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Connecting computers of all kinds is easy with Ethernet
technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology
Simple gray rule

Connecting computers of all kinds is easy with Ethernet

Bit Player for Aug. 29, 1999

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1999, The Syracuse Newspapers

There are many ways to connect to the Internet. But there's only one regular way to connect to another personal computer.

That's by Ethernet. It's the standard way computers talk to each other. Ethernet uses circuits in your computer (on chips, of course) and a length of cable. There's one other part, called a hub.

Ethernet used to be very expensive, but now it's amazingly cheap. Ethernet cards -- cards are things that plug into slots on PCs (and now, Macs) to add capabilities to a computer -- used to cost $200, but now you can get a good one for $10 or less. Ethernet cable doesn't cost much and hubs are $40 or less.

So to hook up two computers by Ethernet, you need two Ethernet cards, one hub and enough cable to go between them, at a cost of about $100. People who sell this stuff might try to convince you to skip the hub, but don't listen to them. You need a hub for a lot of the things you'll want to do with your network at some point.

Ethernet is not just the standard way of connecting PCs. You can hook up any modern computer with Ethernet, and you can put a Mac on one end of the cable and a Windows PC on the other. Or, as I've done at home, you can have three Windows PCs and a Linux PC on the same Ethernet network. (We also have two printers and other things, too. Ethernet is grand.)

Lately, the best way of connecting computers has come up a lot on the radio show Gene Wolf and I host on WSYR (11 am to 1 p.m. Sundays). Callers say they've seen ads for little devices that let you connect two Windows PCs using cheap cable, using phone line or even using nothing at all except radio waves or infrared light beams. Even Intel, the company that makes most of the computer processors used in PCs, has such a device.

Our advice has been very clear: STAY AWAY. Things that connect two Windows PCs together are likely to be useless when you want to add a different kind of computer to your home or small-office network. With Linux gaining ground on Windows so quickly, chances are you'll want to hook up a Linux PC to that network before long, and you might also want to connect a Mac to those PCs (and maybe to that Linux PC). You need Ethernet for that.

Ethernet comes in two basic speeds. The most common operates at 10 megabits per second and the other works at 100 megabits per second. The 10 mbps version should work fine for casual networks -- home or office settings in which the network is there mostly to share printers or maybe share an Internet connection. If you plan to do a lot of work across a network (opening huge graphics files from another computer, say), get the 100 mbps version.

Megabits is a confusing word, since it sounds like megabytes. A bit is one-eighth of a byte, and in most cases two extra bits are tacked onto those eight bits when they're sent somewhere. So you need to divide by 10 to see how fast basic Ethernet networks really are -- either 1 megabyte per second or 10 megabytes per second. Faster Ethernet methods are available, too, but they cost too much for most homes and small offices.

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