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Wireless networks that do more

Wireless networks that do more

Got the networking bug? Whether you plan to set up a wireless network or you have one in place already, our networking guide is for you. You'll find a truckload of tips to raise an existing network to a more-sophisticated level

Got the networking bug? Whether you plan to set up a wireless network or you have one in place already, our networking guide is for you. You'll find a truckload of tips to raise an existing network to a more-sophisticated level. Whether it ties together an office or a house full of computers, your network is only as good as what you can make it accomplish. We discuss the best ways to share existing resources, like your printer. We show you how to add oomph to your network's performance--and how to repel intruders from your wireless turf. You'll find easy fixes for common networking snags. And we provide tips on how to turn your network into a lean, mean entertainment system.

If you haven't bought your networking equipment yet--or you're thinking of upgrading to wireless--see our review of ten leading gateways. Based on testing conducted by the PC World Test Center, our report evaluates each wireless product, with special emphasis on ease of use and reliability.

1. Share Your Devices

Though sharing Internet access is the most obvious reason to set up a network, the benefits of sharing devices are equally clear. Windows lets you share printers, scanners, modems, and drives--no more clambering up and down the stairs, floppy in hand, to open files on the one computer that's attached to a printer. In addition, allowing multiple users joint access to various drives on your PC enables you to share files easily. You're out of luck, however, if you want to share other devices such as cameras or MP3 players: Windows gives these units no way of exposing themselves to other computers on the network. That will change over the next few years, according to Microsoft product manager Greg Sullivan. The Universal Plug and Play Forum is developing connectivity and control standards for other types of devices.

Share your printer: You probably enabled the whole network to share printers connected to individual computers when you first set it up. If you didn't do this--or if you recently installed a new printer that you want to share across your network--both Windows XP and Windows 2000 make the process easy: Begin by selecting Start, Printers and Faxes (or Start, Settings, Printers in Win 2000); then right-click the printer name, select Sharing, and choose Shared As or Share this Printer. In either Windows 98 or Windows Me, right-click Network Neighborhood, select Properties, and click the Enable file and printer sharing button. Note, however, that you will need to have printer drivers on hand for every version of Windows you have running. Make sure you have a Windows 98 driver so that the printer can connect to your Win 98 PC, an XP driver so that the printer can work with the Windows XP machine, and so on.

Share your drive: In Windows XP or 2000, the first step in sharing folders or drives is to right-click the folder or drive in My Computer and choose a Sharing... menu option. The details vary with every Windows version. (Of course, you need to decide at the outset whether you want to restrict the shared options or whether you're willing to leave every computer on the network exposed.)

When selecting folders to share, you can password-protect folders and assign different access rights to different users, if you like. A sensible network administrator will recommend creating a specific folder on each PC for shared documents, rather than opening up whole drives to the network (even if you have a firewall).

Share your dial-up: Do you have a backup plan in case your vital broadband connection goes down? If you're willing to endure a rather tedious process, you can share your dial-up connection.

2. Enhance Performance

Wireless networking is simple in theory: Just install a wireless network adapter in each computer and forget about drilling holes and running cable. When you deal with equipment based on the 802.11b (or Wi-Fi) standard, unfortunately, the reality often falls short of claimed specifications. Your network will have a limited range--you've probably experienced a decrease in speed at a certain distance from an access point. That's why you must adjust the location and configuration of your wireless setup to obtain the best possible performance, range, and reliability. Follow our advice and your connection will be faster across longer distances--and you'll have fewer dropped connections.

Pick the best location: The farther your wirelessly networked computer is from a wireless access point--and the greater the number of solid objects that stand in the way--the slower your connection will be. To optimize your network's speed and range, position your wireless access point at least a few feet above the floor and away from metal objects, particularly large appliances like refrigerators. Though most manuals for networking products tell you to position the access point in the middle of the coverage area, it's often better to identify the locations where you expect to use a computer and put the access point where it will be in a direct line of sight (or close to it) to as many of those places as possible. Don't waste time worrying about "dead spots" if no one is likely to use a computer there. Once your network is up and running, even slight changes in your wireless network card's position (say, a shift in the orientation of your laptop as you recline on the couch) may dramatically improve throughput or even restore a dropped connection.

