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Over the past few years, the category of home network management software has grown considerably. Typified by products such as HomeNet Manager and Network Magic (from SingleClick Systems and Pure Networks, respectively), these tools are designed to simplify networking in Windows as well as add a few networking features that the operating system doesn't give you out of the box.
The newest entrant to the category is $29.99 NetTrooper from Sereniti, a company previously known for a subscription-based managed home router product (which is no longer sold). NetTrooper is a decent first effort, but it lacks some of the features and polish of competitive offerings.
Like any product in this category, NetTrooper's first order of business is to map your network to figure out what devices you've got on it. On our motley network, NetTrooper was able to identify by name several nonPC devices including two TiVo DVRs and an Xbox 360 game console. That's impressive, because other products in this category we've looked at simply detected devices on their respective IP addresses and left it up to us to figure out what they were and then name/label them accordingly.
NetTrooper's recognition capabilities weren't perfect, however. It misidentified our Maxtor NAS drive as a Linux PC (the Maxtor does use a Linux OS) and it mistook a networked HP multifunction printer for a PC as well. That wouldn't be a big deal, except for the fact that while NetTrooper will let you rename devices, you can't change the device category or display icon. As a result, our Maxtor and HP devices were stuck with PC icons, which can be misleading at a quick glance.
You can view some basic information about a network device by placing the cursor on its entry in the network map. A pop up box will relay things like IP address, operating system, and in the case of wireless devices the SSID and quality of the connection, but if the device is another computer running NetTrooper (Sereniti lets you install it on up to three PCs), you'll also see the system's rating in several safety and security categories. (More on this in a moment.)
Should your system ever take leave of its network connection, you can try to restore it using NetTrooper's Repair Connection feature. We tried in on wired and wireless systems, on which we simulated failures by releasing the IP address lease and disabling the network adapter within Windows. In both cases, NetTrooper restored a working connection in relatively short order.
NetTrooper goes a bit further than Windows' own repair connection function, because where the latter calls it a day after successfully obtaining a valid IP address for the local network, NetTrooper actually attempts to ping an IP address on the Internet and complete an HTTP request to make sure the connection is up and running end-to-end. If NetTrooper can't solve the problem, it will suggest what course to take (e.g. checking physical connections, restarting hardware and so on.)
Simplifying peer networking is a mainstay of the home networking utility genre, and users will definitely find NetTrooper useful in this area. For starters, it's file and printer sharing wizards are more streamlined and have a lot fewer steps than the ones you get with standard Windows. And as long as a system is running NetTrooper, you can share it's resources easily from any other NetTrooper-equipped system.
Once shared, NetTrooper makes finding and accessing resources less convoluted, too. Folders and printers shared via the utility are automatically published on separate pages of the software, and are grouped together by system, making it easier to find resources by location.
One sharing feature you won't find in NetTrooper is the capability to remotely access files on your systems or publish certain folders (e.g., family photos) to the Web for people to view. It's not an essential feature, but many people do find it useful (and it's included with Network Magic).
Security's a big concern of anyone running a home network these days (or at least it should be), and one of the main reasons why is that there are seemingly countless ways a computer can be at risk. NetTrooper tries to offer novice users some piece of mind by scanning systems for potential vulnerabilities.
For example, it will let you know when Windows or certain third-party utilities are in need of an update (for example, it noticed that the definitions for Spybot- Search and Destroy had gotten stale on one of our systems). Admittedly, the operating system and utilities themselves are perfectly capable of informing you about their need for updates, but NetTrooper offers the benefit of allowing you to view alerts for multiple systems from a central location.
NetTrooper also gives each system you install it on a letter grade (A-D) in about a half-dozen separate security and safety-related categories. Most of these simply verify that a particular class of software is present, enabled, and up-to-date such as firewall, virus and spyware protection but other categories determine whether there are any P2P clients installed and look for potentially compromising browser settings (IE only). NetTrooper also checks to see whether you have a backup utility installed, but it didn't seem to consider Windows Backup as a valid application in this regard (in any event, the mere presence of a backup program doesn't mean it's being used).
As with the alerts, you can view the security ratings for all NetTrooper-equipped PCs from any NetTrooper-equipped PC. If the utility gives your system less than an "A" in any category, a link will provide suggestions as well as links to software that will address the shortcoming. The included links are sponsored, however, and the software they point to isn't necessarily free. In some cases where the problem is misconfigured rather than missing software, NetTrooper can remotely correct the problem for example, activating a disabled firewall.)
While NetTrooper keeps close tabs on your computers, it doesn't offer any means to track the activity of unauthorized systems or exclude them from the network, features found in both HomeNet Manager and Network Magic.
You can use NetTrooper to access your broadband router and perform a handful of basic tasks like changing the administrator password, the SSID, or the wireless encryption configuration. We couldn't test these features though, since we didn't have one of the supported routers on hand. As of this writing, there are a mere three routers supported, all from Linksys (the WRT54G, GX2 and GX4). Sereniti says it will be adding support for 15 more routers including some Netgear models with the next release.
You can download a 30-day trial version of NetTrooper (it currently supports Windows XP only) here. The software will keep functioning after the trial period, but with most of the major features disabled.
Sereniti's NetTrooper does some things very well, like file- and printer-sharing and network connection repair. On the other hand, it lacks many of the features found in similar products that are available for the same price or slightly more Network Magic has an identical cost, while HomeNet Manager has a $39.95 price tag (both for use on three systems). Those looking for extra security or remote access features will likely find these products more useful than NetTrooper.
Price: $29.99 (for up to three PCs)
Pros: simplified folder and printer sharing; effectively repairs errant network connections
Cons: lacks network intruder monitoring; no remote access or web publishing features, limited router support for device-specific functions
Joe Moran is a regular contributor and columnist for PracticallyNetworked.
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