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Networking Windows 95, part 1
technofile  by al fasoldt
Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology 
Simple gray rule

Networking Windows 95, part 1
 

Technofile for Feb. 16, 1997
This is an expanded version of the column that appears in print.

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1997, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 1997, The Syracuse Newspapers

When my wife got her own PC for Christmas, my PC got a present, too—a partner in the brave new world of networking.

As soon as we set up her sleek new IBM Aptiva, we started shopping for the extras we'd need to connect her PC to mine. We found everything we needed at the Internet Shopping Network at http://www0.internet.net/ and placed our order over the Web. In two days, we were opening a big box the FedEx driver had left by the door.

In the bad old days of PC networking, this would be the point where'd I'd say, "That's where the fun began"'—meaning, of course, that everything would go wrong from that moment on. That's how it used to be when PCs ran under operating systems that couldn't tell a network from an aardvark.

But in this case, with two PCs running Windows 95, that is just where the fun began. We plugged everything in and had our own Ethernet network running in an hour. Ever since then, our little home network has proven to be reliable and absurdly easy to use.

It was also cheap. The cost of all items was about $250. We bought two Ethernet PCI cards for $44 each, two 50-foot lengths of networking cable for about $40 each, and one Ethernet workgroup hub for $80. The Ethernet cards (circuit boards that slide into slots in each PC) were designed for the Windows 95 plug-and-play system, which takes all the work out of setting up most optional devices on the computers. The workgroup hub wouldn't have been needed if we'd ordered a different kind of cable, but we wanted the hub—a little box with lights that dance when the network is doing things—so we could monitor everything.

The cards, cable and network hub are all Linksys products. I choose Linksys because the company's Ethernet cards were rated next to the top in a PC Magazine test, and were $100 cheaper than the top-rated cards. (The price difference in PCI Ethernet cards is amazing.) Most older-style workgroup hubs are much more expensive than the $80 Linksys hub and look like they belong on a parts junkie's workbench; the Linksys hub looks a lot like my Sony clock radio and is no bigger than a deli sandwich.

Network hardware and network software are different things, so we also had to make sure each PC had the right software. The Ethernet cards came with floppy disks that had everything we needed. We just put the disk in the floppy slot on each PC and opened the Windows 95 Control Panel, then clicked the Networking icon. The directions that came with the Ethernet cards were very clear—click this, click that—and within a few minutes, the software on the floppy was transferred into each PC.

At first I second-guessed the instructions, leaving out some of the components of Windows 95 networking because I couldn't imagine I'd need them. (Documentation I found elsewhere described the stuff I left out as something only NetWare networks needed, so I figured we didn't need it. But we found out right away that some activities we were supposed to be able to do just couldn't be done without the full implementation as described by Linksys, so we went ahead and followed the directions. (What's that about reading the manual? OK, I'll plead guilty to ignoring it.)

We shut down and restarted each PC. They came back to life as networked computers. That was all that we had to do. Best of all, with all the problems we've had with our PCs since then—especially with oddball games my wife installs and the beta-test software that I continually try out—the network has never failed us. If we have to reboot one of the PCs, the network reconnects itself automatically. (We even have automatic network logins, thanks to a Microsoft program called Tweak UI, available in the Power Toys collection at http://www.microsoft.com/windows/common/aa2729.htm.)

(Tweak UI, as regular readers may be aware, is one add-on I consider essential for Windows 95. If everyone who uses Windows 95 would please go out and get Tweak UI and use it, I'd get fewer questions from readers, and everyone would be happier.)

Networking has made a big difference in how we work and play with our PCs. It's allowed each of us to use the same printer, for one thing. She prints in the normal way, and her documents come out of my printer. It's also given me a simple way of backing up the crucial files on my wife's PC; I copy them through my backup software onto one of the many drives on my computer.

But most of all, our little network has made life easy for us in the way we do things. She is able to open any file on my PC just by clicking on its icon, and I'm able to do the same for the files she has. Many of our programs were designed to operate across a network, so we've been able to save hundreds of megabytes of drive space by storing a lot of the software we use on just one of the computers.

(Make sure you check all the legal requirements before you assume that you can use a single program on two computers. In many cases, you can—as long as the program is used on one computer at a time.)

We're also able to play many games and simulations across the network, racing motorcycles against each other or staging dogfights in our virtual sky. The version of Ethernet we're using is about as fast in getting data to and from our PCs as a standard hard drive, so we haven't noticed any slowdowns.

The technical side of our home network takes a little explaining, so we'll go into that next week.


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