Luckily for homeowners, the key components of a computer network are now being packaged into tidy, easy-to-install kits costing as little as $100. They can handle all the routing demands of an office network without the need for a technical degree or a closet big enough to hold all the hardware. You just plug the DSL or cable-modem line into one port on the gateway, which handles all the complicated routing functions, and plug each computer or peripheral into its own separate port. (Some devices even incorporate the DSL or cable modem, eliminating one more gadget from the clutter that surrounds computers these days.) The step-by-step software provided with the network kit pretty much takes care of the rest. Of course, like nearly everything involving computers, these kits don't always live up to their plug-and-play promises, but most sets come with troubleshooting programs that enable even the most technophobic user to sort out installation problems.

Before purchasing a network kit, you need to decide how many computers you want to connect and how all the devices will be linked together. There are at least three different options to choose from: conventional phone lines, high-speed Category 5 ("Cat 5") wire, and wireless radio transmissions. Wireless kits offer the ultimate in networking flexibility because they eliminate cables altogether. As long as one computer is booted up and hardwired to the Internet, any computer that is within 150 feet of the base transmitter can transfer data at speeds up to 11 Mbps (megabits per second). Installation is simply a matter of plugging the gateway into an outlet, plugging an 802.11 network card — "a credit card" sized receiver/ transmitter — into the appropriate slot of each networked device (the PCMCIA slot on a PC, the AirPort slot on a Mac), and loading the software.

While home-based wireless systems may be easy to set up, they face other limitations. For instance, while radio waves can easily pass through wood and plaster, they bounce right off metal objects, including large appliances and steel studs. "Metal is probably a radio signal's biggest enemy," says Greg Joswiak, the senior director of portables product marketing at Apple, which makes the wireless AirPort gateway. Microwave ovens and cordless telephones operating at the same frequency as 802.11 networks can also interrupt the signal and temporarily shut down the connections. To minimize these problems, most kits allow adjustment of the system's frequency to eliminate interference from other appliances.

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