These days, almost every home is a candidate for a network. Most people have at least one older computer hanging around and families with children or two working adults are likely to have multiple desktop and notebook machines.
While networking computers used to be something of a black art, Windows 7 makes it a mostly straightforward affair. Router manufacturers have come to the party, too, providing simple, step-by-step installation routines to guide you through setting up your home network.
Why would you want a network?
The reasons are numerous and compelling. A network lets you:
- Share a high-speed Internet connection between computers.
- Share resources such as printers.
- Do away with the need to copy files to memory stick or CD in order to move them from one computer to another.
- Infuse new life into old computers by turning them into file servers or backup stores for large multimedia files.
- Eliminate redundant storage of large files.
- Communicate directly between your networked computers.
- Take advantage of applications and games that let you collaborate with others on your network.
- Simplify backup of huge hard drives.
- Provide redundancy when one PC suffers problems.
When you network a group of stand-alone computers the end result is something much, much more than the combined sum of the non-networked computers. You raise your computing power and efficiency to an entirely different level.
Wired or wireless?
When you network, you have a choice of two main technologies, wired and wireless. Which should you choose?
To create a wired network you need networking cards (known as ‘Ethernet cards’) in your computers, a router to link the computers to one another and to the Internet, and Ethernet cabling to connect the computers to the router. Ethernet networks are reliable, fast and inexpensive. The cabling, though, is a pain, especially in a home. Installation may involve crawling through an attic, knocking holes in walls, and dealing with all sorts of physical problems, and you may still end up with some ugly cable trails snaking around walls. If you want to network a multi-story house or many rooms, you may find it easier to get a networking specialist to do the job for you, although, of course, that ups the price significantly.
That makes wireless look really attractive. For a wireless network, all you need is a wireless router and wireless networking cards or wireless capability built into your computers. No wires and no mess, and you gain the ability to move the machines on your network from one place to another as the need arises. With a wireless network, you can roam around your house with a notebook and connect wherever an adequate signal exists. A wireless network may not be as cheap, fast and reliable as a wired one, but its ease of use and installation makes it hard to resist. And these days, the gap in price and reliability between wired and wireless networks is dwindling so rapidly for most home users wireless is the only way to go. With notebook prices also dropping, that’s one more reason to opt for wireless.
The best solution for most people, though, is to opt for a mixed network of wired and wireless computers. With such a set up, you can ensure a reliable connection for those computers where it really matters and use the flexibility of wireless links wherever the signal permits.
If you have a mix of desktop and notebook computers, probably the optimum approach is this:
- Set up one desktop as the center of your network. This desktop should have a network (Ethernet) card installed and be located near your cable or DSL modem and your wireless router. You will connect the router directly to the modem using one Ethernet cable, and then connect the router to the computer using another Ethernet cable.
- If you have other desktop machines for which a reliable, fast connection is essential, connect them via Ethernet cable to the router. Each of these machines will require an Ethernet card installed so you can cable them up.
- For all other machines, use wireless connections. Most notebook computers come with built-in wireless capability. If not, you can add a wireless network card, and you can do the same for additional desktop machines.
By setting up a mixed network, you get reliable connections where needed; flexibility in your network; no ugly wires in public rooms; and a central networking machine you can use to diagnose problems and reconfigure your router if necessary.
Maximizing wireless range
The layout of your home or office has a big influence on the success of your wireless network. With good line of sight and few intervening walls, you can get excellent wireless reception over 80 to 200 feet; if your house doesn’t fit that description, wireless performance takes a dive. Extra stories, lots of walls and wall construction can all restrict wireless range.
You can get around some of these limitations by installing additional antennas, access points or boosters (just make sure any boosters you install are compatible with your existing router) and by experimenting with the location of your existing wireless router or access points.
One simple solution to the wireless range problem is to try one of the extended range routers using the wireless ‘N’ specification. The ‘N’ refers to 802.11n, the latest standard in wireless networking. Wireless networks built around 802.11n technology deliver higher speeds, greater signal strength and broader range than the earlier standards.
Apart from using 802.11n equipment, the other key to maximizing the performance of your network is to buy networking equipment—routers, adaptors, range boosters, antennas—from the same manufacturer utilizing the same technology. Ideally, you should get the same performance from all equipment that bears the same standard, but experience has shown that buying equipment from a single manufacturer improves both range and speed. It also makes it much, much easier if you encounter problems setting up your network; it lets you avoid the ‘circle-of-death’ you face when trying to get support from multiple manufacturers.
