Networking / Beginners

Choosing a Network and Cabling System

For a simple home or small office network, there are four reasonable network hardware alternatives:

  • 10BASE-T Ethernet over unshielded twisted pair (UTP) wiring
  • 100BASE-T or Fast Ethernet, over high-quality CAT-5 UTP Ethernet wiring
  • Wireless networking using radio signals transmitted through antennas or carried through your telephone wiring
  • Phone-line networking, which sends radio signals over the same wiring used by your telephones

Today, there is virtually no price difference between 10BASE-T and dual-speed 10/100BASE-T equipment, so it's easy to eliminate the slower 10BASE-T option from consideration.

The choice, then, is between wired 100BASE-T Ethernet, wireless, phone-line, and power-line networking. You might consider the following points in making your decision:

  • Phone-line networking requires that you have a telephone jack next to each computer that you want to connect, and the jacks must all carry the same telephone extension. If you have this in place now, phone-line networking is a decent option. On the other hand, if you'd have to have one or more new phone jacks installed, you might as well spend the same money running wired Ethernet cables.
  • The newest generation of "HomePlug" power-line networking supports an adequate 14Mbps maximum transfer rate and requires no additional cabling, as long as all of your home or office's power outlets are served by the same utility transformer. You can't roam about with power-line networking, but you don't have to worry about signal fade-out. HomePlug network adapters are about as expensive as wireless adapters.
  • Wired Ethernet is the cheapest option, and it also provides the fastest data transfers. If you're going to copy a lot of data across your network, this is a big plus. On the other hand, if you're primarily adding a network to share your Internet connection, any of these network technologies will do.
  • Wireless networking costs a bit more but saves the hassle of running cables. It works best if your computers are within, say, 50 feet of each other indoors, or 150 feet if separated by open space. If you choose wireless networking, you'll have to choose one of the three technologies currently in use: 802.11b, 802.11a, or 802.11g; the numbers refer to compatibility standards published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers International (IEEE).

You can also use a combination of these technologies in the same network. For example, you might use a wired network to attach several computers in close proximity, and add a wireless access point to extend your network to other areas of your home or office.

If you are only creating a network that will connect two computers so that you can perform some one-time file transfers, there are a few of other options you may want to consider:

  • If your computers are both running Windows XP and both have FireWire adapters, you can simply connect the two computers with a "6-6" FireWire cable.
  • If both computers have Ethernet adapters, you can connect the two adapters together directly, without using a hub, with what's called an Ethernet crossover cable.
  • You can buy a parallel printer cable or serial data cable to use with Windows "Direct Cable Connection." This can cost as much as adding network hardware

For a one-time transfer, these techniques can save you the trouble of setting up a full-scale network.

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