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Getting connected

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[Times art: Octavio Perez]

By DAVE GUSSOW and LARRY LIEBERT

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 26, 2001


Networking your home computers can let you share files, printers and a high-speed Internet connection. But setting up a home network is not yet as easy as tech manufacturers would have you believe. Here are the stories of two home installations: one wired, one wireless.

A keyboard and mouse that don't need to be tethered to a computer. A wireless gamepad my son the gamer likes better than the one that plugs into his PC. An audio system that can transmit music from my PC to a stereo in another room (if you don't mind the static).

They're all among a new generation of wireless home gadgets. I've been trying them out, with more or less success, in recent weeks.

As computer sales slow, tech companies are promoting new ways for PCs and other devices in the home to communicate. But my experience indicates that setting up such a system can be an ordeal for those of us who aren't computer professionals.

I had problems with Intel's AnyPoint Wireless Home Network system last year, including an hourlong phone chat with an engineer that didn't fix the problems. It ended up in a closet.

But after getting a new PC and reformatting the hard drive for a clean start on a second PC, I wanted to give the network another try, as well as test other products touted for the "wireless lifestyle" that Intel and other high-tech companies envision for our homes.

Besides, my 15-year-old son was salivating at the thought of sharing my high-speed Road Runner Internet access. The time had arrived, or so we thought, Feb. 3.

The new PC, a Dell with a Pentium 4 chip, 256 megabytes of random access memory and Windows Me, was in my home office. My son got the 2-year-old Compaq with a Pentium II chip and 192 MB of RAM. With a friend, we reformatted, or wiped clean, the Compaq's hard drive and installed Windows Me on it.

The computers sit less than 30 feet apart in rooms next to each other, well within the wireless system's 150-foot range. Each PC on the network requires a transmitter that plugs into a Universal Serial Bus port. Each transmitter costs about $100, including the software, though recent ads have dangled $30 rebates.

Intel promotes it as easy, but I call it plug-and-pray.

Following Intel's directions to the letter, I installed the software and immediately had problems. Most were error messages about missing dynamic link library, of DLL, files, which seemed odd since I was using the disk that came with Intel's product. I managed to get the Dell set up to function as "the server" for our home network, then repeated the process on the Compaq, complete with the same error messages.

The software makes it easy, at first glance, to set up the shared Internet access, the files each PC can access on the other and the printer. Each computer "saw" the other, but it didn't mean that the system worked.

On the Internet connection, we would get error messages identified by numbers such as 3059 and 3096. Checking Intel's Web site did little good because it doesn't list what all the numbers mean. After about eight hours, we had a shaky shared Internet connection, some file-sharing but no printer available from the Compaq.

The next day, I noticed that Intel had a new Version 2 of the AnyPoint software available for download from its Web site. So I upgraded, and the whole house of cards came tumbling down.

Not only did the network disappear but the Dell crashed. Windows Me has a vital feature called System Restore, which allows you to roll it back to a point when it was working correctly. I did that and reinstalled the original network software. We were back to shaky but working.

I sent an e-mail to Intel tech support outlining the problems. I initially got an automated response that said Intel's tech support was busy and would get back to me within 48 hours. (While Intel says it's working to speed up the process, that's little comfort for those trying to salvage their systems.)

Then Jonathan from tech support sent me a note, confirming that I needed Version 2 because it's required for anyone with Windows Me. That little factoid needs to be displayed prominently on the site.

I followed his directions, reinstalled Version 2 and regretted it almost immediately. The network collapsed again, this time taking my Internet connection with it. I couldn't send an e-mail for help. It took about three hours, and two System Restores on the Dell and one on the Compaq, to undo the damage.

In subsequent messages with Jonathan, I sent network configuration codes and he sent back instructions or requests for more information. In the end, though each result was not necessarily the one Intel expected, we regained Internet and file-sharing, with the Net connection smoother and faster than its shaky start.

The printer still won't work off the Compaq, but since the machines share files, my son can call up one of his files from the Dell and print from there. It's not perfect, but he'd have to come into the office to get his printouts anyway.

But we weren't finished with wireless products. I installed Intel's wireless keyboard, mouse and gamepad, all part of a line of devices Intel is pushing to enhance consumers' views of home computing.

Once again, I had installation problems with the software: A lot of necessary files were missing. In less than an hour and with less frustration, though, I managed to get the battery-powered wireless devices working along with the cone-shaped base station ($59.99) that connects to the PC and acts as a control center.

The full-size keyboard ($79.99) is nice, with good touch to the keys. While I have typed with it on my lap and with my feet propped on a bookshelf, I'm not persuaded that a wireless keyboard will entice many people.

The wireless mouse ($59.99) uses a rubber track ball that you have to roll on a desk or table to move the cursor on the screen. It feels solid and compares favorably to an optical light mouse that moves the cursor no matter what surface is used. If Intel is going wireless, it may as well go optical as well.

My son says the wireless gamepad ($64.99) has more features and controls the action better than his plug-in model on Tony Hawk Pro Skating 2 and a Microsoft flight simulator. He is ready to challenge me to a shared game over the network.

