Author: Eric Geier
Review Date: 6/26/2008

Even with the new Network and Sharing Center of Windows Vista, non-technical users (and sometimes even computer geeks) can have a tough time figuring out how to configure computers to share files, troubleshoot network problems, and set security settings on wireless gear. In most cases, users must decipher acronyms like WPA-PSK, ASCII, and MAC to set up a secure wireless network. Additionally, Windows networking tools don’t do the best job of explaining terms and features, and detecting and warning users of possible security risks of their network.

Pure Networks’ mission behind the Network Magic software is to help users in homes and small businesses set up and manage their network quickly and easily. Of course, when users have networking questions or problems they can browse sites for information, reference a book, or call their closet computer nerd. However, Network Magic sets out to automate the networking experience, so the ordinary user can connect, secure, share and troubleshoot with ease.

For this review we put the software through the ropes to see if it delivers on its promises.

Installation and Setup

The first step is to install Network Magic on all your computers. After a quick download of the free or trial version from the company Web site, start the Setup Wizard. After an uneventful install, our Web browser opened to a Web page that explained Pure Networks’ participation in the seemingly popular TrialPay program — great for networking on a budget.

When Network Magic opened, it launched a wizard, which required some initial configuration. Right away, it detected an issue — Internet Connection Sharing (ICS) was enabled on the Windows XP machine, and Network Magic can’t do its magic with this Windows feature on. This likely won’t be an issue for you since ICS is typically used on networks without a router. However, it can be used, as in the case we were testing out for another project, to extend the network connection of a computer wirelessly connected to the network to another computer nearby (without a wireless card) via an Ethernet cable. This way, you do not have to purchase another wireless card or run Ethernet cabling all the way to the router to get the non-wireless PC on the network.

The Network Magic wizard also steps through setting up the basic settings, like names for your computers (called Friendly Names), the folders and printers to be shared, and whether you want to receive an Internet and computer activity report automatically each day.

Connecting to Wireless Networks

Once we had Network Magic ready to go, it was easy to connect to wireless networks. You connect to and manage available and favorite networks through the Wireless Network Manager component, accessible via Network Magic’s wireless signal icon in the system tray and from the main Network Tasks screen of Network Magic. To our delight, we noticed there was a way to connect to hidden networks. This way you can disable the broadcasting of your wireless network’s SSID (or Network Name) for another layer of protection.

Troubleshooting Wizards

Pure Networks boasts about how Network Magic can “quickly troubleshoot, pinpoint and repair Internet connection problems” and aid in general networking and wireless issues. So we set off to see how well the software works with simulated network problems a user might experience.

First, we hit the stand-by button on the cable modem which cuts off the Internet connection for the wireless router. On the computers Network Magic prompted us that the Internet connection was lost, and we began using the troubleshooting wizard to see if this would help pinpoint the issue. First, it ran a series of automated tasks, disabling and re-enabled the network connection and requesting a new IP address. Then, it had us perform a few tasks and checks on the router and modem. Just before we exhausted the wizard’s steps, we were instructed to check the status lights of the modem. This helps determine what brought down the Internet connection — the modem was in stand-by mode and you must hit the stand-by button.

Next, we wanted to see what Network Magic might do when we have a fight on the network. In technical terms, this is referred to as an IP address conflict: Two computers or devices connected to the network have the same “unique” identifying address. The devices involved in a conflict usually encounter problems like not being able to reach the Internet.

To force such a conflict, we manually assigned one of the computer’s IP address to an address already in use by another computer. Just after we hit apply, Windows prompted us about the conflict — not Network Magic. Furthermore, when we ran the troubleshooting wizard in Network Magic it didn’t pinpoint the problem, but Network Magic would have still helped you in this situation. The first task was for us to power-cycle the router, making all the computers (with DHCP or automatic addressing) request new IP addresses; which in turn broke up the network battle.

The final test was a simulated loss of sharing on one of the computers. We simply went into the Network Connection Properties window on one of the computers and unchecked the File and Printer Sharing option, thus preventing the computers from accessing the folders it was sharing. When we went to another computer to try to access one of its shared folders, it was not possible.

Sadly, Network Magic is unable to help with this issue. As the software recommends, firewalls typically cause this inability to access shared folders; however, there was no mention of checking the Windows File and Printer Sharing settings. Furthermore, even if Windows Firewall caused this sharing issue, the software did not automate the fix.

Advisor, Security, and Alert Functions

Network Magic’s most beneficial advisor functionality is from the Health and Security Alerts and Wireless Protection feature. You are alerted of potential security risks, for example not being connected to an encrypted wireless network and even when critical Windows updates are not installed on PCs. Another impressive feature we found is the ability to set up two wireless security techniques, MAC address filtering (called Network Lock) and disabling SSID (Network Name) broadcasting, right from Network Magic when using a support router.

We were not, however, very impressed with the intrusion detection feature Network Magic provides. When someone joins the network, a pop-up window appears on each computer loaded with Network Magic to alert users that someone has joined. If the computer that joins is unrecognized, you can view the Network Map, right-click on the computer’s icon, and select Track as Intruder. However, Network Magic doesn’t come out and recommend enabling the Network Lock feature or any other feature to help protect the network.

Resource Sharing and Network Map

You should find it fairly easy to share and access folders and printers on computers loaded with Network Magic, although you can’t specify advanced sharing permissions or exactly who can access and edit the folders. Remote access to shared folders using the Net2Go feature is easily enabled when using a supported router. This makes it very useful to share files with others or to have access to files when away from your home or office.

The Network Map provides a useful diagram of the network and details of each computer or device, such as signal strength for wireless connections and IP and MAC addresses. Computers even have a link for quick remote desktop access. Clicking the router’s icon gives you quick access to the Web-based configuration utility, support information, links to settings on the router and more.

Bottom Line

Overall, we found Network Magic can indeed help you better setup, secure, troubleshoot, and manage a home or small-office network. There are, however, some improvements that should be made to the software. The price of the software can be minuscule when comparing the time involved in fixing some networking issues, such as troubleshooting sharing problems or the lost associated with data theft because you didn’t understand how to set up wireless encryption. Its even less expensive if you take advantage of the free six months of online backup from Carbonite, a $25 value.

Understand, however, that not all network troubleshooting, and configuration can be automated — buying a piece of software will not solve all of your problems.

Want to take Network Magic on your own test drive? You can download a 7-day free trial of Network Magic Pro.

Product: Pure Networks Network Magic Pro 4.8
Price: $49.99
Pros: User friendly; makes securing wireless easier; great network resource
Cons: Troubleshooting and intrusion detection features could use improvements
Eric Geier is the Founder and President of Sky-Nets, Ltd., which operates a Wi-Fi hotspot network serving the General Aviation community. He is an author of many wireless networking and computing books including Home Networking All-in-One Desk Reference For Dummies (Wiley 2008) and Wi-Fi Hotspots: Setting up Public Wireless Internet Access (Cisco Press 2006).