The simplest network benefit beyond Internet sharing is the capability to share files and printers among all the computers on your home network. You don't have to use a disk or USB flash drive to transfer files between PCs. You can access shared folders from any PC and drag/drop or copy/paste between them, and they're transferred via the airwaves. You also don't need a printer for each PC. You can print to a shared printer from all your PCs.
If you aren't familiar with file and printer sharing yet, first browse the network in Windows. In Windows XP, open My Network Places and in later versions of Windows, open Network. This will scan the network and display other computers. You can then open and browse through their shares.
You should find shared folders automatically setup by Windows. If you want to share additional folders or a printer, simply right-click on it and select the sharing option. Some printers also have the capability to hook directly to the network via an Ethernet cable or wirelessly.
Use OpenDNS for Content Filtering
The free OpenDNS service lets you quickly and easily apply content filtering to your entire network. This lets you block pornographic and other inappropriate or dangerous sites. It covers all computers, smartphones, gaming consoles, and tablets -- anything connected to your router. Plus, it can block malware-spreading and phishing sites, prevent DNS-based security attacks, and possibly speed up your Web browsing.
There are two OpenDNS service options you can choose from. The simplest option is to use the FamilyShield service. It automatically blocks the adult and dangerous sites. It doesn't require you to create an account and can be setup on your router within 5 minutes.
The other option is to sign up for the free OpenDNS Basic service. It lets you select which site types to block, customize the guide and block pages, and monitor Internet usage. It takes about a half an hour to setup your router and configure the service.
Discover TV Networking Possibilities
The benefits of having a network in your home can also be seen on your TV. You can stream photos, videos, movies, shows and music from your computer or the Internet to your home theater. Your TV service provider may even support these types of network features right now -- give them a call and ask.
Other home theater components, like Blu-ray players, may also support them as well -- check the manual. Plus there are dedicated components you can purchase to give you this type of functionality and more, such as Apple TV, Google TV, Sling Media and other network streamers or players.
Set Up a Home Server, NAS, Network Drive or Plug Computer
If you really want to be an avid networker, you can set up a server, network-attached storage device, network drive, or plug computer. These are different types of components in terms of form factor and features, but all provide a couple of main functions: central place to store, access, and backup your files so you don't have to worry about a particular PC being on and media streaming among your computers (but not usually to your TVs, such as mentioned in the previous section).
Microsoft's Windows Home Server is one of the most advanced and expensive solutions. In addition to the main functions already mentioned, it provides centralized monitoring and remote access of your PCs. You can either buy the software and load it onto a compatible PC or purchase a computer already designed for, and packaged as, a Windows Home Server.
A more economical alternative to Windows Home Server is the free and open source Amahi Home Server. The software is free and the system requirements for the PC are more lax than Windows Home Server. It offers the main streaming and backup functions in addition to Outlook and calendar sharing/synchronization and various other features provided by third-party apps.
Network-attached storage (NAS) devices and network drives typically concentrate on central file storage, access and backup, and offer less streaming and extra features. NAS devices are typically a component or computer that links your drives to your network. Some drives have this NAS functionality built-in and can directly connect to the network, which you would than simply call a network drive. You can purchase NAS devices and network drives or create your own with free and open software such as FreeNAS.
Plug computers (such as PogoPlug or TonidoPlug) are basically a mix between all the solutions we've discussed with an emphasis on remotely accessing your files and computers via the Internet. They are basically very small computers and are a greener alternative to running a full server or PC.
Eric Geier is the founder of NoWiresSecurity, which helps businesses easily protect their Wi-Fi networks with the Enterprise mode of WPA/WPA2 security by offering a hosted RADIUS/802.1X service. He is also a freelance tech writer--become a Twitter follower or use the RSS Feed to keep up with his writings.
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