If you find yourself running to Your kid's room to print a color document, waiting for your turn at the one computer in the house that has high-speed Internet access, or unplugging a telephone so you can connect the cord to your laptop and check e-mail messages from the couch, it's time to set up a home network.
A home network can not only simplify your life but also greatly expand how and where you use your Macs. With a network, you can print files, search the Web, and check messages no matter where you are in the house. Better yet, you can listen to music saved on someone else's computer, stream your own music collection through a stereo, share photos, keep a collective calendar that's always up-to-date, and much more.
Modern home networks are elegant, flexible, and relatively easy to set up, but no solution is right for everyone. To create a network that truly complements the way you and your family live, you'll need to make some decisions based on the unique layout of your home and on how you use your computers. In this guide, I'll show you how to choose the gear that's right for you, how to set it up, and how to share your data with the rest of your network.
Choosing Your Equipment
At its most basic level, a network is nothing more than a group of connected computers and devices that can share information (see "The Basics"). What makes one type of network different from another is how those devices are connected.
There are three main types of network connections: Ethernet, wireless, and Powerline. Each of these technologies offers unique advantages and disadvantages that depend on how your home is built (its physical layout, materials, and wiring), where your devices are located, how quickly the data needs to travel, and how much money you're willing to invest in the project.
Although you can limit your network to just one type of connection -- by going completely wireless, for example -- in many cases you'll get the best results by mixing and matching these technologies to address the specific challenges of each part of your network.
But to do that, you'll need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each technology and how they fit together in a larger home network. (For a real-world scenario that puts these technologies to work, see "Putting It All Together.")
If you're just looking to connect the computers and peripherals in a single room -- to set up a home office, for example -- an Ethernet network is probably your easiest and least-expensive option. Ethernet ports come standard on every shipping Mac. And Ethernet cable (which resembles an oversize telephone cord) is relatively inexpensive -- you can get a 5-foot cable for around eight bucks.
More important, Ethernet networks are fast -- which makes them ideal for transferring large files, such as digital-video or Photoshop files, from one computer to another.
Ethernet is by far the fastest networking technology available on the Mac. (For a comparison of networking speeds, see "Clocking Your Network"). The two most common Ethernet standards, 10BaseT and 100BaseT, can transfer data at speeds of 10 Mbps and 100 Mbps, respectively. Wireless and Powerline networks top out at 54 Mbps and 14 Mbps, respectively -- and that's running at peak performance. In 2001, Apple began including 1,000BaseT Ethernet -- which can transfer a whopping giga-bit of data per second -- in all of its high-end laptops and desktop systems.
Realistically, very few home users will ever require enough bandwidth to justify the considerable expense of a Gigabit Ethernet hub. In fact, even the fastest broadband Internet connection runs at a mere 6 Mbps. (Many connections don't even reach 1 Mbps.) As a rule, unless you plan on transferring video or other high-bandwidth data across your network, 100 Mbps is more than enough to handle all your home-network needs.
Ethernet becomes less practical when you're networking over long distances and between multiple rooms. To connect the Power Mac G5 in your upstairs office to the family iMac in the living room, for instance, you'll need to either run unattractive cable underneath rugs and over door frames, or drill into walls to string cable between the rooms -- no easy task.
Running Ethernet cable through your entire house can also be expensive. To get optimal performance, you'll need to hire a professional who can install the wires inside your walls and then test them to make sure they're transferring at the appropriate speeds. That'll cost you anywhere from $120 to $200 for every wire you run.
In general, unless you really need the additional network speed that Ethernet offers -- for example, to transfer video files from one TiVo digital-video recorder to another -- you'll be better off choosing one of the other networking options for long-distance connections.
If your computer lineup includes one or more laptops, creating a wireless (or WiFi) connection is an obvious choice. A WiFi network lets users connect to the Internet, check e-mail messages, print documents, and share files from anywhere within 150 feet of the wireless router.
However, computers don't have to roam to take advantage of a WiFi network. Desktops can also join the wireless connection. In fact, since 1999, Apple has equipped every new Mac with a wireless antenna and an internal slot for a wireless network card. This makes WiFi a good choice if you need to connect several stationary computers in multiple rooms but don't want the hassle of stringing cable -- especially if you're already setting up a WiFi network to accommodate a laptop.
Wireless networking does have a few downsides. First, WiFi networks are relatively slow compared with Ethernet networks. Macs currently support two different WiFi standards: 802.11b (Apple refers to this as AirPort), which tops out at 11 Mbps; and the newer and faster 802.11g (also known as AirPort Extreme), which offers a maximum throughput
of 54 Mbps. In the real world, however, WiFi networks rarely reach these speeds. Most AirPort and AirPort Extreme networks average about 3 and 25 Mbps, respectively.
