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Home networking leaps forward

Judging from my e-mail, a lot of people are interested in connecting their home computers to share files and printers.

Until pretty recently, the task was daunting. You had to install network cards in both machines, install a "hub" in the middle and run cables from each computer to the hub. You also had to install a bunch of software and configure the network, no easy task.Today, home networking has taken a giant leap thanks to new solutions that use existing phone lines.

You slap one card in each machine and connect each to a phone jack, anywhere in the house. Using the existing phone wires, the computers are connected without tying up your phone line for calls.

You then can share printers, files and even one modem, so more than one computer can be connected to the Internet at the same time.

I tested one of the new phone line kits, the Homefree Phoneline system from Diamond Multimedia. For about $49 per computer, it's a cheap way for families to share the new $500 computers in their kids' rooms.

I expected the setup to be a real pain but was pleasantly surprised. I had to install cards in both computers, but once they were in, both were automatically recognized by Windows 98.

I installed the drivers supplied by Diamond, then connected each computer to a phone jack in the room.

I rebooted the PCs, made some adjustments recommended in the easy-to-follow directions and finally each computer could "see" the other.

Sharing a printer was as easy as right-clicking the printer icon and designating it as "shared" and installing the printer software on the other computer. Same with ZIP drives, scanners and other peripherals.

Running most multiplayer games should be no problem . . . I tried it with Quake II and found adequate performance.

The downside? The phone line network is certainly slower than a traditional Ethernet network. Transferring a large file took several minutes vs. about 30 seconds over my Ethernet network. But most home users will accept slower speed for the benefit -- the miraculous benefit, really -- of using existing home wiring.

Adding more computers to the network is as easy as sticking a card in and connecting the phone line.

(The system requires each computer to be running Windows 95 or newer, have a free PCI slot in the computer and about 16 megs of disk space.) Diamond also has a "wireless" solution for about twice the price that allows PCs within 150 feet of each other to share information without wires. I did not test that system.

For information, check out the company's Web site at "www.diamondmm.com"

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