account such things as technical support hours, quality of documentation, and appearance of the installed product. We subtracted points for tech support only during business hours–you need support for a home network when you’re at home. And an installation that leaves wires dangling all over your living room isn’t going to make points with your interior decorator.
Most network kits include software for Internet connection sharing. America Online users will find they have to follow special instructions to share their connection because of the ISP’s proprietary software. This will add another level of complexity to setting up your network, though the procedures are well documented.
Which network should you choose? Make your selection based on your pocketbook and the physical specifications of both your household and the PCs you’re connecting.
PassPort Plug-In Network Starter Kit
Pros: Link PCs from any electrical outlet, easy hardware setup
Cons: Low speed, software setup can be confusing
Using a technology that sends data over your home’s electrical wires, computers on an Intelogis PassPort network can be located anywhere you have an AC outlet. Add to that the convenience of attaching the hardware to your parallel port instead of opening your PC to insert an adapter card, and the PassPort Plug-In Network Starter Kit ($150; 877-INTELOGIS, www.intelogis.com) looks irresistible. However, slow data transfer, inadequate Internet sharing, confusing software, and an idiosyncratic printer setup left us thinking the PassPort was more suitable for a hobbyist than a home office.
The kit comes with three sandwich-size adapter appliances (two for PCs, one for a printer) that plug into standard electrical outlets. Because the network uses your system’s parallel port and provides no pass-through for hooking up a printer, the printer gets networked via its own adapter–a workable but not perfect solution. Although everyday printing is fine, maintenance tasks such as aligning the printhead are problematic because most printer driver software won’t work unless the printer and computer are directly connected. The awkward solution is to temporarily dismantle your network and reconnect your printer to a PC.
We encountered some minor problems installing the network software and had to call tech support. After that misfire, we had a working network and were ready to install the supplied Internet sharing software.
Once the gateway computer had a connection, either computer could request pages; Web performance became sluggish when both systems requested graphics-heavy pages or one user tried downloading streamed video. Non-Internet performance was leisurely at best–the network took 25 seconds to transfer a 234K file from one PC to another. Our multiplayer game of Total Annihilation went well, though we started to notice some hesitation as game play grew more complex.
Aviator 2.4 Wireless Networking
Pros: 2Mbps data transfer, location flexibility
Cons: Difficult to install and rather pricey
Using the same 2.4GHz wireless frequency as the latest, longest-range cordless phones, WebGear’s Aviator 2.4 ($200; 877-WEB-GEAR, www. webgear.com) links PCs via PC Card adapters–the kind you slip into a PC Card slot on your laptop. Luckily, desktop computer users aren’t left out in the cold, because the kit includes two ISA-bus carrier adapters that hold the Aviator cards. This is a bonus because once you install the carriers, you can use other PC Cards in your desktop, although reaching around to the back of your system to swap cards may be awkward.
The Aviator system is fast (rated at 2Mbps), flexible, compliant with the 802.11 wireless standard (giving it the potential to work with other manufacturers’ equipment), and comes with above-average WinProxy Internet sharing software. We can’t rave about it, however, because our experience installing the old-fashioned ISA adapters in our two desktops was miserable.
Remember the bad old days when adding multimedia to your PC was a nightmare of trying to adjust IRQs? Welcome back. Although Aviator comes with both easy installation guides and a thorough user’s manual with clear troubleshooting instructions, we still needed help from e-mail tech support (the only kind available on weekends) before we got up and running. Unless you’re comfortable laboring through an arduous installation, take a pass on Aviator until a smoother-installing version comes in for a landing.
HomeFree Wireless Desktop Pac
Pros: Simple setup with clear instructions
Cons: Must open PC to install adapter cards
If screwdrivers don’t scare you, the HomeFree Wireless Desktop Pac ($149 with $50 rebate; Diamond Multimedia, 800-468-5846, www. diamondmm.com) will delight you with its foolproof installation. Despite the use of internal adapter cards, this is the product we’d recommend to friends looking to network a couple of home PCs. Not only is the hardware installation process clearly documented and well illustrated, the software setup is simple with Internet sharing integrated into the installation. We had a working network in less than an hour.
