Building a home network sounds more difficult than it actually is. With low-cost equipment and a few pointers, you can build yourself a solid, secure network that links your computers over wired and wireless connections — all in less time than you would think.

Getting a Mental Picture of Your Network

Your home network pipes your Internet connection to a device called a router, which distributes that connection to all of the computers in your house, through wired or wireless connections. The computers can also communicate to each other using those same connections, enabling you to share files, printers and other resources.

Choosing a Wireless Technology

Most networks use a combination of cable wired and wireless connections. Wireless is your best bet for notebooks that you want to connect throughout the house, as well as for any desktops that are located in areas where it's not easy to run cables. Before you go shopping for a wireless device, you'll want to identify a wireless standard (named after the engineering standard that defines it) that meets your needs:

  • Wireless A (full name: 802.11a), introduced in 1999, is fast but its range is somewhat limited, especially when the signal must travel through walls and other obstacles.
  • Wireless B (full name: 802.11b), also from 1999, is slower but has a longer range than A; interference from microwave ovens, cordless phones and other sources can be a problem.
  • Wireless G (full name: 802.11g), introduced in 2003, combines the range, speed, and lack of interference of A and B, offering the best of both worlds.
  • Wireless N (full name: 802.11n) is newer, faster, longer-range and more expensive than G. If you plan to use your wireless network for video and other entertainment, N is definitely the better choice, and it's also expected to be around longer. Spending a bit more money now may help to protect your investment down the road.

A Word on Compatibility

Your network will have both a router and network adapters (usually, but not always, built in to the notebook), and each of those devices will be based on one of the above wireless technologies. In some cases, you can mix technologies among adapters and routers — check the compatibility when you buy specific products. This might be useful, for example, if you have notebooks with older adapters in them but want to have faster connections to new equipment.

Tip: Keep in mind that older technology network adapters mixed with newer technology routers will slow down the entire wireless network (including the computers with newer-technology network adapters). Still, A and B can be a good, inexpensive choice for many people.

Time To Go Shopping

Once you have decided what wireless technology to use, you can head to your favorite electronics store or shop online. Refer to the table we've provided to help you make a shopping list and a budget. You'll discover that there are many brands available for each type of equipment — consider purchasing the router and adapter cards from the same manufacturer. Even though all of the equipment is built to the same standards, equipment that is manufactured together tends to be more trouble-free. Best of all, product support, should you need it, will be all in one place.

Tip: Wireless network adapters for desktop computers have different shapes and connectors than those used for notebooks.

Putting it all Together

Along with the documentation that comes with your equipment, the following steps will help you get started (these steps assume that you already have a working Internet connection from your service provider):

  1. Power everything off and disconnect your computer from the cable or DSL modem. In its place, connect your router to the modem.
  2. Using a network cable, connect the computer to the router.
  3. Complete the router setup according to the manufacturer's instructions, and change the password. See the article, "Choosing Good Passwords," for more information.
  4. Install all of the network adapters according to the manufacturer's instructions.
  5. Connect the computers to the router using network cables or wireless adapters, following manufacturer instructions.
  6. Test each computer to be sure that it can connect to the Internet.

Making It Secure

Now it's time to make sure others aren't able to connect to your wireless network. The wireless security options are:

  • WEP (Wireless Equivalency Protocol)
  • WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access)

Both protect your wireless network by using a code based on a secret key that you provide. However, WEP is less secure than WPA, and hacker software is available to break into WEP networks.

Along with the documentation that comes with your equipment, the following steps will get you started on beefing up the security. (Note: The settings on both the router and all wireless network adapters must be the same.)

  1. Select the security type (WEP or WPA). For WEP, choose 64-bit security (which uses shorter keys but is less secure) or 128-bit (which uses longer keys but is more secure). For WPA, choose an algorithm — Temporal Key Integrity Protocol (TKIP) or Advanced Encryption Standard (AES). AES, a government-strength standard, is typically the better choice unless you need to remain compatible with an existing TKIP-based network.
  2. Enter the shared key or passphrase. Many routers can generate keys automatically. You can save this key to a text file to make it easier to re-enter on each computer.
  3. For WPA, set the group key renewal period. This period is the amount of time that will pass before the router changes the keys — an added security measure built into WPA. You can generally use the default setting.