For larger areas--or areas with many obstructions--your only option may be to shell out the cash for multiple access points. If you go this route, you'll find that setup is easy: Simply make sure that the access points have identical settings. Virtually all wireless network adapters support "roaming": In areas where access point coverage overlaps, the adapter will latch on to the strongest signal.

Change channels: The crowded 2.4-GHz spectrum that 802.11b uses can be susceptible to interference in some instances, but the 5-GHz spectrum of 802.11a (802.11b's speedier successor) is largely interference-free. Depending on the configuration of your home or office, Microwave ovens, 2.4-GHz cordless telephones, power lines, Bluetooth devices, and quirky light fixtures--not to mention pesky neighbors who have their own Wi-Fi wireless network--can quash throughput or force dropped connections under some circumstances.

Experimenting with Wi-Fi channels often solves the problem--especially if you discover that your neighbors are using the same channel for their network. The 83-MHz-wide 802.11b band is divided into 11 channels, each one 22 MHz wide. As a result, only channels 1, 6, and 11 don't overlap one another. To change from the default channel, you must delve into the setup software for your wireless access point and for each wireless network card, and reset them all to the same, new channel (the procedures vary from manufacturer to manufacturer). Note that 802.11a devices have far more flexibility, with 12 nonoverlapping channels. Businesses sometimes choose 802.11a just because it lets them deploy multiple, adjacent networks without interference (the fact that it's nearly five times faster than 802.11b doesn't hurt either).

Boost your signal: Performance, range, and reliability in wireless networking all hinge on the quality of the signal. The cheapest measure you can take is to keep the antenna on your access point vertical at all times, rather than fiddling with it as you would with old-fashioned rabbit ears on a TV (manufacturers say that pushing the antenna into a horizontal position is not a good idea). Beyond this, adding an extra-cost antenna to your network adapter, access point, or both can improve your signal quality significantly. Add-on antennas for laptop PC Cards cost around $30 and may give your network access a lift. Note, however, that extra-cost antennas are available only for 802.11b access points. Strict FCC regulations govern 802.11a signal strength; 802.11a access points usually come already configured to transmit at levels right at the legal limit.

Antennas for Wi-Fi access points typically cost between $40 and $120, and they come in a wide range of shapes and sizes. If you want to increase the signal strength for a computer at the outer edge of an access point's range, a low-cost directional antenna such as the $99 Siemens SpeedStream 6dBi Wireless Directional Antenna or the $30 D-Link DWL-R60AT Indoor 6dBi Microstrip Antenna offers you the biggest boost for the buck. Unfortunately, however, the signal will weaken a little bit in the various directions that the antenna doesn't face. To crank up reception strength in all directions, try an omnidirectional antenna such as D-Link's $39 Air DWL-R60AT or $100 ANT24-0401 4dBi (both mount on the ceiling).

3. Secure Your Network

Many people are surprised to discover that the default security setting for wireless networks is often no security at all, leaving your network open to hostile hackers or to freeloaders who want to pirate your broadband connection. Unfortunately, no perfect security solution exists today, although this is supposed to change with the adoption of the new IEEE security standard known as 802.1x. It will take a while for 802.1x to trickle down to products, though. The standard is designed to allow authentication of wireless users against a remote server (the spec should be final by the time you read this). In the meantime, go with a manufacturer that adds proprietary security, and buy your hardware exclusively from the same company to ensure that everything works together. Also, you can take steps now to encourage hackers to look elsewhere for a network that's less secure.

