Home Computer Networks 101

Guide to Wired and Wireless Home Networking

Man looking at a woman working on a laptop
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This page serves as your starting point for learning about the world of home computer networking, step by step. We will teach you all of the basics of home network planning, installation, and troubleshooting assuming no prior knowledge of network technology.

Background

Computer networks have existed for more than thirty years, but only relatively recently have they become popular in homes. In 1999, only a few hundred thousand households in the United States possessed a home network, although many more "expressed interest" in having one.

Today, many millions of households in the U.S. and worldwide have adopted home computer networking. Millions more have yet to build their first home network. Even those who've previously taken the plunge are now beginning to revamp their networks for wireless - the current wave of useful technology for home networking.

Depending on your present goals and past experience, varying types of information may be relevant to your situation. Use the outline below as a comprehensive guide to your personal research.

Do I Really Need a Home Computer Network?

Some of you likely share files between your computers using floppy disks or USB keys. A home network allows you to share these files much faster and more conveniently by utilizing the available connections between computers. Home networks allow sharing of other things, too, like a printer and an Internet connection. Finally, home networks create the possibility to use new applications like multi-player online games.

Home Networking Outline

    Next > Planning a New Home Network

    Before purchasing and installing equipment, determine your needs. The location of your computer(s), printer(s) and other devices you want to connect can affect your network design. Some systems may already contain built-in networking capability while others may not.

    Those devices that need network capability added, probably support only certain kinds of network gear. Take care to buy compatible gear.

    If you desire shared Internet access, be sure to factor this into your design. Other important factors in network design include reach and speed.

    Finally, consider both present and future needs in your plan. How many computers will your network have in the next year or two? A network with just two computers can involve a very different design than a network with five, for example.

    Use our interactive network advisor tool to walk you through the factors to consider when designing your home network:

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    Wired vs Wireless Networking

    The home networker can choose from either wireless or wired designs. Wireless networks provide more mobility to a person in and around their home, and they make especially good sense for laptop networking. Networks with wires or cables, on the other hand, usually cost less than wireless, may perform faster and more reliably, and make good sense for desktop networking. Choosing between wired and wireless options can be difficult, but making an informed decision here can save money and increase one's overall satisfaction with their home network.

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    Next > Purchasing Home Network Equipment

    With a suitable design chosen, you are ready to acquire the equipment needed to build the home network. Several forms of network hardware exist, each serving a specialized purpose.

    Most home network designs have as their foundation a centerpiece device such as a router. Use our interactive router advisor tool to walk you through the selection of a suitable network router:

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    Next > Assembling the Home Network

    Now that you have the needed equipment, assembling the home network should be straightforward. However, the exact details will vary depending on the network's design. In particular, wireless network connections involve different installation methods than wired ones.

    As a general rule, its best to set up the network centerpiece first (if any), then configure each of the computers and other devices to join the network one at a time.

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    Next > Using Your Home Network

    Common Home Networking Problems to Avoid

    Computer networks bring many good things into the home: more convenient Internet access, sharing of files and printers, additional home entertainment options, and so on. Yet home network technology also poses challenges. Many folks don't know where to start. Things often don't work right the first time. Sometimes, people settle for an inferior setup and never realize the full potential of their home network. The advice below helps you steer clear of these common problems.

    Operating Systems and Home Networking

    The network operating system (NOS) plays a key role on the home network. The operating system is the glue between your network gear and your applications.

    Read more: About network operating systems

    Home Internet Service

    Although you do not need Internet (Net) access to benefit from a home network, a majority of home networkers want to share an Internet connection. Depending on where you live, several different form of Internet service might be available, includingThe choice of Internet service has ramifications for your home network planning.

    Home Network Security

    Hooking a home network to the Internet can be dangerous! If you can access information on the public Net, its very possible that people on the Net can access your information too. Fortunately, several different technologies are available to help you keep your home network relatively safe from attackers (often called "hackers"). Bottom line: security features should be installed and tested on everyone's home network.

    Troubleshooting a Home Network

    Installing a home network for the first time can be frustrating, but the frustration passes quickly once the basics have been understood and your system is running. A few months may pass without problems, but inevitably, nasty trouble with the network will appear at some point. Maybe the kids can't get to the Internet or their network game keeps crashing. Maybe file sharing suddenly stops working. Maybe everything stops working. A small amount of knowledge can go a long way in finding and fixing these problems quickly while keeping the family peace.

    Advanced Home Networking

    Have you always wanted to learn how to program computers, or build Web pages and a Web site? With a home network, these and other more advanced skills might be within your reach. There was a time in computer networking where much of the important technical information was kept in the heads of engineers and passed along through a kind of "oral tradition." Thankfully, we've matured in this field and now nearly anything about networking is accessible to people with patience and a willingness to learn. Your home network can function as a development environment for you to experiment and practice with technology.

    The Future of Home Networking

    The home networks we use today will look nothing like the networks of twenty years from now. From the computers we use to the applications we run, the future of home networking should be very exciting. Some people believe, thanks to an area of computer networking called home automation, our refrigerators and toasters will even become intelligent! Most importantly, perhaps someday every family that wants to own a home network will be able to do so. No doubt we will be proud to tell our grandchildren of our experiences in these "pioneer days" of home networking, and they will laugh at us accordingly.

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