If you find yourself running to your kid’s room to print a colour document, waiting for your turn at the one computer in the house that has high-speed Internet access, or unplugging a telephone so you can connect the cord to your laptop and check email messages from the couch, it’s time to set up a home network.



A home network can not only simplify your life but also greatly expand how and where you use your Macs. With a network, you can print files, search the Web, and check messages no matter where you are in the house. Better yet, you can listen to music saved on another computer, stream your music through a stereo, share photos, keep a collective calendar that’s always up-to-date, and much more.



Modern home networks are elegant, flexible, and relatively easy to set up, but no solution is right for everyone. To create a network that truly complements the way you and your family live, you’ll need to make some decisions based on the unique layout of your home and on how you use your computers. In this guide, I’ll show you how to choose the gear that’s right for you, how to set it up, and how to share your data with the rest of your network.



At its most basic level, a network is nothing more than a group of connected computers and devices that can share information (see “The basics”). What makes one type of network different from another is how those devices are connected.



There are two main types of network connections, Ethernet and wireless. Both of these technologies offers unique advantages and disadvantages that depend on how your home is built (its physical layout, materials, and wiring), where your devices are located, how quickly the data needs to travel, and how much money you’re willing to invest in the project.



Although you can limit your network to just one type of connection – by going completely wireless, for example – in many cases you’ll get the best results by mixing and matching these technologies to address the specific challenges of each part of your network.



But to do that, you’ll need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each technology and how they fit together in a larger home network. (For a real-world scenario that puts these technologies to work, see “Putting it all together”).



Ethernet networks

If you’re just looking to connect the computers and peripherals in a single room – to set up a home office, for example – an Ethernet network is probably your easiest and least-expensive option. Ethernet ports come standard on every shipping Mac. And Ethernet cable is relatively inexpensive – you can get a 5-foot cable for under a fiver.



More importantly, Ethernet networks are fast – which makes them ideal for transferring large files, such as digital-video or Photoshop files, from one computer to another.



Ethernet is by far the fastest networking technology available on the Mac. (For a comparison of networking speeds, see “Clocking your network”, page 80). The two most common Ethernet standards, 10BaseT and 100BaseT, can transfer data at speeds of 10Mbps and 100Mbps, respectively. Wireless networks top out at 54Mbps, and that’s running at peak performance. In 2001, Apple began including 1,000BaseT Ethernet – which can transfer a whopping gigabit of data per second – in all of its high-end laptops and desktop systems.



Realistically, very few home users will ever require enough bandwidth to justify the considerable expense of a Gigabit Ethernet hub. In fact, even the fastest broadband Internet connection runs at a mere 6Mbps. (the majority of broadband connections run at 512kbps). As a rule, unless you plan to transfer video or other high-bandwidth data across your network, 100Mbps is more than enough to handle all your home-network needs.



Ethernet becomes less practical when you’re networking over long distances and between multiple rooms. To connect the Power Mac G5 in your upstairs office to the family iMac in the living room, for instance, you’ll need to either run unattractive cable underneath rugs and over door frames, or drill into walls to string cable between the rooms – no easy task.



Running Ethernet cable through your entire house can also be expensive. To get optimal performance, you’ll need to hire a professional who can install the wires inside your walls and then test them to make sure they’re transferring at the appropriate speeds.



In general, unless you really need the additional network speed that Ethernet offers – for example, to transfer video files from one Mac to another, you’ll be better off choosing one of the other networking options for long-distance connections.



Wireless Networks

If your computer line-up includes one or more laptops, creating a wireless (or WiFi) connection is an obvious choice. A WiFi network lets users connect to the Internet, check email messages, print documents, and share files from anywhere within 150 feet of the wireless router.



However, computers don’t have to roam to take advantage of a WiFi network. Desktops can also join the wireless connection. In fact, since 1999, Apple has equipped every new Mac with a wireless antenna and an internal slot for a wireless network card. This makes WiFi a good choice if you need to connect several stationary computers in multiple rooms but don’t want the hassle of stringing cable – especially if you’re already setting up a WiFi network to accommodate a laptop.



