Envision a future in which your car, cognizant of your musical tastes, automatically-and wirelessly-downloads the perfect mix of MP3 files nightly from your home computer for the next day's drive to work. Smart washing machines clunk to life only when they sense that electricity demand-and cost-is lowest. And lights turn on when you enter a room, knowing to illuminate only faintly when you stumble into the bathroom at 3 a.m.
Science fiction? Maybe-for now. But even as we imagine the possibilities, quite a lot of them are becoming reality. You can already wirelessly access your blazing Internet connection or ink-jet printer from any computer in your home, participate in adrenaline-soaked bloodbaths via householdwide multiplayer games, and even stream MP3 files to your stereo. And a slew of new home-networking products and technologies make connecting your computers easier and more affordable than ever. Now is the time for Mac users to build tomorrow's network.
Chances are, by now yours is among the 17 million households that, according to the Yankee Group, include more than one computer. And although only 2.5 million households were networked at the end of 2000, that's nearly four times more homes than the year before.
Our guide will outline the options available for creating an affordable network as quickly and painlessly as possible. (Even your old Macs can get in on the action-look for our upcoming series "Old Mac, New Tricks," which is about turning ancient machines into useful additions to your network.)
Wired versus Wireless
The first and most important step in shaping your network is choosing which type will best suit your needs, pocketbook, and level of expertise. You may decide on a wired network (Ethernet or HomePNA), a wireless one (AirPort or HomeRF), or a combination of the two. Read on to explore what each of these technologies has to offer.
Ethernet has been around for years-it's what you'll find in most corporate networks. Ethernet ports are built into all modern Macs: models including and later than the Quadra 635, Performa 6110, Centris 610 (as an option), Power Mac 5500, and PowerBook 520 (except for the 1400). If you're using such a Mac, you're already halfway there. Most of today's Ethernet networks use 10BaseT, a protocol that moves data at 10 Mbps. Newer Ethernet standards allow transfer rates of 100 Mbps or 1,000 Mbps (one gigabit). However, it's likely that hardly anything on your network will work at those speeds, so faster protocols probably aren't worth the extra expense-especially when you consider that 10 Mbps is more than enough for several computers to comfortably share an Internet connection (see "Fast Enough for You?").
Still, when you choose cabling, be sure to spend the extra money for Category 5 Ethernet cables. These support 100BaseT, so if you decide later to upgrade, you won't have to purchase-or install-new cables. (Gigabit Ethernet, however, will require new cabling.)
Pros If you're connecting multiple computers in the same room, Ethernet is your best bet. It's fast, flexible, and reasonably inexpensive-and most of your computers should already have built-in Ethernet support.
Cons Ethernet's biggest drawback is that it may force you to run cables through your walls. Some newer homes come equipped with the proper cabling, but in many cases it's the very prospect of drilling holes and stringing cable that's kept us from linking our computers already.
Ethernet is also somewhat more complicated to set up than the ready-made solutions we'll explore; you have to purchase several pieces of hardware and software and get them all working together.
If your computers are scattered throughout your house, connecting them by Ethernet makes less sense than it used to. Other options that don't require carpentry skills offer similar speeds and simpler setups-or will offer them soon.
Price A simple crossover cable to connect two computers costs about $10; a hub, around $40. If you're sharing a broadband connection, you'll need a combination router and switch called an Internet gateway, which costs about $250.
The HomePNA standard allows computers to use ordinary telephone lines to move data throughout your home.Farallon's HomeLine Starter Kit (3.5 mice. ; 510/346-8000, www.farallon.com ), currently the only HomePNA product for the Mac, provides everything you need to connect two computers.
To set up a HomeLine network, simply add the HomeLine adapters to your computers, plug both your telephone and the line to your phone jack into the adapters, and then install the included software. You'll still be able to use your telephone without interference, since HomePNA signals (like DSL) work at a different frequency than voice calls do.
HomePNA networks currently operate at 1 Mbps, but a new HomePNA 2.0, promising Ethernet-equivalent speeds as high as 10 Mbps, is due this summer.
Pros If you're networking desktop Macs throughout your home and you don't want to run wires through your walls, a HomeLine network is the most affordable way to get connected. Setup is simple; everything you need is supplied.
And once products adhering to the new HomePNA 2.0 standard have arrived, HomePNA should be fast enough to meet just about anyone's needs.
Cons At present, only 1-Mbps transfer rates are available, making HomePNA the slowest networking option-ten times as slow as Ethernet. Although this is fine for sharing a broadband Internet connection, a printer, and typical files, you'll notice a significant drop in performance if you're sharing larger files or if several people hit large Web sites at once.
Price A starter kit for two computers costs between $100 and $165, and you can add computers to your network for $60 to $90 each.
Apple's AirPort (800/692-7753, www.apple.com ) was the first wireless networking technology to appear on the Mac. It allows your computers to stay connected when they're within 150 feet of your wireless gateway.
AirPort networks offer theoretical speeds as high as 11 Mbps, putting them on par with Ethernet networks. In the real world, however, AirPort transfer rates are affected by electrical interference and are typically slower.
Because AirPort networks are based on the industry standard 802.11 protocol for wireless data communications, you can also connect non-AirPort-equipped Macs and PCs to your AirPort network. Just add a device such as Agere Systems' (formerly part of Lucent Technologies) $160 Orinoco Silver PC Card (4.0 mice. ; Features, June 2000; 800/928-3526, http://wavelan.com ) or Farallon's $77 SkyLine 11Mb Wireless PCI Card.
