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If the thought of running cables through your walls (or hiring someone to do it) is giving you second thoughts about setting up your LAN, take heart!  Other options for connecting up your network abound.  These products tend to be more expensive than the "normal" Ethernet options and some run more slowly, but they have the advantage of not requiring you to run special cable for your network. Depending on the setup of your home or office, this can be a great advantage.  Let's summarize your choices:

  • Phone-line (HomePNA)

  • Wireless (WiFi, HomeRF, and others)

  • Power Line

  • Direct Cable Connection (DCC- only for two computers)

We'll be concentrating on Phone line and Wireless alternatives, but first a word about the DCC and power line methods.

If you have a simple two computer setup, with the computers either in the same room or very close to each other, you can consider using Windows Direct Cable Connection (DCC) feature.  This allows you to use the serial or parallel ports of your computers to network them.  For more information on how to set this up, this page on J. Helmig's site provides all you need to know.  It may not be worth messing with DCC, since a simple two computer Ethernet based LAN can be put together with an Ethernet adapter in each machine and a crossover cable.

A little bit of a twist on the DCC method is the USB Network cable sold by Laplink.  It's essentially two USB-Ethernet adapters connected back to back via a hardwired cable, but at $30 it's a lot cheaper.  It supports TCP/IP and NetBeui networking, and can be used with Win98, 2000, and Me. [Thnx to Mike Collis for the tip!]  Belkin's USB Direct Connect product is a similar product.

Powerline kits have been unacceptably slow, and your choice was limited to pretty much one manufacturer (Intelogis), who has morphed into power line networking chipset maker Inari.  The technology isn't dead yet, however, because the ready availability of network connections, i.e. power outlets, in every room of every home is a strong incentive.

The HomePlug alliance  has been formed and the first publicly available HomePlug products were demonstrated in early 2002 at the CES and CeBIT exhibitions. Today's products, based on the HomePlug 1.0 specification are typically adapters that bridge an existing networking technology (such as a wireless or Ethernet network) and your home's power lines. No new wiring is needed! HomePlug certified products use your home's power lines - which are already installed - as a path to send high-speed digital data! The list of HomePlug Certified Products can be found here.
 

 

Should I even consider non-Ethernet LANs?

So that leaves two alternatives to running dedicated Ethernet cable to network your computers:

  • Phone-line

  • Wireless

We'll cover each of these in more detail later, but let's see if you even want to learn more by looking at the prime consideration for many people: speed!

 

How fast will they go?

HomePNA 2.0 10Mbps products really will give you performance that you'll be hard pressed to tell from that of a 10BaseT Ethernet network.  The main caveat is your home's wiring.  The Broadcom chip used in virtually all HomePNA 2.0 products can handle a wider range of wiring problems than the earlier HomePNA 1.0 chips.  However, if you have an older home with even older telephone wiring, then you may get "significantly less" (how's that for weasel words?) than 10Mbps speeds.

Wireless kits are another story.  Even with the new 802.11b "11Mbps" products, expect actual network speeds of about 1 to 3 Mbps, with speed falling off quickly with distance between wireless stations, and antenna placement and configuration critical to performance.

But before you click away in disappointment, consider that although you might think 1Mbps is too slow compared to 10Mbps or 100Mbps, it's actually as fast as many small LAN users will need to go.  This is especially true if you are sharing a dialup Internet connection, or use a broadband connection primarily for web browsing, email, instant messaging, and other non bandwidth intensive tasks.  Gamers obsessed with low ping times or folks needing to do large file transfers or watch streaming video should stick with Ethernet though. 

 

More expensive, right?

Yes, HomePNA adapters will run you about twice as much as a $20 10BaseT NIC and the going rate for 802.11b 11Mbps cards seems to be about $150-$200.  But when you consider that you don't have to buy a hub or switch or run CAT5 cable for HomePNA networking, the cost difference from Ethernet shrinks to something that most of us can rationalize. But the wireless-to-Ethernet cost ratio may still cause many people to wait until prices come down further.

 

Pick up the phone...

Still interested?  Good!  Since Phone-line is the faster (and less expensive!) method of the two, we'll look at that first.

HomePNA away!



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