5 Tips and Tricks for Home Networks

Linking PCs for more than broadband sharing can be easy, reliable, and secure with the right tools.

Fon's router shares WiFi with friends and strangers.
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Computer networking—once the pride of IT departments and the occasional home geek—is fast becoming the standard in American homes. Many households, even individual consumers, now own multiple computers. Tens of millions of those homes have several PCs sharing a fast broadband Internet connection. But that's as far as networking goes for most. Relatively few people share printers and files, frustrated by the complexity of getting computers to talk to each other. Apple Macs have it a bit easier than Windows, which only became more difficult to network with its latest version, Vista.

Here are five tips to consider when setting up a simple home network:

1) Get wired—wireless networks are convenient, reasonably priced, and fairly easy to set up for basic operation. But they never work as reliably or as secure as a wired network. If it's possible, run Ethernet cable to PCs, particularly desktop models that won't move around. If new cable isn't feasible, computers can connect reliably across a home's electrical wiring using Powerline adapters. They can be found for less than $100 a pair, are easier to set up, and are more reliable than wireless.

2) Stay cheap—if you have multiple PCs to network or a laptop to move around the house, wireless might be the best option. But most people need not bother yet with the latest generation of wireless, the "N" generation (or 802.11n) routers. They cost at least twice as much as the older "G" generation (802.11g). Added speed is the primary benefit but isn't needed unless a network is trying to push huge files around the house, such as high-definition TV. If someone's doing that, they don't need this primer. The N routers can cover more ground, so large homes might warrant the extra cost.

3) Share, on purpose—many wireless networks get shared with neighbors and strangers because homeowners don't make them secure. A nice gesture, perhaps, but unsafe. If a network is going wireless, a Fon router can securely share part of a broadband connection with neighbors. You also get access to other Fon routers and can create a mesh of networks among neighbors. It works particularly well if they're close in dense, urban areas. Or if you already own a router, you can test software called Whisher that can share your WiFi. Be warned that many Internet providers don't like broadband sharing, but there are no reports of bans being enforced.

4) Apply magic—software called Network Magic can make it easy to link PCs, as well as control who can connect to a wireless networks. The company recently became part of networking giant Cisco, which promises to continue selling the software separately. A free version can handle basics, but the $30 version is worth the extra help in sharing files and printers. It can be installed on three computers. An eight-PC version costs $50 and adds capabilities. Another $25 can add Macs to the network, easing the often difficult trick of sharing files among the major PC religions.

5) Lock it down—while a router or Network Magic can control who connects to a network, security software adds needed protection for any home network. A free program called AVG from Grisoft can stop viruses from getting on any PC. Paid software can do the same thing more speedily, including Vipre from Sunbelt Software that adds spyware protection on all PCs in a home for $50 a year. Or Norton Internet Security 2009, which provides numerous protections for 3 PCs at $70 for the first year. Its firewall, for example, can help prevent a networked PC from becoming a robot for criminals.