The 2.4GHz wireless HomeFree network uses Diamond’s own Home-Cast Open Protocol to send data between computers at up to 1Mbps and distances up to 150 feet. In our testing, the network was somewhat picky about where PCs could be located–our initial upstairs-downstairs locations apparently placed the upstairs system too close to the kitchen wall for unobstructed radio signals. When we moved the computer across the room, though, the network was robust and quick.
Internet sharing performance was quite acceptable over our 56Kbps connection; while we moved our avatars around various graphical sites on the Pentium III system, the 200MHz Pentium user checked out the Sports Illustrated for Kids Web site without anyone feeling constrained. Printer sharing was trouble-free, and our 234K test file moved from one machine to the other in an acceptable 10 seconds.
Symphony Cordless Networking
Pros: Cordless modern and Ethernet bridge provide extra flexibility
Cons: Pretty pricey and required some tweaking
Proxim’s Symphony wireless components are packaged individually, rather than bundled in a kit. You select the equipment you need–PCI or ISA desktop cards ($129 each) or a $149 PC Card for notebooks. We built a simple two-computer network using two PCI adapter cards. If you already have a working Internet connection on one of your computers, you won’t need to add Proxim’s 56Kbps cordless modem ($249) or the bridge that joins a Symphony to an Ethernet LAN ($399), but the add-ons give you more configuration options than other home networks (Proxim, 800-229-1630, www.proxim.com).
Symphony’s technology is rated as somewhat faster than Diamond’s HomeFree (1.6Mbps versus 1Mbps); though we didn’t notice any subjective difference while Web surfing, our 234K file transfer was definitely quicker at 6 seconds. It took us awhile to get our multiplayer game going because we had to reconfigure it for the TCP/IP rather than IPX network protocol, but after that, Total Annihilation played smoothly.
Installing the PCI cards was straightforward, though Proxim’s documentation needs more pictures–someone who’d never opened his computer before wouldn’t get enough information to handle the job. On the other hand, PC owners who like messing about inside their machines will find this job a snap. After installing each card, you connect a small black antenna to it, then proceed to the software installation. The latter rates a big thumbs-up–the Symphony utilities, dubbed Composer and Maestro, were simple to operate. Symphony will be music to veteran PC users’ ears.
USB to USB
EZ-Link USB Instant Network
Pros: Simple installation–it doesn’t get any easier than this
Cons: Slow performance, no Internet sharing included
Hooking two computers together with a serial cable may be the oldest file-transfer trick in the book. The EZ-Link USB Instant Network ($90; Anchor Chips, 619-613-7900, www.ezlinkusb. com) is a more sophisticated version of this scheme for computers new enough to have USB ports.
This technology has the potential to be quite fast (Anchor Chips promises speeds up to 4Mbps), and it’s a cinch to set up. However, our Instant Network’s performance didn’t fulfill its promise. File transfer was slow; multiplayer IPX gaming was possible, but became sluggish as game activity increased. Worse, although Anchor Chips says third-party proxy servers such as WinProxy work with its product, no Internet sharing software is included in the package.
Installation was easy as pie: Load the software, plug the supplied 16-foot cable into a USB port on each computer, and wait for Windows’ Network Neighborhood to display both systems. Once we downloaded a few patch files from the vendor’s Web site, our network could transfer our 234K test file in 60 seconds.
That’s fine if you’re primarily seeking a simple way to transfer files between two PCs in the same room, but it falls short of our vision of a complete network.
Pros: Affordable network
Cons: Nightmare installation, slow, no Internet sharing software included
What a difference documentation makes. While Entrega’s USBnet ($80; Entrega, 949-859-8866, www.entrega. com) is a functional equivalent to EZ-Link, it was much more confusing to install. The documentation is downright unfriendly, using terms such as “downstream Type A connector” to describe the flat USB plug that fits into your computer (as opposed to the squarer end that plugs into a USB peripheral).