Use smart identifiers: First, just as you should in your passwords, mix numbers and letters in your wireless network's Service Set Identifier, which every wireless device on your network uses to log in. (At the very least, don't use the default!) Most wireless setup software makes changing the SSID easy. Next, implement Wired Equivalent Privacy, the data privacy mechanism used for wireless networking (check your Wi-Fi manuals for instructions). Virtually all wireless networking devices now support 128-bit WEP, which is more secure than 64-bit WEP. Both flavors remain hackable, however, so consider WEP a deterrent, not a fail-safe barrier. Many people settle on 64-bit WEP, notwithstanding its poorer security, because 128-bit WEP can degrade performance by as much as 50 percent, especially when you use older equipment. Visit " Internet Tips," November 2002 for more details about WEP, including tips on creating passwords that are hard to decipher.

Enable Media Access Control address filtering: Doing this greatly increases the level of sophistication required to hack into your network. The MAC address is the unique numeric identifier for your network adapter. Turn on the filter, and only computers that have the MAC addresses that you specify can connect. Of course, this requires you to determine the MAC address of each client. In Windows XP or 2000, select Start, Run, type cmd, and press Enter to open a command window. Type ipconfig /all, press Enter, and look for the Physical Address number for that client's connection. In Windows 98 or Me, select Start, Run, type winipcfg, and press Enter to display, among various other things, the Adapter Address. Write down either the Physical Address or the Adapter Address (both of these are alternate terms for "MAC address").

A dedicated hacker may be able to sniff out a MAC address and "spoof" your network into thinking that one of your PCs is connecting. The only truly secure option is to set up a virtual private network, which impenetrably encrypts wireless (and wired) connections. Software-based VPNs degrade performance, and they're devilishly difficult to configure, even though Windows XP and 2000 come with VPN clients. But new, low-cost VPN routers offer better performance and easier configuration (you don't even need VPN client software). All major router manufacturers now sell them.

4. Create an Entertainment Center

With a little effort, you can stretch your network a bit and turn it into an audio and video hub, to share recorded programs and music across your network.

Share your saved TV shows: You say you like the idea of a TiVo-style personal video recorder, but you don't want to pay for the service? Consider SnapStream, a $50 software PVR that lets you record TV shows on your hard drive. Afterward, you can play the recordings on any device attached to your network--though to play recordings made in the highest quality mode, you'll need an 802.11a, 802.11g (another new standard, faster than but compatible with 802.11b), or wired network connection, since 802.11b is too slow to cut it. You'll need to have lots of storage available--a half-hour of near-VHS--quality video, for instance, eats 155MB of space. In addition, SnapStream requires a TV tuner card (about $50) so the software can change channels automatically in accordance with your recording schedule. We found version 2.0 of SnapStream to be awkward and buggy, but version 3.0 (which we tested in beta form) looks promising. Visit SnapStream Media to purchase a copy.

Remember that tuner cards work only with broadcast or analog cable TV. To control the set-top boxes that come with digital cable and satellite TV, SnapStream drives a device known as the Actisys IR Blaster ($25 with cables); when correctly configured by you, the IR Blaster can change the channels on your set-top box. To record, you'll need to run a cable from the analog video output of your set-top box to a video capture device (either a capture card or an external USB 2.0 device).

If you don't want to watch video recordings on a computer screen, you'll need a graphics card or laptop with a composite video-out or (far better) an S-Video-out connector. The cables that you'll need to link with your TV are easy to find, as are composite--to--S-Video converters, if you need one. Typically, you set your TV's channel selector to 00 to accept external video input. Because neither composite nor S-Video connections transfer audio, you'll need to run those cables separately (see " Hook Up Your Sound and Video").

