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Microsoft Windows has had some form of PC networking support since version 3.1 was released in 1992. That's not to say it was easy to hook two PC's together and actually get them to share files then (or even now). While Window XP offers dramatically improved networking and file-sharing support over its arcane 13-year-old ancestor, many people still have difficulty easily sharing files and printers among networked computers in their home and small offices.
That's where Network Magic comes in. The newly released Network Magic 2.0 promises to make file- and printer-sharing across a network an easy point-and-click affair. It even allows for access to your shared files remotely via the Web.
Beyond Windows XP
Personally speaking, I've never had too much trouble using Windows XP's file sharing capabilities. A simple visit to the "My Computer" tab on XP shows a folder called "Shared Documents," which other connected PC's on the network (with the proper credentials) should be able to see. XP's My Computer tab also clearly shows what other networked drives are connected to your PC. For that reason, I was somewhat skeptical at first about what Network Magic 2.0 could add to what XP already provides.
After testing Network Magic 2.0, however, I see that it does add value. The problem with the default XP file-sharing capability is that it's incumbent upon you to get the machines connected and actually see other shares. By default, XP is not necessarily aware of everything that is on your network either.
In contrast, Network Magic 2.0 automatically discovers and maps your entire network, including other PC's, wired and wireless routers, printers and anything else that may be connected to your network. The mapping feature also provides information about the connected devices such as status, manufacturer, IP address and MAC address.
It also allows you to track a network device as an "intruder." However, with the default installation, all you can do with the intruder is track it and not much else.
That's where Network Magic's "Power Toys" extensions are supposed to come into play. "Power Toys" are experimental extensions designed to add functionally to the application. One of them is called Intruder Blaster and is supposed to allow you to kick such intruders off your network. Unfortunately, router support for the Intruder Blaster is somewhat limited and as such we were unable to successfully test it.
Network Magic is also Windows-specific and did not properly recognize Linux machines or their associated SAMBA shares in our test environment. The program also didn't properly recognize a stock Motorola VoIP ATA adapter either. Though Network Magic didn't know what the Linux and VoIP ATA devices were, it did detect them as "Network Devices" and the program does allow you change the label and name of detected devices on the network map.
Our test environment also included a Linksys unmanaged Gigabit switch (see our review), which went completely undetected by the program (not surprising though as it's near impossible for most applications to detect an unmanaged switch).
The program can be configured to automatically let you know when a new device connects to the network and when a device leaves the network. There is also a "What's New" tab that shows a log of what has logged on and off your network as well as any new file shares that may have been added.
Sharing Folders Locally
Sharing folders is really where the magic in Network Magic happens.
On each Windows PC's on your network, you need to download and install the Network Magic application, which is a simple and painless exercise. Next, you to create shared folders that other Network Magic clients on Windows PC can see and interact with. You can share a folder by walking through the basic step of selecting a file through the Network Magic interface — or, alternatively, thanks to a Windows shell extension that Network Magic installs, simply by right clicking any folder and selecting add to shared folders. It's really quite easy.
Security options for the shared folder can be set to be either password-protected or publicly available to other Network Magic users on your network. When disconnected from your Home network, the Shared Folders are not shared with others and are secured by what Network Magic calls its "PC Shield."
Sharing Folders Remotely
Another innovative feature that Network Magic 2.0 introduces is the capability to share folders and access them remotely via a Web-browser interface. The service is called "Net2Go" and provides Dynamic DNS mapping for your PC so you can access your shared folders via the Web. Folders that are set as being publicly viewable are seen on the main page without the need for a user to log in. Password-protected folders are available to users who log in via the Web interface.
The log-in page for the Net2Go function concerns me a great deal as it is not secured by SSL or an https login interface. As such, the login screen for Net2Go is not all that secure. When I sent a query to Network Magic's technical support on this point, they replied, "passwords are passed plain-text and could be sniffed. I would recommend using a password that isn't used for anything else."
Certainly you can try to make sure that you're on a remote PC that you think is secured, and you can clear cache and empty cookies. All that being said, in my opinion, the absence of a proper SSL represents a risk that makes me uneasy to say the least.
The other key feature provided by Network Magic 2.0 is the capability to share printers with all members of your network. The network map is supposed to automatically discover all the connected printers and allow for access to other Network Magic users on the network. What I found, though, was that Network Magic actually found all the printers that had been configured for a particular PC and added those to the list of available printers. On a test notebook, which had been loaded with support for multiple printers, all of the configured printers (and not necessarily those that were active and connected) were shown on the network map.
According to the Network Magic help screen, "for a printer that uses a parallel connection, Network Magic uses the same icon whether the printer is turned on and connected, turned off or disconnected." In our test case, the same also was true for USB connected printers as well.
Not knowing if a printer is on or even connected is a serious shortcoming of Network Magic. Certainly if you only have printers configured that you are connected to and on, that's not a problem. In that instance, Network Magic does an admirable job of making it dead easy to share a printer.
Despite a few shortcomings, I suspect that for most Windows users, Network Magic 2.0 will indeed seem like magic. It is one of the easiest ways that I've seen to map network assets and to easily share files between PCs. If you've had difficulty using the default features in Windows XP to share files and printer, Network Magic is available as a 14-day trial, so you don't have anything to lose by trying it.
Price: $49.99 (includes one year of the Net2Go service and updates)
- Automatically maps network
- Easy file and printer sharing
- 14 day trial
- Doesn't properly recognize all hardware
- Doesn't support SMB Linux shares
- Online file sharing security doesn't have SSL
- PowerTools aren't fully supported or tested
Sean Michael Kerner is a regular contributor to PracticallyNetworked.