What you need
To set up a wireless network to share a broadband Internet connection, you’ll need:
- A cable, DSL or satellite modem to provide an Internet connection.
- A wireless router for managing your network. Make sure your router has a built-in firewall to secure your network from outside attack. Wireless routers also include one or more ports for connecting additional computers via wired connection.
- A ‘setup’ computer. You use an Ethernet cable (the ‘wire’) to connect this computer directly to the router while you set up your network. You can, if you like, ‘unwire’ this computer after you’ve finished setting up and configuring your network, but most small networks keep one computer wired into the router, with all other computers using wireless connections.
- An Ethernet cable to connect the setup computer to the router. Many routers come with two Ethernet cables in the box: one to connect the router to the modem and one to connect the router to a computer. If your router is supplied with only one cable, you’ll need to buy a second one.
- A wireless network adapter for each computer on the network. For desktop PCs, this can either be a wireless expansion card you install in an expansion slot in your computer, or a USB network adapter. The latter is convenient and easy to install and makes it easy to place the wireless antenna in a suitable position; on the other hand, the antenna on an expansion card may be masked by the system box. Almost all recent notebook computers come with wireless networking capability built in. If yours doesn’t have this, you can either add a USB wireless adapter or, more conveniently, an ExpressCard or PC Card adapter that fits into a card slot. (Note that ExpressCard is the more recent type of slot on notebooks; if you have an older notebook, it’s more likely to have a PC Card slot; netbooks tend not to have slots at all, but they all have built-in wireless and so adding a wireless card is unnecessary.)
Setting it up
Although wireless gives you a lot of flexibility in the physical arrangement of your network, it pays to plan ahead and consider the best possible arrangement. Think about the layout of your house and the type of usage you make of each computer in your planned network. Any computers for which 100 percent reliable communications are essential should either be located close to the router—the signal will be stronger there— or on a wired connection. Plan to locate your router/access point centrally, and with line of sight to as many computers as possible. If necessary, you can increase the range of your network by incorporating additional access points or wireless boosters.
The following steps assume:
- you currently connect to the Internet via a high-speed modem directly connected to your PC’s Ethernet (LAN) port;
- you have a wireless router with built-in access point (almost all wireless routers do);
- you wish to connect one or more computers wirelessly;
- you’re running Windows 7.
Even if your setup differs from this, you’ll find the steps are fairly similar and most reputable routers come with refreshingly clear setup instructions. The steps below provide a general overview of the process.
Step-by-step set up
Step 1: Read the quick start/setup guide.
The simplest way to set up your router is to follow the quick start guide. If anything in that guide contradicts the instructions below, follow the router guide!
Step 2: Install the router software.
In almost all cases, you install the software before you connect the wireless router to your computer or modem. It’s very important you do this in the right order, or you may have real trouble getting your router to work. Most routers come with stickers on the router and/or the installation disc indicating whether to install the software first or the router first. The software itself should provide step-by-step instructions that are easy to follow—if your software is like this, you can simply follow the instructions it displays for you and jump to Step 6 below.
Step 3: Connect the router/access point to the modem
Remove the Ethernet cable that connects your PC to your modem from the PC, and plug that end of the cable into the wireless router’s Internet/WAN port. The port looks like a slightly oversized phone jack.
Step 4: Connect the router to your PC.
Your router should have come with an Ethernet cable of its own. If it does, make sure you use that cable. If not, you can buy a short cable from a computer, electronics or office supply store; just ask for a straight-through Ethernet Cat-5 cable. Connect one end of that cable to the now vacant Ethernet port on your PC. Connect the other end to the Ethernet ‘computer’ port on your router. If your router has more than one Ethernet port, choose any of them.
Step 4: Plug it in and switch it on.
Connect the power supply to the modem. If the modem has a power switch, switch it on (some turn on automatically). You should see the lights on the router’s display panel flash, indicating activity.
Step 5: Configure your router/access point.
Router setup differs from manufacturer to manufacturer, so follow the instructions in your router’s quick start guide. Many routers use a Web-based configuration utility that you access by typing the appropriate address (it will be in the form of an IP—Internet Protocol—address) into the browser. For example, if you install a Belkin router, you type:
into your browser. This loads the configuration screen, from which you can adjust the router’s options. You’ll probably, at a minimum, want to give your network a name. You may have completed this step during initial setup; if not, you can give your network a name—known as an SSID (service set identifier)—via the configuration utility.