And the documentation didn’t explain that the driver was on the CD-ROM and that the latter needed to be inserted in the drive prior to installing the new hardware. Because it’s aimed at nontechnical types, we feel these oversights are significant.
As with the EZ-Link, performance for file transfers was disappointingly slow, even after we downloaded the necessary USB patch files for Windows 98: Our 234K test file took 60 seconds to move from one system to another. Gaming also suffered as the action became more intense. Entrega doesn’t bundle any Internet sharing software, but the company’s site offers links to separately available products.
10/100 Network Starter Kit
Pros: Fast and easy-for Ethernet
Cons: You must install internal adapter cards and string wires from PC to PC
Looking for speed? Nothing else you’re likely to put in your home beats the 100Mbps pace of Fast Ethernet. But the data transfer rate isn’t the only fast thing about Netgear’s 10/100 Network Starter Kit ($179; 888-638-4327, www.netgearinc.com).
It’s also a piece of cake to install, with well-documented procedures making the job of installing the two PCI cards and plugging them into the four-port hub practically painless. (The latter lets you add a third and fourth computer to your LAN; you can mix and match 10Mbps and 100Mbps Ethernet flavors.) We had a two-computer network running in less than 30 minutes.
Gaming was quick even when the action got hot and heavy, and our 234K test file transferred in less than 2 seconds. Naturally, with such a fast network, you’ll want to share an Internet connection; unfortunately, even though you get a single floppy disk with driver software, Netgear doesn’t ship Internet sharing software with its kit.
Technologically, this is both the fastest and simplest of LANs, as long as you don’t mind installing PCI adapters and deciding whether to spread the wiring over the floor or drill holes and string it through the walls. Netgear also makes USB-to-Ethernet adapters that let you plug into a Fast Ethernet LAN without installing an internal card, though the company doesn’t package a network starter kit that includes them.
USB to Ethernet Networking Starter Kit
Pros: USB installation, fast performance
Cons: You have to string wires from PC to PC
Fast performance and fast installation: ADS Technology’s USB to Ethernet Networking Starter Kit gives you both ($169; 800-888-5244, www.adstech.com). Instead of installing internal adapter cards, you simply plug the connector into a USB port.
The kit comes with a five-port 10Mbps Ethernet hub, adapters for two USB-ready computers, and 57 feet of cabling. As with all Ethernet installations, the tradeoff is speed (in this case 10Mbps) versus beauty (cable stretched between your PCs or drilling holes in walls for wiring).
ADS Technology needs to start over on its manuals, which assumes buyers will have a certain level of Ethernet expertise, which most home networking customers lack. On the positive side, the kit ships with MidCore Software’s MidPoint Companion Lite Internet sharing software.
Even though 10BaseT is no match for Fast Ethernet, our two-PC network was fast–the 234K test file flew between our PCs in less than 2 seconds, and sharing the 56Kbps dial-up connection felt as fast as surfing alone.
AnyPoint Home Network
Pros: Plugs into parallel port,
PCs can go anywhere there’s a phone jack
Cons: Plenty of wires
Each PC on an Intel AnyPoint Home Network ($89 per adapter; 877-649-5817, www.intel.com/anypoint) uses an external phone line adapter–a charcoal-colored plastic object that looks like a miniature of the obelisk from 2001: A Space Odyssey. The adapter connects to your PC via the latter’s parallel port, connects to a phone jack using a phone line, and draws power from an AC outlet via a supplied cable.
This is a lot of paraphernalia to add to your desktop–and a two-PC AnyPoint setup is twice the price of some of its HomePNA competitors. (AnyPoint PCI cards are available for $79 each.)
The expense and clutter are arguably worth it, however, because AnyPoint is a breeze to install. No need to open your PC’s case; just plug an adapter into the printer port and connect your printer to the pass-through port (which, alas, doesn’t work with parallel-port scanners or Zip drives). Quick-start brochures guide you through hardware and software installation. Network in 10 minutes, anyone?
AnyPoint follows the HomePNA 1.0 standard, including its 1Mbps data transfer rate. We surfed, played, and passed files across our AnyPoint network with ease; our test file moved in less than 3 seconds.
