The era of the unconnected PC has largely passed into history. Beyond the home office and children's rooms, PCs are popping up in such formerly unconventional locations as on the kitchen counter or on a shelf in the living room.
A network will let you share a broadband Internet connection or a printer, as well as documents, spreadsheets, digital photos, and MP3 audio files.
Wireless remains the hot technology; and as standards evolve, increased security and higher-speed connections are becoming available. The easiest way to share a broadband Internet connection is to use a router, and even today's inexpensive routers have firewall features for added security. You'll still need to take steps to lock down your network, though (see "Wireless Network Security 101").
A word about compatibility: While Wi-Fi standards theoretically allow wireless network equipment from different manufacturers to work together, it doesn't always happen that way. If you're starting from scratch, your best bet is to use wireless hardware from a single manufacturer. Thankfully, you won't have the same problems with wired ethernet networking equipment from different manufacturers.
Installation is slightly different for every product. The steps illustrated here are generic. Consult your manual before you begin, and back up any critical data on each of your PCs before you start assembling your network (see "Ultimate Backup Guide").
The Top Down
Benefits: Share documents, photos, MP3 music, printers, and a high-speed Internet connection among multiple desktop and notebook PCs.
Expertise level: Intermediate
Time required: 30 to 60 minutes per PC
Tools required: Phillips screwdriver and antistatic wrist strap (for add-in cards)