Computers want to be linked. The growing number of households with multiple PCs or laptop computers want to share broadband Internet connections. Their hard drives are also full of digital songs, videos, and photos that yearn to travel throughout a home's PCs.
Moving precious files across a few dozen feet of networking cable should be drag-and-drop simple. But it often goes wrong, making little within electronics more frustrating than setting up a home network. And it goes wrong too often, especially when consumers try to use the magic of wireless links. About 20 percent, or 1 in 5, sets of wireless networking gear is returned to stores as buyers buckle beneath the vagaries of networking.
There has been progress. It was nearly twice as hard to set up a wireless network just a few years ago, when return rates were closer to 40 percent. But even today's numbers largely represent tech-savvy consumers; Many average PC users still don't even try. Ten years after they hit the consumer market, wireless networks have made it into only 30 percent of American households, report market researchers at ABI Research.
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Many households that have wireless networks have turned to professionals to install their Wi-Fi router, the central hub in a network. But that can cost $150 and up, or three times the cost of the router itself. So it's heartening to see continued progress in simplifying the process. Here are four products that can make it possible for even the tech-challenged to see PCs across the vast emptiness of a home's hallway.
Cisco Valet. With a name suggesting the helping hand of a friendly assistant, this line of routers from networking giant Cisco emphasizes simplicity. There isn't even the word "router" on their packaging. More importantly, consumers will no longer have to remember a baffling IP address like 192.168.1.254 to configure the router. Instead, Cisco bundles a USB key that loads software onto a PC and starts a process that is almost pleasant, at least by networking standards.
The software helps users decide on a network name and password, which it saves to the USB fob. Linking other Windows and Mac computers to the network is as easy as plugging in the USB drive. Don't expect miracles, though. The USB drive can't plug into a lot of other network-capable gear, such as smartphones, TVs, and DVD players. Users still must manually configure those. But the Valet routers work well with Windows and Mac computers.
Cisco credits the simplicity of the Valet line to the same group that designed the ultra-easy Flip video cameras, made by a company that Cisco bought last year. The Valet routers aren't quite as push-button simple as the Flips, and they're not the first to employ USB drives to link computers. But they are a promising step forward in networking, and are available now starting at $100.
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Belkin Surf. One simple innovation is enough to move this router ahead of the pack: It comes with its wires already plugged in. While buyers still have to figure out where to insert the other end of the cables, each is numbered to match with delightfully clear instructions that are also numbered. The software that's included also comes "pre-wired" with a network name and password.
The Surf router ($50) is the most basic model in a family of Belkin routers. Others maintain the simple setup but add new capability in "apps" built into the router. The Belkin Share ($80) has Print Genie and Memory Safe software for sharing printers and backing up files. At the top of the line, the Play Max model ($130) uses a second wireless band to ensure more stable video streaming, and has an app that can finish downloading Internet videos after PCs have shut down for the night.
Windows HomeGroup. Nowhere has Microsoft's emphasis on business computing been more apparent than in networking. Military-grade security built into Windows has made it difficult to link computers at home, particularly for sharing anything beyond a broadband connection. That has finally changed with Windows 7. The system recognizes that most users trust other computers in their home, and a single password enables PCs to share documents, videos, photos, and printers.
Windows now assumes that the files should be shared between all PCs that are part of a homegroup. Users can limit access through advanced settings. But the controls are hidden from the vast majority of home dwellers who don't need them.
Unfortunately, HomeGroup only works between computers running Windows 7. Upgrades from earlier Win versions start at about $100 per computer. Older PCs with Windows XP or even Vista will still find it devilishly difficult to share files and printers, even with Win7 machines. The weeds grow thicker when users try to share files with Apple Mac computers, which are famously friendly to set up on their own network—but that don't get along so naturally with Windows PCs.
Network Magic. This software does as good a job of easing networking hassles. It uses little jargon and often automates the setup process, scanning a network to generate an innovative map of all connected devices. Sharing files is just another click or two away. It can be a godsend for non-techies trying to link PCs that run older versions of Windows, or networks that combine PCs and Macs.
Network Magic can even configure many leading routers. The software is now owned by Cisco and works particularly well with hubs from Cisco and its popular Linksys brand. A version for sharing files costs $30 for three computers, and a $50 Pro edition adds parental controls and other features. Not sure if it's worth the investment? A seven-day trial enables free testing of all versions.