A How-to Guide to Networking
By Mark Toft
Staples Editor

Imagine sharing the same Internet connection, hardware and software applications with your family members or co-workers. You'd save money and cut down on time spent waiting to use the one printer or Internet connection, but wouldn't it be too high-tech to grasp? Not in the least.

Networking your home, home office, or small business is easy and affordable. All you need to do is choose a networking option (wireless, phone line, or Ethernet) and gather the necessary equipment.

Wireless networking
This convenient networking method is rising in popularity for homes and SOHOs (small and home offices). That's because wireless networking is fast (11 or 55 Mbps — the first speed comes with 802.11b wireless networking equipment, and the second, faster rate comes with 54g wireless networking equipment). Wireless networks also require few pieces of equipment and hassle-free mobility. Another bonus: you don't have to poke holes in the walls or run cable along the floor.

What you need to network wirelessly
  • Desktop computers: To network two computers, you'll need either a wireless PCI card or a wireless USB adapter (which plugs into any available USB port via a USB cable, but only works if you're running Windows® 98 or above) for each computer. If you're networking three or more computers, you'll also need a wireless access point. If you want to use an always-on Internet connection (such as DSL or cable) then you may prefer to use a wireless cable/DSL router instead of an access point.

  • Laptop computers: For two laptops, either a wireless PC card or, for laptops equipped with Windows® 98 or above, a wireless USB adapter (which connects via a USB cable). To network three or more laptops wirelessly, then you'll also need a wireless access point or a wireless cable/DSL router.

Phone line networking
Phone line networking is inexpensive and doesn't require much in the way of new equipment. What's more, it's easy to install and uses your existing phone lines to share information across PCs. Like wireless, phone line networking is popular for homes/home offices and for small offices. At 10 Mbps, it is a little slower than wireless. As long as you're not dialing out to the Internet, you can still use the phone. To network via phone line and connect to the Internet simultaneously, you need a router and DSL/cable Internet access.

What you need to network by phone lines

  • Desktop computers: Each computer being networked must be connected to a phone jack. All you need to add from there is a Phoneline PCI card or a Phoneline USB network adapter. This simple arrangement will allow you to network as many as 25 computers without a router. If you want to dial into the Internet using one IP address or to network more than 25 computers, you'll need to add a phone line router. Your cable/DSL modem will plug directly into the router, which will then plug into the nearest phone line jack.

  • Laptop computers: Each laptop needs to be connected to a phone jack through a Phoneline PC card or a Phoneline USB network adapter. You'll need a router under the same conditions described above for desktop computers.

Ethernet networking
This is the most popular networking choice, in part because it's inexpensive while also being the fastest form (at up to 100 Mbps) of networking. The only downside to Ethernet networks are that they require cable, which means you'll either have to run cable along the walls between rooms or spend the money required to run them through the walls. Running cable through walls usually costs anywhere from $100 to $200 per room.

What you need to network by Ethernet

  • Desktop computers: You need a PCI card or, for computers running Windows® 98 or above, a USB adapter (with USB cable) for each computer. You also need a peer-to-peer cable — either an RJ 45 or Category 5 cable — running between each computer. To network three or more computers, you also need a switch or router, into which all of the computers need to be connected via cable. Since a router can behave as a firewall to protect your network, you might choose a router instead of a switch if you plan to connect your network to a DSL or cable Internet connection.
  • Laptop computers: The Ethernet requirements for laptops are the same as for desktop computers, except that you would use a PC card instead of a PCI card.