To make matters worse, wireless networks tend to slow down as you move farther from the base station. So if you own a large home, your wireless signal may drop off in distant rooms. If you find your wireless signal is weak, consider buying an external antenna to boost the signal.
If speed isn't a big concern for you -- which may be the case if you use your network primarily to surf the Web and check messages -- a WiFi network should fit the bill.
WiFi networks are also less stable than other types of connections. Many obstacles can hinder wireless signals: walls and metal -- such as the steel in large buildings and metal framing -- as well as 2.4GHz cordless phones, Bluetooth devices, and microwaves. In my experience, phones are the most notorious troublemakers. If you're often stuck with an intermittent or a weak connection -- or no connection at all -- check to see whether someone is on the cordless phone or popping a bag of popcorn whenever the connection goes south. If that's the case, try to adjust the router's settings to better block the interference. If you own an AirPort Base Station, for example, you can use the AirPort Admin Utility to do this. Click on the Show All Settings button and then on the Wireless Options button. When the Options window opens, activate the Enable Interference Robustness option.
Finally, WiFi is the least-secure networking option. If you're not careful, it's quite easy to give free Internet access to anyone who lives within 100 to 200 feet of your wireless network. Worse, if you don't set up your network correctly, someone with a mischievous mind could break into your network and steal valuable information. If you live in a neighborhood where houses are fairly close together or in an apartment building, you'll want to make sure you've turned on the security features built into your wireless router (see "Don't Give It Away").
If you don't need the freedom of movement that comes with a wireless network, but you don't want to string Ethernet cable between multiple rooms in your house, your best option is probably a Powerline network.
Based on the HomePlug standard, Powerline devices use your home's existing electrical wiring to extend your network connection to every room with an electrical outlet. Once you've plugged a Powerline router into the wall at one end of your house, you can add other devices to your network simply by connecting a Powerline network adapter to the nearest outlet -- even if it's several rooms away. And since most homes have at least two or three outlets in each room -- and an average total of 45 outlets throughout the home -- Powerline networks offer plenty of flexibility in where you place your devices.
Powerline connections also excel at extending an existing Ethernet or wireless network into hard-to-reach locations, such as an attic or a garage. Corinex, for example, offers a wireless Powerline adapter that plugs into the wall and broadcasts your Powerline network as an 802.11b signal ($129; distributed by Dr. Bott, www.drbott.com). This is great if you need to use your laptop, say, in the basement, out of range of your wireless network.
Powerline connections transfer data at a maximum rate of 14 Mbps. But to maintain that speed, you'll have to limit your Powerline network to 16 devices. While this might present a problem in small-office environments, it shouldn't be an issue for most home users.
Powerline networks may also be susceptible to interference from electrical devices such as hair dryers, stereos, and microwave ovens. While this isn't as big a problem as it used to be, you may need to try different outlets to find the best connection if you're having trouble with interference.
Powerline networks may pose a security risk if you live in an apartment building and your electric wiring extends beyond your home. Most Powerline equipment offers data-encryption features. However, these are usually turned off by default to make installation easier. If you live in an apartment or in any situation where someone could possibly tap into your Powerline network, you'll want to make sure you activate your router's encryption features.
Ideal Use: Home offices; transferring large files.
Pros: Very fast; standard on all current Macs; inexpensive over short distances.
Cons: Expensive over long distances; connecting multiple rooms requires unsightly cables or drilling holes in the wall; may require professional installation to guarantee highest speeds.
Average Cost: cable, $1 to $2 per foot; five-port 100BaseT hub, $35; router, $45; professional installation, $120 to $200 per cable.
Ideal Use: Networks that include one or more laptops.
Pros: Lets you connect to the network from anywhere within range; no cable clutter.
Cons: Network slows down as you move away from the router; walls, phones, microwaves, and Bluetooth devices can cause interference; the least secure of all networks; networking multiple computers can be expensive.
Average Cost: 802.11g wireless router, $90; 802.11g wireless network adapter, $100 per Mac.
Ideal Use: Networks spanning long distances or
multiple rooms; areas of the house that can't receive a wireless signal.
Pros: Uses your home's existing wiring; can serve as
a bridge for Ethernet or wireless networks.
Cons: Supports a limited number of devices; possible security issues in apartment buildings or houses with shared electrical systems.
Average Cost: Powerline router, $100; Powerline Ethernet adapter, $80; Powerline wireless access point, $130.