In the field of home computing, eventually there will come a time in many households where a second computer will occupy space in the house. A lot of savvy home users will recognize a need, or at least, a whim, to have their computers talk to each other. This growing appeal of having computers communicate with each other is known in the computer field as networking.

There are many occasions when two (or more) computers will need to talk to each other, whether it be to access specific data that resides on one of the machines, or to share a connection with the main printer in the home. Another use for communication between computers would be to use the Internet connection that runs from one main wall jack to the primary computer. Many people, including this editor until recently, always took it for granted that in order to have two machines reliably connected to each other, there was the need to run a networking cable from one computer to the other. Well, there is another much simpler, and surprisingly easy avenue to take for this venture--enter the "router".

To put it simply, a router is an electronic device that is used to allow a laptop computer (or other desktop machine) to wirelessly share an Internet connection with the primary computer in the house. A router is about the same size as your broadband modem, and it usually sits in close proximity to your primary established Internet connection/setup. A router can be used equally well with a DSL connection as with a cable modem. When you purchase a router, a CD should accompany the unit, and the software on the CD needs to be installed on your primary computer, as well as on the other computers in the house that have 'wireless capability'. Once the software is successfully installed, your computer(s)/laptop(s) can all share the same Internet connection. The instructions that come with the router will guide you as to how to disconnect the cable from your broadband modem, and integrate these wired connections between the wall jack, the router, the modem, and your main computer. Once you install the router software on your other computers, they'll be able to wirelessly (seemingly magically) connect to the Internet via airwaves.

Important points to remember:

  • Computers using the router should be able to handle wireless connectivity. Most modern computers have this built in. When you examine the specs of your computer(s), just look for a reference to "802.11 b/g wireless standard", or something similar along this line, to determine if your computer has wireless modem capability.
  • When purchasing a router, you should do a little research to make sure that the router is compatible with the operating systems on each computer that you intend to connect. For example, if one of your computers is running Windows XP, and the other is running Windows Vista, you should select a router that is compatible with both, or at least, the most recent. From what I've experienced, if it's Vista compatible, more than likely it will work on XP--but definitely check this out before buying. Ask the sales assistant, if you're not sure.
  • When using your new router, it should always be left on, just like your broadband modem.

And keep this in mind -- the most expensive router isn't necessarily the right one. An elderly friend of mine who is no longer able to get up and down stairs on his own needed a way of accessing his Internet connection. His family bought him a new laptop computer for Christmas, but he still needed to connect to the Internet. His son-in-law suggested purchasing a router. They bought one that was pretty high-powered and a bit expensive, at around $110.00. After about an hour and a half of trying to establish a connection, they were unable to get the router working. The elderly gentleman asked me to take a look at it on my next visit, so I decided to buy a router of my own to attempt a successful installation before I tried on his machine. I researched routers for our similar laptops, and found one made by Netgear, (Model WGR614) which was touted as being compatible with Windows Vista. I went to the local Walmart, and purchased this unit for about $37.00. I took it home and installed it, deciding ahead of time to slowly and diligently follow the instructions to the letter so that I could follow the same procedure when helping my friend. This was good self-advice, as there was an issue or two that was potentially confusing if a person were to try to impatiently hurry through the process. However, the instructions that came with the router were actually very clear and easy to follow, as long as you take the time to read and understand the procedure. After only about 15-20 minutes I had my laptop up and running using the Internet from a separate room in the house. So, I bought a second Netgear router for my friend and installed it in virtually the same amount of time that it took me on my own machine. I could have probably bought any of a number of "brand name" routers, as I'm sure they're all reputable, since they're in competition with each other. But I stuck with the 'Netgear' since I had initial success with it.

The range of this Netgear model seems to be very good as I usually use it at around a range of 50-75 feet from my primary computer. When I installed it at my friend's house, it operated just fine with his primary computer being in his basement, and his laptop being on the first level. In both of our cases, this router has been very reliable with no problem of losing connection. The Model WGR614 establishes a secure, encrypted network channel when you first install the software, and identifies this channel by allowing you to set a password on your primary computer. When you install the software from the CD onto your laptop (or second computer), you're prompted for this password, which allows the laptop to use the Internet wirelessly. This password disallows other users from neighboring houses from 'piggybacking', or using your Internet connection if they try to surf the web on your computer's behalf. You would need to give your neighbors your password, if you want them to use your connection.

One final positive point is that from my personal experience with the Netgear router, I haven't noticed any loss of speed when surfing the web. If anything, my laptop performs faster than my primary computer. Both computers have the same anti-virus software, but the laptop is newer with a faster processor, which may account for the speedy web page turnaround.

Hopefully, sharing this new found knowledge and recent experience will help explain and clarify any questions and uncertainties you may have on the issues of computer routers.