Make the audio connection: To play all the MP3 files you've collected, you need to hook your computer to your audio system. Fortunately, that's easy: Sound cards (and laptops, too) typically come with a 0.125-inch stereo-out jack for headphones. Electronics stores like RadioShack and Circuit City carry cables with a 0.125-inch plug on one end and two RCA connectors on the other end that plug into the line-in jacks on your audio amplifier. In our informal tests, MP3 files sounded acceptable with a garden-variety Creative Labs SoundBlaster Live sound card connected to a hi-fi. If you hear analog noise, use heavily insulated cables--such as Monster Cables--to squelch it. For better sound, try upgrading to a fancy sound card like Creative Labs' Sound Blaster Audigy 2.

Wireless Gateways: No Strings Attached

If you've been waiting for wireless to come of age before installing a nome network or upgrading your current wired setup, wait no longer. Today's reliable, affordable, and fast wireless gateways make it easier than ever for average PC users to link several computers in a home or small office. Thanks to manufacturers' enthusiastic participation in the Wi-Fi Alliance's certification program, you can be confident that the Wi-Fi equipment you buy will be compatible with all other such equipment--on your local network or anywhere else that wireless networks are in place.

We tested ten 802.11b gateways intended for homes and small offices. Besides offering wireless connections, every product offers from one to four ethernet ports as well as a port for your cable or DSL modem. This lets you easily share broadband Internet access among all your computers without having to set up one PC as an always-on "Internet connection sharing" server. And to protect your network from prying eyes and hacker attacks over the Internet, each has a built-in firewall.

Our three top picks are the D-Link Systems Inc. AirPlus DI-614+, the Linksys Group Inc. Wireless Access Point Router BEFW11S4 Version 2, and the SMC Networks Inc. Barricade Plus SMC7004WFW. The DI-614+ has a special 22-mbps mode that delivers up to twice the transfer rate of the other gateways when connected to compatible D-Link client adapters (to find out more about these see " Speed Matters, But..."). Of the nine 11-mbps products, the Linksys and SMC gateways offer the best combination of speed and range, and they provided the most reliable connections. All three of our Best Buys have excellent firewall and hardware features, and all were easy to set up.

Wireless gateways now cost less than US$100, and prices for wireless interface cards--whether PC Cards for notebooks, internal PCI cards for desktops, or external USB adapters for any computer--are about $69 and dropping. All ten gateways have the same basic functionality, but they differ in key ways in their installation and setup, hardware design, firewall features, and performance. See the features chart and the performance chart for more details.

With simpler setup, more reliable connections, faster performance, and lower prices, it's getting harder and harder to say no to wireless home networks.

Easy From the Get-Go

The setup wizards that come with every wireless gateway make installation easy, though setting up a nonstandard connection, such as a link to a virtual private network, can be a headache. The wizards assume that you already have a working Internet connection on one computer; some setup programs copy your network information automatically from your PC to the gateway, making setup nearly transparent. Others require you to write down certain information, such as the static IP address your ISP assigned to you, and ask you to enter it manually later in the setup process.The 3Com, D-Link, NetGear, Proxim, and SMC gateways have their own installation wizards, and the other devices use Windows wizards.

Connecting the hardware is as simple as unplugging the modem cable from your computer, plugging it into the gateway, and linking the gateway back to the PC, via either an ethernet cable or a wireless adapter. You configure the gateway by giving it details about your ISP connection. Though you can go completely wireless from the start, it's usually easier to set up the gateway to link to a PC via a wired ethernet connection first and configure the wireless links later. That way you can make sure your Internet connection works before complicating the network with wireless links. In the event of problems, every vendor except Proxim Inc. and Zoom Telephonics Inc. offers toll-free technical support 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

All ten of the gateways we tested support dynamic IP address, static IP address, and PPPoE (Point to Point Protocol over Ethernet) connections, as well as Media Access Control address cloning. Your network may need MAC address cloning because many cable modem companies and other ISPs record the unique MAC address of your computer's LAN card and permit that address to have only one connection. By cloning this address, the gateway is able to take the place of your LAN card and communicate with your ISP's servers directly.

