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Upgrade that makes sense

by Ken Fermoyle

First came "sneaker networking" in the late '70s, early '80s, when we carried floppy diskettes from computer to computer. Then came "poor-boy networking," using simple switches, null modem cables, software like LapLink, and MacLink to share printers and transfer files. Often we simply plugged and unplugged cables. Macintoshes had the advantage of built-in network capabilities, although at just 230.4 Kbps transmission speed was slow.

I tried all of the above during the 1980s in my home office and as a partner in a small, pioneering publishing service bureau. A "real" network, with servers and client workstations, was out of reach.

Things have changed! Low prices, simple peer-to-peer networks, and support built into current operating systems now make it inexpensive and easy to link computers and peripherals in home or small business offices. Today you can enjoy the benefits of a true Ethernet network for under $100 if you run Windows for Workgroups (3.1.1); Windows 95, 98 or NT; or Mac OS (and want more speed than AppleTalk provides)

Adding a simple network is especially attractive if you are adding a new computer. Don't get rid of your old one. You won't get much for it, and it can still be a useful asset. How? By linking it to the new computer via a simple network. Consider these possibilities.

First, you can keep all your pet programs, especially "legacy" 16-bit Win3x and/or DOS apps, on the older machine and use them as you always have. Use only 32-bit software on the new computer to improve performance.

Second, you can eliminate duplication of programs. Why invest in a new word processor or spreadsheet, for example, if the ones you've been using still do everything you require? Save your new machine for up-to-date graphics, games or Internet-related programs that really benefit from better performance.

Third, you can use each of the two computers to back up the other one. John Bowen, honcho of the Black Lake Computer Club, Nipomo, CA, showed me some months ago how he and his wife do just that with their His & Her computers. It's probably the easiest way to do backups.

One thought here: If your old computer has its hard drive(s) filled to bursting, consider adding another one just for backup use. New multi-grg hard drives are really cheap now, and I suspect it's possible to find decent used 1.2 to 2.5 gigabyte drives for $25 to $50. (Part 3 of this Upgrades that Make Sense series will zero in on hard drives, incidentally.)

All you need to set up a network are the following:

* A Network Interface Card (NIC) for each computer and appropriate driver
* Thin coaxial or unshielded twisted pair (UTP) cabling in appropriate lengths
* BNC connectors and terminators, if you use coaxial cables
* Multiport hub, optional if you want to connect more than a handful of computers, necessary if you want a Fast Ethernet network (100 Mbps vs. 10 Mbps for standard 10Base-T Ethernet), which is probably overkill for most of us.

Prices? Very reasonable! I've seen full-duplex, Plug-and-Play Ethernet cards for as little as $15 to $20; 5-port hubs run from about $40 to $100.

UTP 10Base-T cables resemble ordinary telephone wire but use RJ45 connectors and have eight wires inside. Coaxial 10Base-2 cables look like those that connect TVs to VCRs, with similar twist-on BNC connectors. Prices vary by length, but a 10-footer typically sells for about $11 to $14 for either type. Use cables that meet Category 5 standards to ensure top performance and future expandability. For networks with more than a few computers or when using Fast Ethernet, experts recommend UTP cabling.

To connect just two computers, it's often cheaper and easier to buy a kit that includes two NICs, a 10Base-2 coax cable, connectors and terminators, driver setup software and detailed installation instructions. This is especially true for novice networkers. With a kit, you're sure that components match, and you have a single source to contact should you need tech support.

You can add one or two computers to this type of network later, daisy-chaining them with additional NICs and cables. Use a hub and UTP cables for bigger networks.

I've used the LinkSys (www.linksys.com) Network in a Box and StarTech Computer Products (www.startechcomp.com) Network Kit (under $100) and they worked well.

Make sure the NICs have both BNC and RJ45 connectors so you can upgrade to twisted-pair cables if you deiced to add a hub and expand your network later. I haven't tried Netgear's starter kits (about $120) that uses UTP cables and a 4-port, externally powered hub, or a similar one from Linksys (two PCI NICs, 5-port hub, about $95), but both are attractive, expandable options.

My entry to networking in 1996 came after buying a new HP inkjet printer designed for use with bidirectional parallel ports and IEEE-1284 cables. We already shared two printers, using A-B switches. I couldn't find a switch that was compatible with the IEE-1284 standard, and I tried! Installing a network was the farthest thing from my mind, until I spotted Network in a Box from LinkSys. It looked simple enough (though I had grave misgivings) and the cost (then about $90, now under $70) was less than some of the switches I priced.

Physical installation was easy. Pilot error (I misread a key direction) created a few problems with the software setup. A little help from my friends at ASC Computers, my local computing life support system here in Woodland Hills, CA, solved that. Life instantly became much easier. My wife and I had easy access to the printer sand each other's files. If I was working on a newsletter and needed a graphics file Liz created, it was a snap to import it from her computer.

I'm currently nearing the final stage of a major system overhaul, including one new computer as a server, upgrades to three others, adding another printer, and new modems. Instead of having just two computers linked I will have four on the new net via a 5-port 10BaseT hub and UTP cables. I'll fill you in on that project in a future column.

Copyright 1998 by Ken Fermoyle, Fermoyle Publications.

Ken Fermoyle has written some 2,500 articles for publications ranging from Playboy and PC World to MacWeek, MicroTimes & PC Laptop. He was cohost/producer of a radio show on computers and a partner in a DTP service bureau during the '80s.If your group would like to receive the column regularly, send e-mail to kfermoyle@earthlink.net. If you use the above article, please mail a copy of your newsletter or tear sheet to Fermoyle Publications, 22250 Capulin Ct., Woodland Hills, CA 91364-3005.

Last Update:06/26/2007


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