Wireless networking does have a few downsides. First, WiFi networks are relatively slow compared with Ethernet networks. Macs currently support two different WiFi standards: 802.11b (Apple refers to this as AirPort), which tops out at 11Mbps; and the newer and faster 802.11g (also known as AirPort Extreme), which offers a maximum throughput of 54Mbps. In the real world, however, WiFi networks rarely reach these speeds. Most AirPort and AirPort Extreme networks average about 3 and 25Mbps, respectively.



To make matters worse, wireless networks tend to slow down as you move farther from the base station. So if you own a large home, your wireless signal may drop off in distant rooms. If you find your wireless signal is weak, consider buying an external antenna to boost the signal.



If speed isn’t a big concern for you – which may be the case if you use your network primarily to surf the Web and check messages – a WiFi network should fit the bill.



WiFi networks are also less stable than other types of connections. Many obstacles can hinder wireless signals: walls and metal – such as the steel in large buildings and metal framing – as well as 2.4GHz cordless phones, Bluetooth devices, and microwaves. In my experience, phones are the most notorious troublemakers. If you’re often stuck with an intermittent or a weak connection – or no connection at all – check to see whether someone is on the cordless phone or popping a bag of popcorn whenever the connection goes south. If that’s the case, try to adjust the router’s settings to better block the interference. If you own an AirPort Base Station, for example, you can use the AirPort Admin Utility to do this. Click on the Show All Settings button and then on the Wireless Options button. When the Options window opens, activate the Enable Interference Robustness option.



Finally, WiFi is the least-secure networking option. If you’re not careful, it’s quite easy to give free Internet access to anyone who lives within 100 to 200 feet of your wireless network. Worse, if you don’t set up your network correctly, someone with a mischievous mind could break into your network and steal valuable information. If you live in a neighbourhood where houses are fairly close together or in an apartment building, you’ll want to make sure you’ve turned on the security features built into your wireless router (see “Don’t give it away”).



Using the network

Once you’ve set up your gear, you’re ready to take advantage of your new network – surfing the Internet, sharing printers, streaming music, and more. Apple’s Rendezvous networking technology, which is built into the Jaguar and Panther operating systems, has greatly simplified finding and communicating with other devices on your network. However, you’ll still need to adjust some settings yourself.



Sharing your Internet connection

One of the key reasons to create a network is to share a single broadband connection with all the computers on your network. But in many cases, you can’t simply plug a hub into the modem supplied by your ISP and start sharing your Internet connection.



Every computer connected to the Internet needs a unique address, called an IP address, which identifies it to all the other computers on the Internet. When you sign up for an Internet account, however, your ISP typically provides you with just one address. So how do you identify the other five computers on your network?



In OS X, you can turn on the Internet Sharing option in the Sharing preference pane to let one Mac handle all your Internet traffic. But a better option is to use a router that supports Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) and Network Address Translation (NAT). These work together to assign each computer on your network an address, which the router can use to direct incoming data to the correct computer.



When a router sees a computer on your network for the first time, it uses DHCP to assign that computer an address that’s just for use on your network. When that computer tries to connect to the Internet anywhere outside your home network, the router – which is using the single Internet address your ISP assigned to you – relays that request to the Internet, with a special notation that indicates which computer on your home network the request came from. When a reply comes back, your router looks at the unique mark and passes the data back to the appropriate computer on your home network. This process of using a router as a go-between for your home network and the Internet is known as NAT.



It’s important to note that most cable and DSL modems supplied by ISPs don’t offer NAT. So if you want to share your single address with other computers, you may need to purchase a third-party broadband router, such as those from Linksys or Belkin (see “Where to buy”).



Alternatively, you can purchase additional IP addresses from your ISP.



Sharing files and printers

To transfer documents or other files between the Macs on your network, or to access a printer connected to another machine, you’ll need to turn on File Sharing for each computer.



Enable sharing

To provide access to your Mac from other machines, open Mac OS X’s Sharing preference pane and click on the Services button (see “Sharing with others”). Make sure that the name listed in the Computer Name field uniquely identifies this Mac. This is how other users on the network will identify your computer. If the name listed isn’t unique – or if you simply don’t like it – you can change it by clicking the Edit button. In the Service menu, turn on the Personal File Sharing option. To give others access to a connected printer, turn on the Printer Sharing option. Then click on Start. Keep in mind that your Mac will need to be on and awake to allow others to access the printer.



