Now that computers are so cheap - and some of us were lucky enough to get new ones under the tree - the issue becomes how to share your broadband network connection among two or more PCs.
Users still have a couple of options. You can enable Internet Connection Sharing on the main PC and network them together using a crossover Cat-5 cable or using networking devices that piggyback on your home telephone lines.
If the PCs are in the same room or pretty close together, you can install a wireless device that broadcasts the signal to the other PC (I like the Netblaster II from Sohoware).
Or, you can install a router, a piece of hardware that sort of acts like a splitter on your cable TV lines. Your cable modem or DSL modem is connected to the router and all of the PCs are then connected to the router as well.
My Sohoware router (www.sohoware.com) was a bargain at $89 and it was pretty easy to set up once I ran Cat-5 cables to the other PC in the house. (You also can connect a Netblaster II to the router and use a wireless network at the same time.)
However, a new product from Actiontec is bridging the router/wireless gap. The Actiontec Home Gateway (www.actiontec.com, $104) tries to combine the best of both worlds. It's a router that splits your cable modem or DSL service into four ports, but also includes two PC card slots. Insert a wireless "wi-fi" PC card into this device and into your laptop and you can roam around the house, still connected to your home network. (Actiontec claims a range of 330 feet, but if you have walls and such in the way, I would cut that by half.)
Setup was easy, though I found the device would not work with Orinoco wireless cards; a call to Actiontec tech support confirmed the problem and they said a fix was in the works. The router did work with three other brands of PC cards, including Actiontec's own. (Consider wireless a $100 option for the router because you will need to buy a pair of cards.)
The installation is a breeze assuming you are running Windows 95b or higher as your operating system. Actiontec has a wizard that explains each step and guides you through changing your network settings.
Configuring the firewall (which helps keep hackers out of your system) is easy but perhaps too easy; the firewall offers what I would consider just basic protection. If security is important to you (and it should be) you will want to run additional protection from software such as Norton Internet Security, BlackIce or Zone Alarm.
The router comes with a one-year warranty, pretty skimpy but okay considering the very low price.
In all, a good product at a great price.
WEEKLY WEB WONDER: Check out Santa's office (and say "thanks" ) at http://www.santaclauslive.com/
(James Derk is computer columnist for Scripps Howard News Service. His e-mail address is email@example.com.)
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