A network allows a single broadband account to be shared throughout the home. Unfortunately, such networking is impractical with dial-up Internet service–one of several reasons you might want to consider broadband.

WHAT’S AVAILABLE

Home networking is getting a boost from improvements in the range, speed, and cost of wireless networks. If you own a laptop computer that has wireless capability, a wireless network now allows you to surf the Web at broadband speeds from most places in your house, yard, or apartment. Leading brands of wireless routers include D-Link, Netgear, and Linksys. Wired networking is far from obsolete, however, since it still provides the most secure and reliable connections. Indeed, for many households the best solution for sharing a broadband connection–or a printer, music files, or digital photos–among multiple computers might be a network that includes both wired and wireless.

Ethernet, or wired, networks. Wired networks are very secure by themselves, with no special security measures necessary. They are reliable, and usually immune to interference. They offer the fastest data transfer–up to 94 megabits per second for the common 10/100 type, enough for virtually any data application.

IMPORTANT FEATURES

One drawback is that you can’t easily move your computer around the home. Routing cables throughout the home can be a hassle or expensive. Price range: $50 to $100 for one router and a cable to connect two fairly new computers. Also, there might be additional costs for routing cable through the home. Wi-Fi, 802.11g (wireless). There are no cables to connect or rout with a wireless network, and there are minimal installation costs. Mobility is the key–the wireless network supplies signals virtually anywhere around the home. You will need to take additional steps in terms of security, without which your data are vulnerable to hackers. Thick walls can reduce signal strength, which might vary in different areas of the home or even within a room. Wi-Fi networks might interfere with cordless phones, baby monitors, and other wireless devices. These networks are only 25 percent as fast as Ethernet, but they’re still fine for typical networking uses, such as Web surfing and e-mail. Price range: $200 or less for a router and client cards to allow two computers to use the network wirelessly

HOW TO CHOOSE

Plan your network. You’ll probably want to locate the router near the source of your broadband service–usually a cable or DSL modem. The router and the modem will be connected by an Ethernet cable. But the connections between the router and the computers in the network might be either wired or wireless.

Choose a wireless router. That is the official term for the models that support both Ethernet and Wi-Fi. Even if you don’t need wireless capability now, acquiring it costs little extra (perhaps $10 or so) compared with a wired model, and might spare your having to replace the router if you want to add a wireless device to it in the future.

Stick with the 802.11g wireless standard. Wi-Fi is continually evolving, with new standards designed to increase broadcast range and speed, thus increasing the network’s ability to handle new types of information. The name of the standard is usually listed on the router’s package, as a letter suffix to the technical term for Wi-Fi, which is 802.11. Currently the most common standard is known as 802.11g. We think it’s the best choice for most people.

The 802.11g networks we tested all had sufficient range and speed to provide coverage throughout most homes. The data speeds we measured fell short of the standard speed for 802.11g. But all routers were much faster than the typical speed of a broadband Internet connection.

If you already have a wireless network that uses 802.11a or 802.11b, two older standards, consider upgrading only if you find the range, speed, or reliability of your network wanting.

At the other end of the spectrum are routers that use early variants of the latest Wi-Fi standard, 802.11n. Frequently referred to with terms such as “MIMO,” “Super G,” or “pre-n,” such models might not be compatible with the actual “n” standard, which is due in late 2006. They also require that you buy matching networking adapters, even for computers with built-in 802.11g capability.

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Consider one of these new routers only if you have range problems that can’t be solved in other ways. In our tests, they were better at penetrating walls than 802.11g routers, and some offered data speeds that were twice as fast. But they were just as likely to interfere with (or receive interference from) cordless phones and other devices.

By Haadi