A network is a group of computers, printers, and other devices that are connected together either through cables (wired) or through radio frequencies (wireless). Information travels over the cables or radio frequencies, allowing network users to share a high speed Internet connection, play interactive games, exchange files, and print to the same printers.
There are different types of networks called topologies. The most popular topology is called Ethernet, and connects computers and peripherals together with cables (wired). These cables are called Ethernet cables or Category 5 cables.
A relatively new topology is called 802.11b, also known as Wireless. This topology connects computers together without wires. Wireless networks are currently the fastest growing type of networks in the U.S. because users can set them up without running cables between their computers. They also allow a user with a laptop the freedom to roam about his house, or in some cases, their front or backyard, and still maintain access to the Internet and the rest of his network. This solution is more elegant than Ethernet when the computers are far apart from each other or from the cable modem.
With a home network, there are typically two main components involved, the Router and the Network Cards. Practically speaking, a router is an Internet-sharing device that has a built in firewall. Routers come in both wired and wireless versions. To set up a router you connect it to a cable modem. Once this is done all the computers behind the router are protected from would-be hackers on the Internet through a technology called NAT. This technology places your computers on "private IP addresses" that do not show up on the Internet. Yet you are still able to access the Internet, surf, and do email, just as you normally would. The picture below is an example of a wireless router. This router can accommodate both wired and wireless connections.
Internet-sharing wireless router (connects to your cable modem)
The second component of a network is the Network Card, also called a "NIC" or "adapter". You need a network card in every computer in your network. Network cards come in both wired and wireless versions. Because you have different slots on your computer, network cards come in different types to accommodate those slots.
There are three main types of network cards. The first type is called a PCI card. The PCI version of a network card goes in the back of a desktop computer. You typically need to remove the cover of your desktop to insert it.
PCI Card (for desktop computers)
The second type of network card is called a USB adapter. This type is external, and simply plugs into the USB slot on your desktop or laptop. A USB adapter is the easiest type of card to install on a desktop.
USB adapter (for desktop or laptop computers)
For laptops, the most commonly used network card is a PCMCIA card, also called a PC card. This type of card is the size of a credit card and slides into one of the PCMCIA slots on your laptop. It is the preferred method for laptop use because it leaves no dangling cables as you roam about.
PCMCIA Card (for laptop computers)
When using a router, any computer in your home with a network card can be part of your network and have all the benefits a network offers.
The future of home networks
Networks used to be found primarily in office and business environments. But with the adoption of broadband (high speed Internet access) families, roommates, and others living under the same roof have shown a growing interest in networks because of their ability to allow every computer in the home to have simultaneous access to their fast, always on, Internet connection. The added benefits of sharing files, printers, CD-RWs, gaming, and other applications are an add-on benefit.
The future of home networking is even more intriguing. Soon, you will be able to stream music from your favorite Internet radio station or music site to your networked stereo and speakers, no matter where in the home they are located. Movies and videos will also be streamed from your Internet connection to any television in your home, on demand, day or night. And no extra wires will be needed to make these connections.
When abroad, you will be able to access your network using your cell phone, palm pilot, or computer. This will empower you in a variety of ways. If you have video cameras connected to your home network, for example, you can monitor any room in your home from around the globe (traveling parents may like this idea more than their stay-at-home teens). You will also be able to control your heating, cooling, and networked appliances remotely (forgot to turn off the iron?). The level of access, and the number of devices in your home you will be able to control remotely will be virtually limitless as more and more appliances are built to be network-ready. It all starts with connectivity, the basis of a network. After that, virtually anything is possible.
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