Phone-line network has its hang-ups

May 31, 1999|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

Five years ago, parents and kids battled over who got to use the family computer and when. Today, the kids are likely to have their own PC, but the battles are still going on -- this time it's over who gets to use the Internet and the fancy color printer.

Enter home networking, one of the hottest technologies to emerge this year. Networks allow users to share their disk drives, printers and Internet connections, but until now, they've required wiring that most homes don't have, as well as a certified geek to keep them running.

With multiple-PC households on the rise, the computer industry has developed several schemes to make home networking easier. The most popular is a standard developed by the Home Phoneline Networking Alliance, which uses your home's internal phone lines to transmit computer data. You can choose from a half-dozen HomePNA kits that allow you to plug a PC into any phone jack in your house and communicate with other computers without affecting normal voice calls.

Although they're considerably slower than standard networks with dedicated wiring, HomePNA systems are fast enough for home use and allegedly simple enough for normal users to set up.

I tested this proposition with Intel's $189 AnyPoint Home Network starter kit, which at first glance seemed to be the easiest to install. Because it uses an external adapter that attaches to your PC's printer port, you don't have to open your computer to install a network interface card. And since it doesn't require a network card, you can use it with a laptop computer.

The kit includes two dark-gray, oblong AnyPoint adapters that stand about 8 inches tall on pedestal bases (additional adapters are $80 apiece). On the back of each adapter are two parallel port connectors -- one hooks up to the printer port on your PC and the other to your printer. There are also two phone jacks: One connects to a phone line wall jack for networking; the other is for a phone or modem. Be aware that AnyPoint won't tolerate any other parallel port device except your printer. If you're using a parallel port Zip drive, scanner or camera, you'll have to give it up or buy a network kit that uses an internal network adapter. Likewise, if you install the AnyPoint parallel port system and want to add an external gadget other than a printer, you'll have to find one that uses your serial or USB ports.

Although I was hoping setup would be as easy as Intel promised, I should have guessed otherwise when I saw a manual with a troubleshooting section that was as long as the installation instructions.

After hooking the first adapter to a desktop PC and printer in my basement office, I installed Intel's networking software, which consists of two programs. The first allows your PC to share its disk drives and printers with other computers on the network, while the second allows your PCs to share an Internet connection. You'll have to designate one of the PCs as the Internet server -- the one that does the dialing and handles Internet traffic for the others. Use your fastest PC for this chore, as it can put a substantial burden on the machine. If you don't care about sharing an Internet connection, don't install the software.

While the networking software seemed to install properly, I couldn't get my printer to work at all. When I delved into Intel's Readme file, I realized that both the printers in my home office, a Hewlett Packard DeskJet 890c and a Lexmark 5700, were on the list of printers that cause trouble. It turns out that this adapter is pretty finicky.

So, I left that problem for the time being and turned to the second computer, a Gateway laptop in my kitchen. This time, the installation program bombed with an error message telling me that I already had an incompatible network adapter installed on the laptop. Of course, I didn't. After rooting through the Readme file and troubleshooting guide, I learned that if you get this message, you may have to turn off an obscure setting called NT Logon in your Windows setup. Now why hadn't I thought of that?

Lo and behold, the software loaded on the laptop, and soon both computers were happily sharing each others disk drives. Even more surprising, the Internet sharing software worked like a charm. As long as my downstairs PC was running, I could get it to dial my Internet service provider just by running a Web browser on the laptop upstairs. We had no trouble browsing on both computers at the same time, although with a dial-up connection, things can slow considerably if two or more machines are generating heavy traffic.

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