And we still weren't finished with wireless products. We hooked up Voyetra Turtle Beach's SonicLink audio system ($99.95). It includes a transmitter from a PC and a receiver for a stereo in another part of the house. The software is a jukebox that lets you organize and play music downloaded from the Internet or transferred from your CDs.

It set up and installed easily. But we ran into another hazard of the wireless generation: The AnyPoint wireless transmission interferes with the SonicLink, so the music sounds like an old scratched-up vinyl record.

We'll work on the audio at some point. For now, we'll tiptoe around the PCs to keep the network running.

-- Contact Dave Gussow at gussow@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4228.

* * *

BY LARRY LIEBERT

At last, I have a networked home.

No, it's not the Jetsons vision the tech companies promote at their gadget shows. I can't click my computer mouse and start the toaster. E-mail doesn't pop up on my TV screen. Web pages aren't projected on my shower wall.

I'm rejoicing at a much more modest feat: Our 15-year-old daughter, Rachel, can use the same high-speed cable modem on her computer downstairs that my wife and I enjoy on our PC upstairs.

Last year, I shared in this space my frustrations in arranging something faster at home than a pokey phone modem. I ended up with Time Warner's Road Runner high-speed Internet service, and it's been a plus for our family's Web surfing. The only negative has been waiting on the phone up to 45 minutes for tech support when I have a question or problem.

But a fast connection is a teen magnet. Every night, Rachel had to be pried from the seat in front of our computer, where she could surf and instant-message (and maybe do a little homework) far faster than on her own slow and unreliable phone connection.

Road Runner's proposed solution: Pay $10 a month for a second Internet connection, then crawl around in my attic to run wires through the walls from one computer to another (or pay someone else a small fortune to do so). No thanks.

It was time to try some of the products that promise do-it-yourself home networks. Because my daughter's room is at the opposite end of the house, I had doubts about the interference-prone devices that promise wireless connections. I opted instead for those that plug into your phone lines to create an "instant" network.

First, I bought Intel's AnyPoint home network (the phone-wired version of the wireless device Dave Gussow reviews in the accompanying article). It was easy enough to set up. If only it worked. It required our upstairs computer to serve as the network "host" for our daughter's PC. That meant Rachel couldn't use her computer to access the Web or e-mail unless ours was on.

That's not all. Intel's software made our computer bog down and frequently crash. And our Intel mini-network worked only fitfully with AOL and not at all with Napster, Rachel's two favorite online connections.

So I unplugged my Intel network and returned it to Best Buy. Then I waited a few months for the promised next step in home networking: the "residential gateway." This is a little box of electronics that serves as the network host so any one of your home computers can connect to the Internet without depending on another to serve as intermediary.

The version I found was made by 2Wire, a California company. I checked out the HomePortal 100 at the company's Web site (www.2wire.com). I bought it directly from the company over the phone even though I was unhappy the sales rep failed to mention until the very end that they tacked on a $9 service fee in addition to shipping charges. The alternative was to buy it at CompUSA, which would have hit me with the dreaded 15 percent "restocking fee" if it had to be returned.

The HomePortal and an adapter needed to connect Rachel's computer to the phone outlet cost about $250, not cheap but worth it if it would solve our problem. It did.

The setup was easy, and Rachel's computer now connects at high speed with a Web browser, AOL and (at least until the courts shut it down) Napster. We also have file-sharing and printer-sharing, so when our upstairs printer jammed the other night I printed a document on Rachel's printer downstairs. We've finally got our home network.

So is 2Wire's HomePortal a perfect solution? Not exactly. For one thing, 2Wire's products work only on computers with Windows 98 Second Edition or beyond. Our 10-year-old, Emily, has a hand-me-down computer with Windows 95, so we'll have to buy a device from someone else if we want to add her to our home network.

Also, for some reason Rachel's computer can't "see" ours so she can't do file- and printer-sharing from her end of the network. This is a trivial problem for us, but it demonstrated that do-it-yourself networking still has its limits.

I called 2Wire's tech support and a friendly technician spent an hour in an unsuccessful effort to figure out what was wrong with Rachel's computer setup. When I called to try again, another technician, Robert, told me firmly this was my problem, not 2Wire's, and I should forget about asking for more help. Whatever was wrong, the blame fell on Microsoft Window's built-in networking, he said, so I should call Microsoft. That's the help line version of "drop dead" because Microsoft tech support is an oxymoron.

Instead, I was reduced to navigating a mind-boggling Microsoft Web site in an unsuccessful search for some troubleshooting files that 2Wire recommended, files with catchy names such as "Q192534" and "Appendix A: TCP-IP Utilities Reference." The tutorials I could find were filled with ominous warnings about backing up my autoexec.bat and config.sys files in case the suggested solutions crippled my computer.

Forget that. I'm doing just fine with my almost-perfect home network. And if you're interested in setting one up my only advice is this: Buy it where you can return it because if it doesn't play well with your computer, you're on your own.

- Larry Liebert is the Times' executive business editor.

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