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Rough and tumble venture into AnyPoint

PCs

By DAVE GUSSOW

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 26, 2000


Home network takes off with AirPort
Those poor PC folks. After hearing about some of their wireless networking woes, it's hard for me not to be smug as a Mac user.
As networking becomes a buzzword for the home of the future, companies such as chipmaker Intel Corp. are coming out with products that promise to make it easier and more affordable to connect your computers and printers.

But after spending time with Intel's wireless AnyPoint Home Network system, I've decided it's not ready, at least not for our house.

The problems started before anything was plugged in. Much to the kids' dismay, we couldn't use their machines for the tests. The version of the AnyPoint wireless system that Intel sent uses Universal Serial Bus technology for the connections.

USB is a relatively new technology designed to make it easier for people to add printers, scanners and other devices by just plugging them in and configuring the software. Even though USB ports can be purchased for about $40, the kids' computers run early versions of Windows 95, which can't handle USB. (To check if a computer is compatible with USB, there's a free utility at www.usb.org that can be downloaded from the site to test the system.) So we borrowed PCs from friends for the tests.

The initial appeal of the AnyPoint system is obvious: It seems easy. Plug in the wireless adapter to the USB port, load the software and enjoy the network. Intel (www.intel.com/anypoint) also has systems that use a network card instead of a USB port and phone lines instead of wireless. (All use the same software.) List prices range from $99 to $129 for each machine on the network.

I wanted to try three main features: sharing files, the printer and our cable modem connection to the Internet. All three features worked, but not as billed. File and print sharing worked on the first test, but Internet sharing didn't. We shared the Internet connection on the second test, but not files and the printer.

Intel provides a reassuring installation guide, with directions, diagrams and where to look for help in the user's manual in case of trouble. So I was ready, or so I thought.

In the first test, Windows 98 immediately recognized the AnyPoint device when I plugged it into the USB port on the home-office computer, which was the server, or main, computer for the network. After the hardware setup, I loaded the software. All was well.

I set up the second computer near the living room, about 45 feet walking distance and several walls away. AnyPoint has a range of about 150 feet. Again, the hardware and software setup went smoothly. The computers quickly "saw" each other through the connection, showing the hard drives, CD-ROMs and other drives for each (called mapping).

Then things got bumpy. The initial attempt to access the Internet from the second computer failed. Tech Times Solutions columnist John Torro and I checked the Internet Sharing Software on both machines, we looked at the on-screen help files, as well as the user's manual, and we repeated the installation process. No matter what we did, we could not get onto the Internet with the second machine.

On file sharing, we created a test Microsoft Word document on the home-office computer. We called it up on the second machine with no problem, changed it and saved it. When we tried to print from the second PC, however, it didn't work. We repeatedly tried to load the printer software from the home-office computer to the second machine and failed. Eventually, we added the software to the second machine directly from disks. Then the print test worked.

We also transferred a 10-megabyte file from the second computer to the home-office computer. It took about three minutes. It would take more than 30 minutes to send that much data through a slow phone connection, but only about 20 seconds on a typical Ethernet office network.

The test took more than 21/2 hours, and we still didn't have total use of the network. A couple of days later, I talked to Cheryl Troy, a senior product support engineer for Intel. She said the whole process should have taken 40 to 45 minutes, and she explained where some of the problems might have occurred.

Some printer manufacturers set up their configurations different from the way the AnyPoint system looks for them, she said, so loading printer software onto the other machines on a network may be necessary.

On the Internet connection, the firewall on the home-office computer that prevents outsiders from poking around could have caused the problem, Troy said, though I later discovered that it was not working during the installation process. (Intel doesn't mention firewalls in any of its material.)

After talking to Troy, I decided to give the system another try. I had to borrow a different computer, but the arrangement remained the same. After disabling the firewall on the home-office computer, I methodically went through the installation again. But the second machine wasn't seeing the first.

I spent about an hour on the phone with Troy in Oregon. Intel offers 90 days' free support on the AnyPoint system, and Troy assured me that any customer would get the same extensive help I was receiving.

This time, Windows 98 had not correctly installed the hardware on the home-office computer. Once fixed, the computers saw each other and the Internet connection worked, though Troy could not explain its initial failure. I thanked Troy and continued without her. That turned out to be a mistake.

My son Web-surfed on the second machine, able to access whatever sites he wished with no noticeable degradation in speed, while I surfed in the home office. Even on a network, the cable-modem speed is a big improvement over the kids' slower phone dial-up connections. (Networking multiple home computers to use one cable modem connection is allowed.)

But when I tried file and print sharing -- loading the printer software beforehand -- it failed again. Even though the computers could see each other and the drives were mapped, it wouldn't work. I repeated the installation and setup process, but after almost three hours in this test, including the call to Troy, I gave up.

After almost six hours over two days, with experts such as Torro and Troy available, we got only a taste of how the network could work, never the total experience. The promise of the technology didn't overcome the aggravation.

For now, the kids will continue to write on their machines, put the material on disks and print from the home-office computer. They will use their phone line for Internet access when they can't get on my computer. The home network will have to wait.

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