If you want to provide access to a USB printer but don’t want to keep your Mac running 24 hours a day, you’ll need to connect the printer directly to your network. That’s no problem if you own Apple’s AirPort Extreme Base Station, which offers a USB port for sharing a compatible USB printer over your wireless network. Otherwise, you may want to consider investing in a USB print server such as the Linksys PSUS4, which you can find for around $55 online (www.linksys.com).



Access networked Macs

To access files on another computer, open the Finder’s Go menu and select Connect To Server. In the Server Address field, enter the name of the computer you want to access, then click Connect. If you’re not sure of the name, click Browse to see all computers on your network.



Unless you have your own user account on the selected Mac, you’ll be able to open files only in the user’s Public folder. You can save files onto the networked Mac by placing them in the Drop Box folder located inside each user’s Public folder. The Drop Box is similar to a mail slot: you can place files in it, but you can’t open the folder to see what’s there. To access a shared printer connected to another computer, open the Printer pull-down menu in any Print dialog box and select the desired printer from the Shared Printers menu item.



Sharing photos and music

Thanks to Mac OS X’s Rendezvous networking technology, sharing music and photos with other Mac users on your network is simply a matter of turning on the appropriate setting in your iTunes and iPhoto preference panes.



But if you want to share your music and photos with devices Rendezvous doesn’t support – such as a streaming music server connected to your home stereo – you may need to adjust some settings. To access one of these devices, you’ll need to enter its IP address. This will be a problem if your router is configured to generate an IP address dynamically. It’s best to assign a static IP address instead, so you’ll always know where to find these devices.



The last word

With new networking gear arriving on shelves every day, there’s never been a better time to set up a home network. Set up correctly, it lets you maximize all your computing resources, minimize your need for duplicate equipment, and ensure that everyone in your home or small office has access to the Internet, to printers, and to the files they need. And by matching your gear to the specific challenges and needs of your setup, you can build a network that is every bit as unique as your home. MW



Don’t give it away

One downside to setting up a network is the potential for inadvertently sharing your data or your high-speed network connection with unauthorized users. Wireless networks are particularly sensitive to security breaches. Because your network is travelling over the airwaves, it’s accessible to anyone around you who has a wireless network adaptor in his or her computer.



To protect yourself from wireless snoops, take time to turn on some of the security features built into your wireless router. For example, it’s a good idea to activate WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) or WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) encryption when setting up your router. Both WEP and WPA encrypt the data that crosses your wireless network. Users who want to join your network must then enter a password. Of the two, WPA offers the highest level of security. However, you must have Panther installed to take advantage of it.



Wired networks are generally more secure than wireless ones. If your router uses DHCP and NAT to assign IP addresses dynamically to the rest of your network, you’re already getting a minimum level of protection, since your internal computers are essentially masked from the rest of the world. Security is more of an issue if you have a static IP address because outsiders can use that address to access your computer.



If security is a big concern for you, consider purchasing a router that includes an integrated firewall. Firewalls act as barriers, keeping anyone outside your network from hacking in.



At the very least, consider turning on Mac OS X’s integrated Firewall software. To do this, open the Sharing preference pane, click on the Firewall tab, and then click on the Start button. You can also install individual third-party firewall software on each Mac.



Ethernet networks

Ideal use: Home offices; transferring large files.

Pros: Very fast; standard on all current Macs; inexpensive over short distances.

Cons: Expensive over long distances; connecting multiple rooms requires unsightly cables or drilling holes in the wall; may require professional installation to guarantee highest speeds.

Average Cost: Cable, £1 to £2 per metre; five-port 100BaseT hub, £35; router, £45. Prices vary on pro installation – get at least two quotes.



Wireless networks

Ideal Use: Networks that include one or more laptops.

Pros: Lets you connect to the network from anywhere within range; no cable clutter.

Cons: Network slows down as you move away from the router; walls, phones, microwaves, and Bluetooth devices can cause interference; the least secure of all networks; networking multiple computers can be expensive.

Average Cost: 802.11g wireless router, £80; 802.11g wireless network adaptor, £79 per Mac.