All of the gateways we tested can be configured manually via Web-browser setup screens. You can set some of the Actiontec GEU404000-01 gateway's firewall and wireless features via browser-based screens, but it relies on a simple Windows utility to change basic network-access settings. Even more troublesome, the product's browser-accessible features are not password-protected, so anyone on your network can get at them.

Once your gateway is hooked up to the Internet, you set up your wireless connections by installing drivers and plugging in wireless adapters. (Thanks to Windows XP's built-in Wi-Fi support, you may not need to install special drivers for that OS.) Once the hardware and software are in place, you scan the airwaves for your gateway and connect your PC to it in two clicks. We had no problems connecting to any of the gateways with three different client cards, suggesting that Wi-Fi compatibility problems are a thing of the past.

Make sure that your gateway's firmware is up to date before you configure it. You can upgrade the firmware of the gateways we tested via downloadable patches. Once things are up and running, you probably won't need to change your setup unless you get a new ISP or you want to activate some special firewall features (see " Security Built In" for more on firewall configuration).

The Port Report

Some gateways have sexy-looking cases (we really like the Belkin Components Inc. and Microsoft Corp. designs, and NetGear Inc. and Zoom deserve honorable mention). Appearances aside, though, your gateway should have clear and informative indicator lights, and well-positioned antennas and ports. The Linksys light show leads the way: Its gateway comes with sets of three flashing lights for each of the four ethernet ports (to indicate an active link, data being uploaded or downloaded, and ongoing self-diagnosis), in addition to power, WAN, and wireless-connection indicators. These lights help you diagnose almost any network problem easily. The other gateways have just one light per ethernet port.

Most of the gateways use dual antennas that you can adjust both vertically and horizontally to obtain the best reception. Some of the single-antenna units (like the Microsoft MN-500) have a second antenna built into the case. Positioning the gateway perpendicular to walls and ceilings lets signals pass straight through them instead of at an angle, and thereby avoids increasing the walls' effective thickness. See " 2. Enhance Performance" for additional information on antenna range.

Most of the products have four 10/100 ethernet ports, though the Actiontec and the Proxim Orinoco BG-2000 have only one (Zoom's ZoomAir IG-4165 has two such ports, and SMC's Barricade Plus has three). You'll have to add an ethernet switch if you need to link more computers via wire than the gateway has ports to accommodate. The Belkin F5D6231-4 and the Linksys BEFW11S4 simplify that task by including an uplink port for connecting to another network (as an alternative to the first ethernet port).

The Zoom gateway we reviewed adds a printer port for print serving, and a serial port for dial-up and ISDN connections; the latter can be handy if your broadband connection goes down. D-Link and some of the other vendors offer models containing print servers at an additional cost.

Security Built In

Almost all of the gateways come with WEP switched off as the default setting, and they provide blank or generic passwords for modifying gateway settings. Though this makes setting up the gateway easier, after it's working you should immediately change the password on the router from the factory default, enable WEP, and create a list of authorized users for your wireless network. Otherwise your network is a sitting duck to anyone passing by with a Wi-Fi card.

Hardware firewalls are included in all ten of the gateways we tested. Such hardware is generally more reliable and easier to use than a software firewall like Zone Labs Inc.'s free ZoneAlarm or Internet Security Systems Inc.'s $40 BlackICE PC Protection. For example, you can set a hardware firewall so that your network does not even seem to exist to hackers; it accomplishes this by turning off responses to "ping" requests and closing all ports to incoming traffic not specifically requested by you.

All the gateways we tested support network address translation (NAT), a scheme that hides internal LAN IP addresses from the outside world. Some of the products add stateful packet inspection (SPI), which looks at each packet and determines whether it looks like a denial-of-service or other attack. The Linksys and SMC gateways we tested support SPI.

Virtual private network support provides yet another layer of security. Many companies use VPNs to provide their employees with access to their internal networks and servers from home or while on the road. All the gateways in our roundup support VPN, but check with your IT manager to confirm that it's the right type of VPN for your organization's network. Among the available flavors of VPN are IPSec, PPTP, and L2TP.