If your network has at least one stationary AirPort-compatible Mac, you can set it up as a software base station to control communication among all of your machines (you must leave the base computer running). If all of your Macs are mobile, you'll need to buy Apple's $299 AirPort Base Station (3.5 mice. ; Reviews, February 2000) or another Mac-compatible base station, such as TechWorks' AirStation ($279; 800/688-7466, www.techworks.com ), to connect them to each other and to the Internet. The base station manages the distribution of data within your network, as well as to and from the outside world, via your ISP. Apple's Base Station includes an RJ-45 connector, for hooking up a cable or DSL modem, and a standard RJ-11 phone jack connected to a built-in 56K modem.
Pros Wireless networks offer far more flexibility than wired ones do-for you that may mean answering e-mail from your sofa or simply hooking up two machines on opposite sides or different floors of your house.
AirPort is also the fastest wireless network option currently available, and every machine Apple has introduced since mid-1999 is AirPort ready (with a built-in AirPort antenna).
Cons Wireless networks are more expensive to set up than wired networks, since you must purchase wireless network cards and an Internet gateway. Expect to spend about $100 more per computer.
And AirPort technology is not compatible with all ISPs, though the newest version (1.3) supports Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) client IDs, used by major broadband companies such as AT&T's @home.
Price An 802.11 wireless gateway costs between $280 and $300. Cards for each machine are priced between $75 and $190.
The fourth option worth consider-ing is HomeRF, which will shortly become available for the Mac in the form of Proxim's Symphony-HRF networking suite (800/229-1630, www.proxim.com ). Like the 802.11 standard, HomeRF operates wirelessly over radio waves, and it uses a wireless gateway to manage communications between computers, as well as with a broadband ISP.
But the HomeRF standard was developed to be compatible with other upcoming wireless devices, too. Already we're seeing HomeRF voice and streaming-media products, as well as HomeRF cordless telephones and stereo components (see " The Automated Home ").
According to Proxim, HomeRF products clock in at 1.6 Mbps, which is sufficient for most home situations. Proxim's Symphony PC Card costs $130; the Symphony Cordless PCI Card, $120; and the Symphony-HRF Cordless Gateway, $199.
Pros HomeRF technology can do more than network your home's computers-it also extends to other devices in the home.
As with HomePNA, a new HomeRF 2.0 standard will soon allow 10-Mbps data-transfer rates.
Cons Current HomeRF products are ten times slower than those based on 802.11, and although those speeds are adequate for most home situations, you'll notice a difference when many people are using the network.
Another limitation is that the Symphony-HRF Cordless Gateway has only an Ethernet connection, so you can't use it with a dial-up connection (as you can with AirPort).
Keep in mind that if you decide to add modern Macs to your network in the future, you'll need to buy HomeRF cards for them as well, rather than taking advantage of the new Macs' built-in AirPort readiness. (At this point, the cost difference is only about $30.)
Price A HomeRF wireless gateway costs about $200. Cards for computers cost about $125 each.
Now that you've selected the devices you'll use to put your network together, you need an idea of how they'll all work together. Unless you're setting up an Ethernet network, much of this work will be done for you: buy a setup kit for the network of your choice, and plug the pieces in-the installation software takes care of the rest. Still, there are some important things to understand and keep in mind.
Wire It Up If you decide on Ethernet, make an honest appraisal of your home-improvement abilities. You'll need to drill holes and measure and lay cables inside the walls, along the outside of your house, or in the crawlspace. If that kind of bloody-knuckle work isn't your bag, check with local electricians-or, often a better bet, with someone who installs alarm systems in your area.
Printer Sharing To share your standard printer among your computers, make sure you have the Printer Share extension in the Extension Folder of all of your Macs; then install the appropriate printer driver on each machine. Open the Chooser, select the printer you want to share, and then click on the Setup button. When the dialog box appears, select Share This Printer and enter a name for it. If you want to limit access-a good security practice while you're connected to the Internet with an IP-based printer-you can add a password. (To share a USB printer connected to a Mac, you'll need to download Apple's free USB Printer Sharing control panel from the Support area of www.apple.com )
File Sharing and Security Macs are relatively safe, but an Internet connection that's always on (such as DSL or cable modem) can potentially leave a security hole between your home network and the Internet. To protect your network against intruders, open the File Sharing control panel on each computer on your network, and enter a user name and password.
Internal security may also be a concern. To prevent your teenage daughter from browsing through your Quicken files (or your dad from reading your e-mail), use a different name and password for each machine.
Now you can use the File Sharing control panel to set the level of access you want each user in your network to have. It's safest to deselect the Enable File Sharing Clients To Connect Over TCP/IP option. (For more on security, see " Macworld 's Internet Privacy Guide ," July 2000.)
The Last Word
A broadband connection will soon become the standard pipe through which all digital information enters-and exits-your life. Movie sites will allow you to download, directly to your living room, films you want to watch; telephony features such as voice mail, call forwarding, distinctive rings, and even video conferencing will be managed by the same service.
In short, home networks will no longer be reserved for computing's manic fringe; they're quickly becoming part of the home-computing experience. So go out there and get ahead of the curve-while you still can.
MICHAEL PENWARDEN, a former Macworld editor, is a freelance journalist. He has collaborated on several "cyberhomes" showcasing advanced home-automation and networking technologies.
Type Home Networking in our Search box to see reviews, tips, and forums on home networking and related products.