Like fashion, personal computing has its fads. And the latest fad to come prancing down the silicon runway is home networking.
Networks are wiring schemes that link computers and allow them to share peripherals and software. They first appeared in businesses and came in two flavors: LANs (Local Area Networks) that link computers within a room or a building, for example; and WANs (Wide Area Networks) that link computers in different buildings, even in various parts of the country.
Intel jumped on the bandwagon in early April by introducing Anypoint Home Network, a pair of widgets that use ordinary telephone wiring to link two PCs on a network with data rates of up to one megabit per second.
Intel's offering and the accompanying software cost $189 -- almost twice as much as the $99.95 HomeFree, a similar package from Diamond Multimedia.
Both packages support the Home Phoneline Network standard, which allows the phone line to be used for a voice call while it's being used by the PCs. The difference is that Diamond's product is a pair of PCI add-on cards, while Intel's is a free-standing unit with its own power supply. It connects through the parallel port.
If you're uncomfortable about opening your PC case, Intel gets the nod. If not, check out the Diamond product. (Intel also has a PCI card entry, which costs $79 for a single card vs. $49.95 for Diamond's.)
That said, the possible benefits of home networking are few for most people. Promoters will say, for example, that it's cheaper for two computers to share a printer. But with excellent inkjets available for less than $200, that's hardly a compelling argument. The high data transfer rate makes it easy to transfer files, say promoters. True, but for most of us, a floppy disk will do.
Another use touted is multiplayer games, the kind now played on the Internet. The idea of several family members, each in a different room, playing "together" via a network is something best left for sociologists to ponder. It's just not the same as playing a board game on the kitchen table.
Finally, promoters point to shared Internet access. And there, if you have a cable modem or other high-speed Internet access, they have a point. But that's a subset of a subset -- by the end of the year, it's expected that only about 17 percent of U.S. homes will have more than one PC, according to the Yankee Group research firm. And cable modems and other high-speed Internet connections are available, but hardly ubiquitous.
That's for home use, which is what promoters are pitching. But the folks who ought to be rushing to buy these devices aren't Mom and Pop, but the thousands of small businesses that could benefit from networking their office PCs. From the business perspective, these phone-line-based networks are cheap, reliable, and easy to install and maintain.
Real-estate offices, small newspapers, brokerage firms, law offices and others could reap immediate benefits from being networked, including having a single high-speed Internet connection available to all. If those businesses don't check out these offerings, they're not paying attention.
Some caveats: Diamond Multimedia wants to see PCs that have at least 16 megabytes of RAM and run Windows 95 or 98, while Intel will cruise on eight megabytes of RAM. So that pretty much bags any thoughts of dusting off that old 386 in the attic and networking it with the new Pentium. And the network likes to find less than 500 feet of phone wire, which isn't a problem for most homes and small businesses.
Both Diamond Multimedia and Intel products are widely available at retail, and also on the Web.