A computer network is, simply put, two or more computers or electronic devices connected together. When the devices are connected, they can share files and other data between them. That’s all well and good, but why would you need a network in your home? Or put differently, how can you use a home network?
Sharing the Internet
Perhaps the most common reason people set up home networks today is to share an Internet connection. That is, you have a single Internet connection coming into your house, and you want every computer and smartphone and video game console in your home to access that connection. Well, to do this, you need to set some sort of home network — even if you never intend to do more sophisticated computer-related networking, such as sharing files or peripherals.
Sharing an Internet connection involves connecting your broadband modem to a network router, and then connecting all of your computers and devices to that router. The modem typically connects to the router via a short cable, while your computers and other devices more often than not connect wirelessly.
NOTE: A router is the hub for all the devices connected to a network.
With this type of setup, each device connected to your network can independently access the Internet. One computer can be checking email while another surfs the web and a third is playing games or accessing Facebook. In addition, all of your iPhones and iPads and Xbox consoles can also connect to the Internet over your network, all at the same time, all doing different things. When you get everything connected, that single Internet connection coming from your home becomes a big pipe that transmits data to and from each of the connected computers, all thanks to networking technology.
Streaming Movies and Music
After you connect your network to the Internet and all of your devices to your network, you can then access anything on the Internet. You can check your email, surf a variety of websites, follow your friends on Facebook or Twitter, or even do a little online shopping.
You can also use your Internet connection to watch movies and TV shows, as well as listen to your favorite music. Streaming audio and video is the latest way to access truly personalized entertainment; you can watch your shows and listen to your music on your schedule, not at the whim of some network executive.
In terms of streaming video, we’re talking services such as Hulu and Netflix, both of which offer movies and television programming for free or a low monthly subscription price. As to streaming music, services like Spotify and Last.fm provide millions of tracks that you can listen to at your choosing.
Naturally, you can use your Internet-connected computer to access streaming media. But, you’re not limited to watching videos on your computer screen; many widescreen TVs and Blu-ray players are Internet-enabled, specifically for accessing streaming video services. You can also use network media players, such as Apple TV, to stream video from the Internet to your living room TV.
It’s the same thing with streaming audio. Yes, you can listen through the tiny speakers in your notebook computer, but you can also use Internet-enabled A/V receivers and network media players to stream music from the Internet through the larger speakers in your home audio system. When you’re connected in this fashion, you may find yourself dropping your cable or satellite TV subscription, and getting all of your entertainment over the Internet. You couldn’t do that without a home network!
If you’re a movie or music lover, you’re not limited to just streaming audio and video from the Internet. You can also use your network to share media stored locally, on one of your home computers.
Let’s say that you have your main computer or server in your office, and stored on its hard disk are thousands of digital audio files that you’ve ripped from CDs or downloaded from the Internet. If you want to listen to those tracks in your living room, over your home audio system, how do you do it?
The solution involves connecting that main computer to your home network, and then serving those files over the network to another computer or device connected to your home audio system. You don’t have to copy the files from your main PC, or store them twice on multiple devices.
TIP: You can even share your audio files with multiple devices in multiple rooms, creating a multi-room audio system over your network. All you have to do is connect those devices to your network, and you can play different tunes in different rooms, at the same time.
The same concept applies to other types of digital media-movies and other videos, digital photographs, you name it. Store the movies or photos on any PC with
a big hard drive, and view them on any PC or media player located in your living room (or any other room in your house, for that matter).
Sharing and Backing Up Files
When you have more than one computer connected to your network, it’s easy to share files between those computers. It’s certainly a lot easier than trying to share files without a network.
If your computers aren’t networked together, you’d have to copy a file from your first computer to some sort of physical media, such as a CD-ROM or USB memory drive, walk that CD or USB drive to a second computer, and then copy the files from that drive to the second PC. This “sneaker net” process is time consuming and may not even be possible if your files are larger than the storage medium can hold.