To play online games with several clients on your network, or to open more than one VPN tunnel at once, you need a gateway that supports these functions. Some of the products we tested support only one net game or VPN connection at a time. The SMC gateway we tested is a premium model with multiple-client VPN support; that's why it costs $180--$80 more than the company's regular model. (Prices change rapidly in this market.)

There's one other way to get unsecured apps to work over the Internet. All but the Proxim gateway let you set up a DMZ (short for demilitarized zone), in the form of a computer that is completely exposed to the Internet. You should avoid this arrangement in most cases, but if you want to use a public Web server to run an online game on a stand-alone machine (with no personal data on it), DMZ is probably the easiest solution. In many cases, you can create a virtual server that exposes only certain ports, satisfying your gaming needs without opening your entire computer to the world.

Speed Matters, But...

For wireless gateways, the most important aspect of performance is not necessarily speed. Anyone who has used a Wi-Fi--equipped notebook knows that signal strength--your card's ability to receive Wi-Fi data under various conditions--is critical. Signal strength degrades as you move away from the gateway, and so does performance. The 802.11b standard specifies a nominal transfer rate of 11 mbps, which is plenty for most broadband connections. As you start to lose the signal, however, the standard's transfer rate drops dramatically--to 5.5 mbps, 2 mbps, and then 1 mbps. (Real-world throughput is about half these rates.)

The true measure of gateway performance is a combination of throughput and range, which is how far you can stray from the gateway and still get a good signal. Some of the fastest gateways in our tests had relatively poor range.

The test results show each gateway's maximum wireless throughput when it is placed right next to the client computer, where the signal is strongest. Here, the D-Link gateway was the star, thanks to its special 22-mbps Plus mode, a feature of the product's new Texas Instruments Inc. chip set. Expect other gateway vendors to adopt the TI chip set. To get the most out of 22-mbps mode, all client computers on the network need 22-mbps cards, though even 11-mbps clients will show somewhat improved throughput when used with the D-Link gateway.

As the performance chart shows, wireless speed drops a little when you turn on WEP encryption, though you should not let this deter you from using it. Throughput will drop dramatically when several users access the gateway simultaneously. The card in the gateway has a fixed bandwidth that all the client cards must share. Here, the D-Link has a decided advantage if all its clients use 22-mbps adapters.

We tested the gateways' range with an internal Mini-PCI card built into a Toshiba Portege notebook, and with an Orinoco Gold PC Card in the same Portege. We measured the signal strength from about 30 feet and through several walls. The Mini-PCI card exhibited much lower signal strength than the Orinoco card did. The Linksys and Zoom gateways established the strongest connections, while the Actiontec, D-Link, Proxim, and SMC devices were not far behind.

Combining these results with those for throughput and reliability of connection, we rated the D-Link, Linksys, Proxim Inc., and SMC gateways highest in overall wireless performance. Despite some good numbers here and there, the Actiontec Electronics Inc. and Zoom units failed some file transfer tests, encountered problems establishing connections, and had other reliability issues. The Microsoft gateway had the second-slowest wireless performance in our download test. The NetGear MR814 was about average in all our wireless tests. The 3Com and Belkin units had the lowest overall performance scores.

In our wired ethernet performance tests, the D-Link and SMC gateways finished far ahead of the pack, with the Actiontec and Linksys products earning honorable mention. If you perform a lot of file transfers over your wired network (perhaps you have a Web server or you back up files from one hard disk to another), this feature should rate high in your decision making. If you rarely perform wired file transfers, a gateway's wireless performance will be more important.

-- Eric Knorr is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Becky Waring is a freelance writer based in Berkeley, California. Testing was done by Elliott Kirschling, senior performance analyst in the PC World Test Center.

