You probably recognize this scenario: As everyone in the house or in a small office gets their own computer, each wants to connect to the printer, phone line, or high-speed Internet connection. They may even want to collaborate on or view the same files. What's a buzzing hive of computerized folk to do?
The answer is: network. By connecting your PCs with a low-cost wired or wireless network, you'll save money, effort, and time. These days, you can choose from four basic types of networking hardware: ethernet, phone line, power line, and wireless. Peer-to-peer network software like that built into Windows allows any connected computer to access shared resources on any of the other connected computers.
Networks are built by adding a network interface card (if not already built-in) or other network adapter to your computer and then connecting that adapter to the medium--a wire or radio frequency--over which the data flows. Depending on your network topology, there may also be a central hub or router to which each of the computers connects. If the hub also routes data between the local network and another network (such as the Internet), it's called a router.
When it comes to network performance, you'll see quite a bit of jargon relating to (theoretical) maximum speeds, which are measured in bits per second. First, some acronyms: Megabits per second (or mbps) means millions of bits per second, and gigabits per second (or gbps) means billions of bits per second. These speeds will vary, depending on the kind of network you use. The fastest dial-up modems connect at about 50,000 bits per second (50 kilobits per second), so a 10-mbps network connection is roughly 200 times faster than that; a 100-mbps connection 2000 times faster; and a 1-gbps (1000-mbps) connection 20,000 times faster.
You can also compare network speed to the performance of an average broadband connection, which typically transfers data between 256 kbps and 1.5 mbps. As an example, let's say a given network operates at 1 mbps. Then the 10/100/1000 ethernet flavors (see "Wired for Speed: Ethernet"), for instance, would be 10, 100, and 1000 times faster, respectively--in theory, at least.
In terms of computing activities, you can consider how fast your files will download. For example, copying a three-page Word document from one computer to another is going to appear to take about the same amount of time, no matter how fast your network is (unless you've got your stopwatch out). However, transferring your 200MB Outlook .pst file or your entire collection of photos or digitized video is a different story. Over a 10-mbps connection, a huge file could take, say, six minutes to move from one machine to another. If you do the math, in theory, that same file would copy in just 36 seconds over a 100-mbps network, and in just 3.6 seconds over a gigabit network.
Of course, your mileage may vary: Other factors affect performance--actual data throughput is less than the theoretical maximum speeds when you run into factors like packet overhead and the retransmission of lost or damaged packets.