Step 6: Enable security.
Most wireless routers are pre-configured to work straight out of the box. This pre-configuration makes things simple, but frequently it entails leaving security settings off. This is a no-no for your wireless network, because anyone within range of your wireless signal can access your network if it’s unsecured. That not only makes your files and communications vulnerable, it also lets others tap into your network and use your bandwidth. That could slow your own connections or, if you happen to be on a bandwidth-capped Internet plan, it could chew up your monthly allocation and leave you with no connection or a hefty bill for over-usage. So enable the best level of security common to each of your wireless components: WPA or WPA2 are the preferred methods; WEP security is not as strong. Refer to the full product manual that came with your router to discover how to do this (this manual may be on the disc that included the installation software). The good news is, most recent router configuration software automatically takes you through setting up security, too; if that’s the case with your router, you’re all set.
Step 7: Install adapters in your computers.
- In all likelihood, your notebook computer has wireless capability built in, so you’ll be able to skip this step. If you do need to install an adaptor, the process is simple. Make sure you follow the manufacturer’s instructions: usually, you’ll be required to install the software before the hardware.
- For a USB adapter, simply plug the adapter into an available USB socket on your computer (for best performance) or into a USB hub connected to the computer.
- For an ExpressCard or PC Card adapter on a notebook, switch the notebook off first, insert the adapter into the slot and switch the notebook back on.
- For an internal expandsion card in a desktop computer: switch your computer off and open its case; locate an available expansion slot and remove the slot cover if one is present; insert the card snugly into the slot—making sure the antenna extends through the opening in the back of the computer—and secure it; close up your computer and switch it back on.
- Whichever type of adapter you use, the new hardware should be recognized and the drivers installed automatically (you may need your Windows CD on hand), and a final reboot will ensure things are working correctly. You must still configure the security settings to match those on your router/access point. Most adapters come with a configuration utility that lets you adjust the settings. Use that utility to choose the correct SSID, enter the appropriate encryption key, and select Infrastructure mode (typically used for wireless networks containing an access point). All these settings must match those on your router/access point.
Trying it out
Once you have everything set up, take your wireless network for a spin. The easiest way to do that is to try accessing the Internet from one of the wireless machines.
Your wireless-enabled notebook should automatically recognize when it’s in range of a wireless network. If it doesn’t, click the wireless network icon in the taskbar and you’ll see a list of available connections. Click your network’s name in the list and click Connect. If you’ve enabled security (you have, haven’t you?), you’ll need to enter a passphrase or code the first time you connect to the network.
Once connected, open your browser and surf to a site you don’t regularly visit (this is to ensure the browser isn’t simply pulling the site from its local cache). I like to use Google’s news page (news.google.com) for this test, because it loads quickly and you can instantly tell if you’re accessing the up-to-date site.
Resetting your network
If your Internet connection seems to keep dropping out, try resetting your modem and router:
- Disconnect the power cords from the modem and the router.
- Wait 30 seconds.
- Reconnect the modem and wait until all the standard lights are on (on most routers this means Power, Receive, Send and Online—your router may differ).
- Reconnect the router and wait half a minute or so until it has reset itself.
Now try to connect to the Internet once more. If this doesn’t work, try shutting down Windows, turning your entire computer system off including modem and router, then follow steps 1 to 4 above, then switch your computer back on.
Troubleshooting your wireless connection
If your hardware is up and running but you can’t seem to get your computers to talk to one another, here are some things to check:
- Make sure each wireless device is using the same SSID (‘network name’).
- If you have a mix of 802.11b, 802.11g and/or 802.11n devices on the network, make sure your g and n equipment is running in Mixed Mode, not G-Only or N-Only mode. Mixed mode allows your equipment to interact with devices that meet different wireless standards.
- Ensure each device is using the same security (WPA or WEP) and you’ve entered the correct encryption key or passphrase.
- Take a look at the status lights on your router/access point and check the documentation to ensure all is as it should be.
- Double-check all connections to ensure they’re firm and secure.
- Check the signal strength on each of your wirelessly connected computers. (There’s usually a status indicator in the taskbar.) If the strength or quality of the connection is too low, you may lose the connection altogether.
- Experiment with the location of the router and the orientation of its antennae. Simply shifting the antennae can boost a signal by 30 percent or so.
- Try to minimize interference from other devices such as cordless phones, two-way radios and Bluetooth devices.
- Try restarting your router/access point and, if necessary, restoring its settings to the default values.