Building Your Home Network

A few years ago, it would have been hard to imagine chatting about computer networks at a party. But today, you don't have to be a geek to be interested in networking - and awareness will only increase as more people realize that a home network can be a great way to send movies, music, and digital photos around the house.

The first home networks provided a way to share expensive peripherals, letting the kids use the laser printer in the home office or store big files on the main PC's "huge" 20-megabyte hard drive. But home networking didn't really take off until the Internet became a part of everyday life. It's now common for families - even those without a work-at-home parent - to have more than one computer.

Hooking things together in the early days was often beyond the capabilities of the average computer user. Setting up a network with Windows PCs wasn't too difficult (Macs have had built-in networking almost since Day 1), but sharing an Internet connection - usually over a slow phone line - was impossible without special software patches. Then came Windows 98 Second Edition, which made it relatively easy for non-computer geeks to get more than one PC online at a time. And the arrival of broadband cable and DSL spurred a lot of people to install networks so they could share high-speed Internet access. Networking promises to become increasingly popular as more home-entertainment network devices like media servers (click to read) and media receivers (click to read) become available.

It's Easier Than EverEven if you've never put together a network before, it's not as scary as it might seem. Windows XP and Mac OS X make it easier than ever. If your area has broadband cable or DSL access, you probably won't have to drive more than a few minutes from your house to your local RadioShack or CompUSA to find everything you need for a wired or wireless setup.

Start by hooking up all your computers and Ethernet-enabled home-entertainment gear like music servers to your cable or DSL modem. To do this, you'll need a router, which can divide an Internet connection for use with multiple computers or other devices. The router also acts as a firewall to keep intruders out, and it contains a DHCP server to automatically assign IP addresses so that adding devices to the network becomes as simple as plugging them in.

Not famililar with a term? Check out our glossary.

You usually connect the modem to the router using Category-5 (Cat-5) or Cat-6 cable, either of which can support 10-Mbps (megabits per second) standard Ethernet or 100-Mbps Fast Ethernet. (Standard Ethernet is equivalent to about the maximum rate that data moves from a DVD to the player's MPEG-2 video decoder.) From the router, you can hook up everything else using a wired or wireless connection. For the most versatile network, you'll want to use both.

Wi-Fi wireless networking is all the rage, but using wires can still be the best way to go. Wired networks are harder to hack, they're typically faster than wireless, they're less subject to interference from other devices that generate RF (radio-frequency) waves - like microwave ovens or cordless phones - and they're cheaper. But wired networks require wires, of course, and unless your house is prewired, installing one of these networks can be a hassle.