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For those whose skills don't include pulling wire, creating a network of home computers can be something of a challenge. And if you want to outfit each computer with a modem and an Internet connection, it can be a costly proposition as well. Farallon's HomeLine Starter Kit, a hardware-and-software combo that uses standard telephone wiring to form a network of two computers, addresses both problemsto a point.
Based on the HomePNA cabling standard, the HomeLine isn't the only phone-line-based networking product on the market, but it is the first to support the Mac. The package includes two PCI cards, compatible with Macs as well as PCs, and software that lets you configure one computer (a Mac) as an Internet gateway. Once you install the cards in both computers and connect standard four-pair phone cable to a phone line via existing RJ-11 wall jacks, you've got yourself a network.
With the HomeLine, Macs and Windows 95 and 98 machines can share files, printers, and a single Internet connection. The HomeLine supports phone-based (modem and ISDN) and network-based (cable-modem and LAN) Internet connections; whenever a browser or other TCP/IP-based application is launched from any computer on the network, the gateway machine connects to your ISP as it normally would.
The HomeLine allows PCs to share resources with Macs, using AppleTalk (provided you install the bundled copy of Miramar Systems' PC MacLAN on the PC). And if you have Netopia's Timbuktu Pro, you can use any machine on the network to exchange files and messages or control a remote computer. An added bonus: if you currently dial up the Internet and connect to a local PC via the same network and you install the HomeLine on both machines, you won't have to switch TCP/IP configurations or add a second Ethernet connection just to grab a file from the Windows machine or surf the Web.
We installed HomeLine cards in a Power Computing Power Macintosh running Mac OS 8.6 and in a Dell OptiPlex GXa running Windows 95 and then followed the thin manual's installation and configuration instructions. The autosetup application configures a new Internet connection on the gateway Mac or creates a custom configuration, using existing TCP/IP and Remote Access settings; a similar application installs HomeLine drivers on PC clients.
Although setup on both machines was straightforward, we were initially unable to connect to the Internet from our PC client and we had only intermittent success surfing the Web from the PC after manually connecting to our ISP from the gateway Mac (rather than simply launching a browser). To make matters worse, Farallon's technical support wasn't much help: the first technician we spoke to was almost completely uninformed about the networking details of the HomeLine, and the secondwho seemed to be reading from the user manualultimately concluded that the fault lay with our ISP. We fared no better when attempting to connect through a second ISP.
We finally abandoned the by-the-book approach most home users would take and dove into the networking nether regions of Windows. After changing the static IP address the HomeLine assigned to the PC, we entered the Mac's gateway address and our ISP's DNS address in the Windows 95 Networking control panel. Our efforts were rewarded with a stable Internet connection, but the typical HomeLine user would probably be ill-equipped to make these substantive, nonintuitive configuration changeschanges that neither the documentation nor tech support even hinted at.
HomePNA-based networks, such as those that use the HomeLine, operate at a maximum speed of 1 Mbpssignificantly slower than Ethernet's 10-Mbps maximum but four times the speed of LocalTalk. We found the HomeLine's speed to be adequate for Web surfing, file sharing, and streaming-audio and -video playback. Connections were occasionally dropped, however, when users of two HomeLine machines simultaneously connected to the Internet were actively transferring files via FTP, playing audio programs, or downloading graphics-intensive Web pages.
If you've strained under the sluggish printing and slow file-transfer speeds of a LocalTalk network, you'll find the HomeLine's local sharing downright speedy. Even Ethernet users will find the HomeLine fast enough to share a color screen via Timbuktu or print a long document.
At $139, the HomeLine Starter Kit isn't the cheapest product for creating a network, but it might be the most convenient (once you get it going). Families and SOHO users who want to share both local and Internet resources will appreciate the HomeLine's flexibility and relative speed. If your machines already have modems attached, Ethernet may make more sense for local file sharing and printing, and networking novices may want to wait until Farallon revises its autoconfiguration software and documentation. And if your network includes an iMac or a PowerBook, stay tuned; Farallon says a HomeLine product that supports these systems may be available later this year.
RATING: PROS: Provides easiest way to share an Internet connection in a cross-platform environment; offers local and dial-up TCP/IP access on a single network. CONS: Impossible to configure with autoinstall procedure; pricey if you don't need all its features; no iMac support. COMPANY: Farallon Communications (510/346-8000, http://www.farallon.com ). ESTIMATED STREET PRICE: $139.
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