|Networking has always been one of those
subjects with a certain mystique about it. Setting up a home network can be one of the
most satisfying or most frustrating experiences that the average computer user will ever
encounter. There are a thousand things that can go wrong, and the tiniest detail can cause
the whole system to work sporadically or not at all. D-Link has attempted to take the
difficulty out of setting up a home network with its Network Starter Kit, and it has
The kit contains everything you need to set up a local area network of two machines network interface cards, 25 foot cables and 4-port hub. There are three different versions of the Network Starter Kit; the one I tested is the DFE-905, which contains 10/100 Fast Ethernet cards and a 4-port 10/100 Fast Ethernet hub. For those of you unfamiliar with networking terms, 10/100 refers to the speed of the components they can run at either 10Mbps (megabits per second), which is the standard Ethernet speed, or 100Mbps, also known as Fast Ethernet. If you compare these speeds to your average modem, which runs at 56Kbps (kilobytes per second), and on a good day will give you a connection to the Internet at 50Kbps, you can see that Ethernet is about 200 times faster than a modem connection.
So why do you need a home network? Well, there are many things you can do with machines that are networked together that you cant do if they are merely stand alone computers. Transferring files between machines becomes as easy as moving files on your local hard drive. Printers can be set up so that all machines on the network can use them without fancy switchboxes and cabling. And, of course, you can play multiplayer games, which is the best reason for setting up a home network.
Setting up the network consists of four main parts: installing the network cards in the machines, connecting the cards to the hub, configuring network protocols and sharing resources between the machines. I had no problems installing the network cards in my test machines Windows 95 and 98 both detected them and prompted me for the installation disk containing the driver for the card. I configured them using the three main networking protocols NetBEUI, IPX/SPX and TCP/IP and encountered no problems. I set the hub for its fast speed of 100Mbps, connected the cards to it with the supplied cables, and the network was up and running. The entire process took me about 30 minutes. When you choose a location for the hub, make sure that there is space for airflow to the sides of the unit, which has a fan to cool it. Also, the fan is a bit noisy, so you might want to locate it away from your computer if the sound annoys you.
Network performance was excellent. File copies between the machines were very fast, and for small files it was almost like writing to a hard drive. I tested several games, including Total Annihilation, Baldurs Gate, Sid Meiers Alpha Centauri, and Diablo. In each case, the games ran smoothly with no lag or slowdown during gameplay. I had no problems getting the machines to see each other and join in on multiplayer games, and there were no lockups or crashes during gameplay, which was quite refreshing compared to the problems I encountered in the past trying to get games to link over a modem connection.
I also tried adding a third machine to the network and playing the same group of games. This machine had a different network card that was only a 10Mbps card, so I had to switch the hub speed and reboot the other machines so that they configured at the lower speed. I had no problems with file and print sharing, though the file transfers were visibly slower than before. Initially I had problems with the mulitplayer games locking up and crashing, especially Baldurs Gate. After a close examination of the network setup on all the machines, I and my friends traced the problem to a slight difference in the IPX setup of Windows 95 as compared to Windows 98. In the IPX advanced settings, the frame type defaults to Auto in both systems, but there are slight differences in the auto detection in the two operating systems. The Windows 98 machines worked fine together, but when the Windows 95 machine was added we started having problems. To solve the problem, we changed the frame type from Auto to IEEE 802.3, the standard frame type for Ethernet, and all the stability problems disappeared. Baldurs gate subsequently ran without a hitch, and Total Annihilation no longer locked up at the most inopportune times. This incident is one example of the thousands of things that can go wrong when setting up a network, and I was fortunate to have many years of experience to help me in solving the problem.
I was disappointed in the documentation that came with the Network Starter Kit. The manuals describing the network cards and the hub are well-done, explaining the features and installation procedure in good detail as well as providing some background information on Fast Ethernet, but it ended there. There was no information on configuring protocols or file and print sharing on your computers, nor on troubleshooting computers that dont see each other on the network. There is a smattering of information on troubleshooting contained in the readme.txt files on the driver installation disk, but no mention of protocols or workgroup setup. Since this kit is billed as a starter kit, I thought that there should have been information to help novices in configuring their machines to work together. Most people who have problems will probably call the store they bought the kit from for help configuring their systems.
The network cards have a lifetime warranty, though the hub only has a one year warranty. I found this odd, since the 10Mbps hub has a lifetime warranty. The most likely thing to fail in the hub is the fan, which keeps the running cool, and it too has a one year warranty. One plus is that D-Link provides lifetime technical support, though it is not toll-free.
Overall, the DFE-905 Network Starter Kit is an excellent package that provides exceptional value at its suggested retail price of $99. Though the documentation is inadequate for novices, anyone should be able to get the machines up and running with just a little help. I would recommend this kit to anyone who wants to link two machines in a home network to play games or even to share files and printers. I know Ill be using this kit at home for a long time to come.