Here's How: Give Others Access to Your Folders

Enabling others on the network to open folders on one computer should be easy, but it's not terribly intuitive, partly because the commands vary with different versions of Windows. As you right-click the folder or drive you want to open up to others, in Windows XP, select Sharing and Security; in Windows 2000, ME, and 98, choose Sharing. After that, you're free to determine the type of access.

Q & A: Answers to Common Network Problems

Question: I installed the software that came with my wireless card. Why is the software so buggy? I'm running Windows XP, which is normally very stable.

Answer: Some installation routines don't make it clear that you may not need to install software for your wireless network adapter under Windows XP, since XP comes with all the software required for many wireless cards. In fact, the software you installed may well have been written for an earlier version of Windows. If you're having trouble, uninstall the software and use Windows XP's own wireless utility. To find the utility, select Start, Control Panel, Network Connections, right-click your wireless connection (which should be identified by the name of your wireless network card), and select Properties. Click the Wireless Networks tab to reveal XP's options.

Question: I can't get my router to connect to my broadband Internet service, and my broadband provider says that it will only explain how to hook up my broadband modem to a single computer. What do I do?

Answer: At first, meekly submit and have your ISP help you set up the connection to your PC. In most cases, you'll need to install the ISP's proprietary software on your PC to navigate to a secure page, obtain a password for logging on, and complete registration chores. During this process, the ISP may grab the unique Media Access Control address of your PC's LAN card to ensure that your computer alone will use the account. While you're talking to tech support, ask for your ISP's preferred and alternate DNS (Domain Name Server--a PC that, for instance, translates your request for www.pcworld. com into a request for 65.220.224.30). Write the DNS digits down along with the password.

Next, determine the MAC address of the computer you used to log on (see " 3. Secure Your Network" to find out how to do this). Now you can set up your router. One of the first options you'll encounter will be "MAC address cloning," which is where you should type in the MAC address of your log-on PC. The router will most likely also require your password, the provider's DNS settings, and the provider's domain name (for instance, "bigpipe.net"), after which it should have all the information it needs to connect. Naturally, if your agreement with your provider stipulates that you may connect only one PC, you might be courting trouble if you hook up an entire network.

Question: What's the best way to back up all the data on my network?

Answer: Use a big external hard disk that has a FireWire or a USB 2.0 connection. You could use CD-RW, tape, or rewritable DVD for backup--but who wants to toil like a 19th-century clerk, scribbling labels and filing away discs or cartridges? A fat new drive will cost a couple of bucks per gigabyte, at most, and it will do its job for a long time without any intervention from you. And if the computer it's attached to dies, you can easily move the external drive to another machine on your network.

As for backup software, use the program that came with your copy of Windows. Windows XP Backup is particularly good, because it can create copies of data files while applications are using them, so you don't need to wait until off-hours to perform backups (and the hard drive's speed will minimize any impact on performance). Two tips: First, Windows XP Backup is not installed by default in Windows XP Home--to install it manually from the Windows XP CD-ROM, navigate to the \valueadd\msft\ntbackup folder and double-click Ntbackup.msi. Second, for Windows XP Backup to work, the folders you want to back up must be shared and must appear in the My Network Places list on the computer doing the backing up.

Best Buy

The clear choices are the D-Link, Linksys, and SMC gateways. The D-Link AirPlus DI-614+ turned in top performance, had excellent firewall features, and set up easily. The Linksys and SMC units stood out among the 11-mbps contingent, with the SMC a particularly good choice if wired connection speed is imporant to you and WEP isn't. The D-Link and Linksys models are ture bargains at $99 each, especially considering that they include Wi-Fi cards, Internet routers, firewalls, and ethernet switches.

Lab Notes: Wireless Clouds Can Fog Reception

While we were evaluating gateways in the PC World Test Center, we discovered that the performance of a wireless network can be greatly affected by the presence of other wireless networks in the vicinity. Before you install a wireless network, determine which of the 11 channels the other wireless networks in your area use; this may involve asking the people running them or looking up settings in each product's setup program. Make sure your channel is at least three settings up or down from any other channel in use nearby.