The documentation is superb–and a good thing, too, because after 90 days of free tech support, calls to Intel will cost you $2.50 per minute or $15 per incident.
HomeFree Phoneline Desktop Pac
Pros: Software practically sets itself up
Cons: But you must open up your computer
In addition to offering a wireless home network, Diamond Multimedia’s HomeFree brand also includes a HomePNA 1.0 kit ($100; 800-468-5846, www.diamondmm.com). While the HomeFree Phoneline’s documentation isn’t quite as good as that of its wireless sibling, we had no problems installing the kit. Once the two PCI adapters were in place, we turned on the computer, inserted the CD-ROM, and clicked our responses to various onscreen instructions. The network set up itself–and the WinGate Home Internet sharing software–without a hitch. Now, that’s what we like to see.
The only networks we tested that performed faster than the HomePNA kits were Ethernet-based. Our 234K test file zipped between HomeFree Phoneline-connected computers in less than 3 seconds, while game players battled it out over the network with no complaints. Web surfing went fine with two users online at the same time.
HomeLink Phoneline Network in a Box
Pros: RJ-45 jack allows 10BaseT Ethernet connections
Cons: PCI card installation forces you to open your PC
Torn between phone line and Ethernet networking? Linksys’s HomeLink PCI adapter cards include both HomePNA and 10BaseT Ethernet capabilities, so you can switch from one type of network to the other without having to change adapter cards ($69; 800-LINKSYS, www.linksys.com). Such switch-hitting may not be a big issue for many, but home businesses considering a starter network might find HomePNA today, Ethernet tomorrow a great way to protect their investment.
Although the bargain-priced HomeLink kit may have a business side, it comes packaged to make any consumer feel at home. Step-by-step directions give you a basic overview of how to install the network, and the pocket-size manual provides clear explanations of networking concepts and Windows 95, 98, and NT installation procedures.
HomeLink uses the same installation software as Diamond’s HomeFree Phoneline kit–easy to run, it installs the adapter drivers and WinGate Home Internet sharing software at the same time. Not surprisingly, because they use the same AMD chip, the HomeLink cards’ performance matched those of Diamond’s. Fast file transfers, plenty of gaming punch, and adequate surfing speed, in addition to Ethernet support, make this our favorite phone-line network for consumers who don’t mind opening their PCs to install adapter cards.
Want fast data transfer over existing phone lines without touching a screwdriver? You’ll have your wish when 3Com and Microsoft release the 3Com HomeConnect solution. The kit will be built around the HomePNA 2.0 specification, which dictates 10Mbps (up from 1Mbps) data transfer rates. We suspect the plug-in USB version will be slower than the PCI card implementation, but with 10Mbps to divvy up among just two or three computers, the network will be lightning quick. On the downside, expect to pay $100 or more per node.
Even setting aside the awaited 3Com/Microsoft entry, existing phoneline vendors such as Intel and Linksys have committed to shipping both HomePNA 2.0 and USB (and, ultimately, both in one) products. Diamond Multimedia, for example, has promised to release a USB adapter for its 1Mbps HomeFree Phoneline Network. Again, we expect the job of moving data across the USB port will take some network overhead compared with PCI adapters, but you may well be willing to take the performance hit to enjoy the ease of setup. Diamond intends its HomePNA 1.0 USB product pricing to be in line with existing HomeFree merchandise.
Although the wireless home networking waters are muddied by the imminent arrival of both a new Low-end standard called HomeRF and a wave of products (like Apple’s AirPort system for iBook laptops) based on the corporate-office-established 802.11 wireless Ethernet spec, Intelogis says AC power-line networking will come of age with its PassPort 2.0 kit, due early next year.
In addition to moving from parallel-port technology to the USB interface, Intelogis hopes to boost its maximum data transfer rates from 350Kbps to 2Mbps, making power-line technology much more competitive with existing wireless solutions. If that’s not enough, the company plans to release a 10Mbps power-line network by the middle of next year. Stay tuned
Contributing editor AMEE ABEL wrote about networking PCs and Macs in October’s The Networked Home.
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