The basics

Considering all the confusion that surrounds networking terminology, the process of setting up a basic home network is surprisingly straightforward. Regardless of the type of network you’re building, the basic pieces of equipment are essentially the same. You’ll need a modem, a router, at least one hub, and a network adaptor for each computer. Although I show each part of the network as a separate piece of hardware, companies often combine several functions in one device. For example, a DSL modem may also serve as a router. While this crossover cuts down on the number of devices you have to buy, it can also make shopping confusing.



What you need



Cable or DSL modem

A modem is essentially a doorway that connects your internal network to the outside world. Often your ISP gives you a free modem when you sign up for cable or DSL service.

Router

A modem opens or closes the connection to the Internet. To direct the traffic coming through that connection, you’ll need a router. A router is an intelligent piece of hardware that looks at every piece of data en route and figures out whether to send it to a location inside your network or route it out to the Internet.



The router then passes the incoming data to the rest of your network via radio waves (if it’s a wireless device) or via a cable. Wireless routers are sometimes referred to as wireless gateways or access points. Apple’s AirPort Extreme Base Station is a wireless router with perks – such as a USB printer port – thrown in.



A router is one of the few pieces of networking hardware you’ll need to configure before using. Most companies include the necessary software and instructions in the box.



Hub

To connect desktop Macs and other wired devices to your network, you need a hub. This piece of hardware sits in the middle of your network like a traffic roundabout, letting data get from one device to another. Hubs are typically differentiated by the number of Ethernet ports they offer. You’ll need one port for every wired device you plan to add to your network.



Many routers include extra network connections, allowing them to function as both a router and a network hub.



Network adaptor

This is the part of your computer that sends and receives data across the local network. In the case of wired connections, the network adaptor is your Mac’s Ethernet port. For wireless connections, you’ll need to have a wireless network adaptor, such as an AirPort card, installed in your Mac.



Don’t give it away

One downside to setting up a network is the potential for inadvertently sharing your data or your high-speed network connection with unauthorized users. Wireless networks are particularly sensitive to security breaches.

Because your network is travelling over the airwaves, it’s accessible to anyone around you who has a wireless network adaptor in his or her computer.



To protect yourself from wireless snoops, take time to turn on some of the security features built into your wireless router. For example, it’s a good idea to activate WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) or WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) encryption when setting up your router. Both WEP and WPA encrypt the data that crosses your wireless network. Users who want to join your network must then enter a password. Of the two, WPA offers the highest level of security. However, you must have Panther installed to take advantage of it.



Wired networks are generally more secure than wireless ones. If your router uses DHCP and NAT to assign IP addresses dynamically to the rest of your network, you’re already getting a minimum level of protection, since your internal computers are essentially masked from the rest of the world. Security is more of an issue if you have a static IP address because outsiders can use that address to access your computer.



If security is a big concern for you, consider purchasing a router that includes an integrated firewall. Firewalls act as barriers, keeping anyone outside your network from hacking in.



At the very least, consider turning on Mac OS X’s integrated Firewall software. To do this, open the Sharing preference pane, click on the Firewall tab, and then click on the Start button. You can also install individual third-party firewall software on each Mac.



Putting it all together

No one type of network is right for every situation. To get the best coverage and the easiest setup, you’ll often need to combine different networking technologies to match the unique challenges of your home.



Consider our example family – we’ll call them the Williamses. They want to share the high-speed Internet connection in the upstairs office with the rest of their computers and Internet-ready devices. They’d also like to share their collective music libraries – in hopes of eliminating the epidemic of vanishing CDs – and access their inkjet and laser printers from any computer in the house. Here’s how the Williamses solved their problems.



Portable power

Because he and his daughter own laptops, Steven Williams knew he needed a wireless network that could extend to most areas of the house – including the outdoor patio. So he decided to use Apple’s AirPort Extreme Base Station as the network’s main router.



To get the wireless network started, Steven runs an Ethernet cable from the DSL modem in the office to the WAN port on the AirPort Base Station . Because he needs to configure the Base Station before setting up the rest of the network, he temporarily connects an Ethernet cable from the Base Station’s LAN port to the Ethernet port on a nearby Mac and runs Apple’s AirPort Setup Assistant software.