The download and upload tests: We conducted both tests via wired and wireless connection. For the wireless test, the client was within 3 feet of the gateway. Our setup emulated a client connecting through the gateway to an ISP, but instead of using an actual ISP, we used another PC acting as a server. That way our bandwidth wasn't limited by the ISP. We measured the maximum throughput of the connection through the gateway by transferring a 50MB file. We used Windows XP's built-in FTP client to transfer the files in both directions. Though all the products had more throughput than is typically available over a broadband connection, the throughput was about half the rated maximum for the gateways, indicating the overhead caused by network address translation and other filtering operations performed on the data going through the gateways.

The ping test: This shows the response time of one packet of data going from the client through the gateway to the server. The test indicates how much the gateway will slow down a connection, by measuring the wait time (or latency) it adds between when the signal is sent and when it is received. There was a little variation here, but all the times were pretty low, which tells us that the gateways don't add much latency.

No WEP vs. 64- and 128-bit WEP: We tested all the gateways with Wireless Encryption Protocol data security enabled at both 64 bits and 128 bits. Some of the units, such as the SMC Barricade Plus, took a big performance hit when we turned on WEP; others weren't affected at all. Most of the units showed no difference between 64- and 128-bit WEP, and those that did had only a tiny difference.

- Elliott Kirschling

Share Your Dial-Up Connection

Just about everyone agrees that the best way to share a broadband connection across your network is to use a router. Routers have gotten dirt-cheap, and you don't need to use an always-on host computer. On top of that, the extra security--provided by Network Address Translation (NAT), which conceals local Internet Protocol (IP) addresses from the Internet--comes free. But what happens if your shared broadband connection goes down unexpectedly for a long period, or if your ISP disappears? Sharing your dial-up connection is one option, but be forewarned: Setting it up can be cumbersome.

In this contingency plan, one computer acts as a temporary host so that every computer on the network can use the host's dial-up Internet connection. This is recommended only if you've already set up your network with a Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) server, which assigns a unique IP address to each networked computer.

When you need to share a dial-up connection, you must begin by disabling the router's DHCP server (most router configuration software has a DHCP tab where you'll find the Disable option). Assuming that the PC you intend to use as the host is running Windows 98 Second Edition or later, you can enable Windows' Internet Connection Sharing (ICS) for the dial-up connection.

The ICS utility is included in the default installation of Windows XP. But if your machine runs Windows 98 SE or Me, you'll likely have to install it: Fire up Control Panel, open Add/Remove Programs, and choose the Windows Setup tab. From the list of Windows components, select Internet Tools (or Communications, if the Internet Tools option doesn't appear); then click the Details button and check the Internet Connection Sharing checkbox to install ICS.

At this point, you'll have to use a wizard to establish an Internet connection. Decline the option to create setup disks for other computers on the network, and click the Finish button at the last wizard screen. Then restart the host PC and the other computers on your network. Click your dial-up connection on the host computer, and you should be able to share the connection. If not, on each client computer, right-click My Network Places or Network Neighborhood and choose Properties. On XP and 2000 clients, right-click the local area network connection and choose Properties. In the 'components' or 'items' list, select the TCP/IP entry (don't uncheck its checkbox) and then choose Properties. Make sure that Obtain an IP address automatically is selected, click OK twice, and close the window.

If the host is running Windows 2000 or XP, right-click My Network Places and select Properties. Then right-click your dial-up connection and select Properties. In 2000, select the Sharing tab, check Enable Internet Connection Sharing for this connection, leave Enable on-demand dialing checked, click OK, and close 'Network and Dial-up Connections'. For XP, select the Advanced tab, check all three Internet Connection Sharing options, and click OK. Restart your host and client computers, and you'll be ready to share your dial-up connection.

Just remember to disable Internet Connection Sharing and reenable DHCP in the router when your broadband connection is up and running again. -- PC World (US)

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