When you connect your computers to a network, file sharing gets a lot easier. All you have to do is use your computer’s operating system to copy the files from one computer to another, which is similar to copying files from one folder to another on the same computer. There’s nothing physical to handle, no size constraints, and the entire process is a lot less time consuming; the copying is almost instantaneous.
Beyond the increased convenience, you can also open files stored on one computer from a second computer-no copying needed. That’s right, one computer can store the file while another computer opens it; a single file can thus be shared between multiple users on multiple computers. This saves on disc space, because you don’t have to duplicate that file on each computer.
There’s another benefit to copying and sharing files between computers: the ability to back up your data files from one computer to another. You can use one computer (or an external hard drive connected to that computer) to store the backup data from a second computer, and vice versa. It’s a quick and easy way to create backup copies of all of your important data files.
Sharing Printers and Other Equipment
Just as a network lets you share files between multiple computers, it can also let you share computer peripherals between those same PCs. That is, you can connect a single peripheral, such as a printer or scanner, to your network and then access that peripheral from any network PC.
Let’s take the most common example of this practice: the network printer. Without a network, you would have to purchase separate printers for each individual PC in your home or office. With a network, however, you only need a single printer. Connect that printer to any network PC, and then all the other PCs on the network can access and print to that printer. One printer for multiple PCs…it’s a real cost saver.
There are variations on this theme, of course. First, you can connect more than one printer to the network, and thus let any computer print to either printer. This is a good approach if you have a black-and-white letter printer and a color photo printer, for example.
Second, you don’t have to connect a printer to a networked PC. Many newer printers are so-called network printers, which means that they can connect directly to your network (often wirelessly), no intermediate PC required. Network printers are actually easier to set up and access from all devices connected to your network.
Finally, you’re not limited to sharing printers. You can share all sorts of other peripherals over your network, including scanners and external hard disks. If you can connect it to a computer, you can share it over your network.
Cutting the Cable
Remember how I previously defined a network as connecting two or more computers or similar devices? That number (two) isn’t hard and fast; you can create a network with just a single computer.
The best example of this involves a portable PC and an Internet connection.
Normally, you’d have to connect this single PC via a short cable to your broadband Internet modem. This type of hard-wired setup, however, significantly reduces the mobility of the PC; you’re tied to the modem if you want to connect to the Internet.
To regain this lost mobility, you create a simple wireless network.. In this simple network, the Internet connection goes into the wireless network router; the notebook PC then connects to the router wirelessly, from anywhere in the house, to access the Internet. Place the modem and router in your office, and you can sit in your living room or bedroom and surf the web. You’re not using the file- or peripheral-sharing capabilities of the network, but you don’t need to; all you want to do is connect to the Internet from wherever you have your laptop today.
By the way, this same type of simple network works with any wireless device, not just computers. So, if you have an iPhone or iPad in the house and want to access the Internet, set up this same type of simple wireless network-just a modem and a wireless router-and you can connect anytime you want. No cables necessary!
Playing Games Online
Along the same lines, you can use your home network to connect your video game console to the Internet. As you probably know, all current-generation video game systems-Nintendo Wii and Wii U, Sony PlayStation 3, and Microsoft Xbox 360- have Internet-related functionality. Depending on the console, you may be able to connect to the Internet to download new games, play games with other users, or even access news and email.
To do this, of course, you need to connect your game console to the Internet. And what do you do if your Internet connection is in your office and your game console
is in your living room or basement?
The answer is to set up a wireless network, of course. As with the notebook-based network previously described, you connect your broadband modem to a wireless network router, and then use your console’s built-in wireless connection-or in some instances, connect a wireless adapter to your game console. The game console connects to your wireless network and thus gains access to the Internet-no cables to run, nothing complicated to configure.
Content is taken from Michael’s new book, Wireless Networking Absolute Beginner’s Guide (Que Publishing).