Once the router is up and running, Steven inserts AirPort cards in the iMac in his son’s room. (The laptops already had cards in them.)

Finally, to provide access to the inkjet printer attached to his son’s iMac, Steven opens up the iMac’s Sharing preference pane and turns on the Printer Sharing option. Because the iMac will have to be on and awake for others to use the printer, Steven also sets the iMac’s Energy Saver preference pane to never go to sleep.



In the office

Lauren Williams and her business partner run a small design company out of the family’s home office. Because she needs a lot of bandwidth to exchange large graphics files with her partner, she’s decided to set up an Ethernet network for all the office equipment.



First she unplugs the Ethernet cable between the Base Station and the office Mac (which Steven had used to configure the Base Station), and instead connects the Base Station to an Ethernet hub . She then runs separate Ethernet cables from both office computers to the hub.



Because the laser printer has an Ethernet port, she can connect it to the network by plugging it into the Ethernet hub. However, because the network router is an AirPort Base Station, Lauren could also have shared the USB printer by connecting it directly to the Base Station’s USB port.



Out of reach

The most difficult room in the house is the basement – better known to the kids as the Game Lair. Because their Xbox system is too far away from the AirPort Base Station to get a decent signal, and because their parents refuse to pay for an additional phone line, the kids currently can’t use their Xbox to compete against others online – creating a serious social stigma.



To solve this problem Steven connects an AirPort Express base station into a wall outlet in the office, which wirelessly connects to the nearest other base station. He then runs a cable from the AirPort Express to the Xbox.



Expanding the network

Once they have the basic network set up, the Williams family will have no problem adding other devices and computers to it.



For example, since he’s gone to all the trouble of setting up a wireless network, Steven decides to take full advantage of it by connecting a wireless receiver to the living-room stereo system. That way he can listen to his laptop’s iTunes playlists – as well as Internet radio stations from all over the world – while he works in the living room. Of course, he could also have connected the receiver to the network via a second AirPort Express.

Clocking your network

Network speeds compared
Network connection Raw Speed
(in Mbps)
Notes
Broadband Internet
Cable modem 2 Speed varies according to whether you’re using a dedicated line or a shared line.
DSL Modem 1.5 Speed varies dramatically according to where you’re located in he country and how far you are from the service hub. In some cases, DSL connections range from 128Kbps to as high as 768Kbps. Some newer providers promise speeds as high as 6Mbps.
Ethernet
10BaseT 10 To gain the highest speeds possible, you’ll need to make sure all of your 100BaseT 100 networking hardware and wiring is capable of handling data at those speeds.
100BaseT 100
1,000BaseT (Gigabit Ethernet) 1,000
WiFi
Aitport Express 54 Speed varies widely depending on your distance from the base station and potential interference from outside sources, such as walls and wireless telephones. Most connections range from 3Mbps (for AirPort) to 25Mbps (for AirPort Extreme).



Whether we’re talking about cars or computers, we generally assume that faster is better. But when it comes to building a home network, the issue of speed is a little more complex.



For one thing, all of your network’s different parts affect its overall speed. Ethernet and WiFi technology all transfer data at very different rates (see “Networking speeds compared”, above). Ultimately, your network is only as fast as its slowest device. So despite the fact that the Ethernet port on your G5 can transfer a gigabit of data per second, if your network hub can handle only 10Mbps, your data will travel only at 10Mbps.



If speed is important to you – which may be the case if you transfer large files from one device to another – you’ll want to make sure every piece of equipment between your computer and the destination is optimized for speed. For maximum throughput, go to Apple’s specifications database (www.info.apple.com/support/applespec.html) to figure out how fast your Mac’s network card is and then choose hubs and routers that match or exceed its speed.



But before you invest in faster – and significantly more expensive – networking gear, consider whether you really need it. By far the biggest bottleneck in any network is the Internet connection. Even if your network runs only at a paltry 10Mbps, that’s nearly ten times faster than the data entering your network from the Internet. So if you’re not transferring files, there’s little advantage to investing in high-speed equipment.



Apple AirPort

Now that Apple has two AirPort products it would be easy to get them mixed up. AirPort Extreme is the base station, this is n