Ten years ago, or even five, the words "computer network" gave most people visions of science labs, huge bureaucratic offices,
or at least windowless rooms where folks wearing pocket protectors hid from the rest of us—especially if you'd just
mentioned being the proud owner of a new home PC. But, like that new PC, networking has crept from the lab and the office
to the home.
Today, many households have at least one computer for each member. And the "rest of us" are starting to realize that with
computer networks we can:
Share one Internet connection. Everyone can surf—at the same time.
Share printers and other hardware. Like many scanners and other peripherals.
Share files. Without walking back and forth or waiting for e-mail.
Play games together. Humble your parents, amuse your kids.
Even if you're a relatively new PC owner, you may already know that networking your computers lets you do these things.
What you might not know is how affordable and straightforward it is to set up a network at home.
Who Needs a Network?
You might not think you need one, even if the benefits sound good. But if you have a busy household or small business,
you should seriously consider networking. Networks need some hardware that doesn't come with your PC, and setting up a network
can take up a big part of the day. But consider the advantages carefully. A modest investment of time up front can come back
to you many times over.
Small businesses have the most obvious need for a network: Work slows down when people need to share files, or printers,
or an Internet connection. Buying more hardware (like printers) or Internet connections is costly, sharing files by physically
walking them back and forth takes time, and e-mail is woefully inefficient for sharing files. A network is usually the only
Home computer users don't always see the need for a network as urgently as business owners do. It can take months before
it's clear to everyone, for instance, that there will always be a dispute over who gets to use the Internet or printer
right this minute. And the benefits of simple file sharing may not become really obvious until you've had them so long you
take them for granted: you don't have to go upstairs to help with homework, you don't have to make time to sit together to
review paperwork, you can enjoy anyone's music and pictures without taking up space on multiple hard drives or getting up
from your computer.
The advantages of file sharing grow more evident as more things—taxes, for example—go from being paper-based
to computer-based. In programs like Microsoft Excel and Word, you can edit documents without losing the original content.
Without even being in the house at the same time, two people can have a detailed discussion about anything filed on a computer.
Conveniences like these take on greater significance in projects that give everyone headaches—and can eliminate hurdles
like, "we just haven't had the time to sit down together..."