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The Hardware Needed for Basic Ethernet Networks

Following are the basic hardware requirements of any small Ethernet network. One benefit of Ethernet networks is their simplicity. You don’t need a degree in Advanced Thakamology to install your network, and (because today’s PCs come equipped with built-in Ethernet ports) you can put four PCs in a simple Ethernet network for the cost of a few cables.

Cables for an Ethernet network

Two different kinds of cabling connect computer to computer (or computer to network device):

  • Coaxial (coax): The same type of cable that’s used to connect your TV to your cable box. Coax is thick stuff and not easily routed or hidden. Also, each end of a coax Ethernet network must have a terminator to mark the end of the network circuit, which is a hassle (a small one, granted, but a hassle nonetheless).

  • Twisted pair: Looks almost exactly like telephone wire or the cable that runs between a PC’s dialup modem and the telephone wall jack. Twisted pair is easier to hide and much easier to route.

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    The downside to using a twisted pair Ethernet network is that you need a switch, which acts as a central connection point. However, twisted pair cabling is much cheaper overall than coaxial cable.

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If you would rather eschew cables altogether (well, almost altogether), consider a wireless network. Although it’s a bit slower, you have freedom of movement undreamed of by the wired crowd. Heck, you could even throw caution utterly to the wind and get a wireless switch or router that can provide both wired and wireless connections. (In fact, alternative wired networks can use your home or office’s existing telephone or AC power lines. No, really!)

Switches for an Ethernet network

A switch is essentially just an overgrown connection box, linking (via cabling) each computer on your network to all other network computers and peripherals, like a printer. It’s about as visually interesting as a shoebox. On the inside, a switch prevents dastardly collisions; a switch narrows the broadcast of a packet to only the PC that needs it.

Most Internet sharing devices and routers designed to work with broadband connections have built-in switches — just keep in mind that you need some sort of switch for a twisted pair network. Switches are pretty inexpensive — how much you pay depends on how many ports the switch provides, ranging from about $50–$200 US.

Switches have virtually replaced the earlier, less-efficient Ethernet hub. Always choose a switch over an Ethernet hub.

Network interface cards (NICs) for Ethernet networks

You need a network interface card (NIC) for each computer on your network. If your desktop or laptop PC doesn’t have a built-in NIC, an internal adapter card is probably the best choice, but installing a NIC doesn’t necessarily have to involve opening your PC’s case.

You can get a Personal Computer Memory Card International Association (PCMCIA; or PC Card) NIC for your laptop, and other network adapters can be connected through a Universal Serial Bus (USB) port. However, you probably don’t need to buy a separate NIC for your PC because virtually all PCs now include built-in network connectors. (Check your PC’s manual or look for a port labeled Ethernet 10/100 or Network on the back of the computer.)

NICs are rated by the speed of the network. Most home networks use a 10/100 NIC (which means that your network can operate at either 10 Mbps or 100 Mbps), which sets you back about $25–$30 US. The third speed — Gigabit Ethernet — runs at a whopping 1000 Mbps, but you might not need that much throughput unless you regularly transfer huge multigigabyte files betwixt computers.

(Gigabit hardware used to be as expensive as a meeting with a good lawyer, but prices for this faster equipment are now on a par with 10/100 hardware.) Well-known Ethernet device manufacturers include D-Link, NETGEAR, and Linksys.

When shopping for your card, check the manufacturer’s website and verify the drivers the card uses. The card should support at least Windows XP, Vista, and 7/8. Also, check how often those drivers are updated; a two-year-old driver is not a good sign. In general, most manufacturers display certification statements (both on the box and on the company’s website) guaranteeing that a NIC will work with specific operating systems.

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