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July 2002, Week 3 -- Wired

    

 


Linksys InstantPowerLine

   One of the more interesting developments in networking is the introduction of systems that can link computers just by plugging into a wall outlet.

   At least three companies -- LinkSys, NetGear and Phonex, have come out with small boxes that plug directly into the wall to link Windows computers together. With one exception, the LinkSys box, the computers being networked have to have an ethernet card or built-in ethernet socket. But many machines do, and for those that don't, the added cost is only about $50.

 

   There is no setup, really. The LinkSys box, "Instant PowerLine,"  is about the size of a large wallet and costs less than $100. Plug one end into the wall socket and the other end into the computer, run the utilities CD and you're linked. Each computer to be linked has to have its own box, called a "bridge" by LinkSys, and is soon as these are plugged in, they are also linked. They can all share the same printers, scanners and Internet connection.

 

   For those who don't have an ethernet socket on their computer, and don't want to put one in, the LinkSys USB version lets you create a network just by plugging the bridge connector into the computer's USB port.

 

  This is the fastest and easiest way you can find to set up a network. That's the good news. The bad news is that using a building's electrical wiring is not the best way to go. It has the slowest data transfer rate (computers talking back and forth) and there can be interference.

 

   The desire to use electrical wiring for purposes other than delivering electricity goes back more than a century. After all, why reinvent the wheel? Why build a second network of wiring when buildings are already connected by the wires that deliver electricity? It's a great question; unfortunately nobody has come up with a good answer.

 

The problem is the electricity flowing through the line. It has pulses of its own (60 cycles per second in the U.S. and many other countries) and the voltage that's supposed to be delivered -- 110 or 120 volts or whatever, isn't always the voltage being delivered. My first experiences in a research laboratory taught me that delicate instruments needed a carefully regulated power supply or they wouldn't give accurate readings. At first I just called the power company. "What are you delivering," I would ask. They monitor this all the time. "We're giving out 100 volts," they might say, or "105," and "about 56 cycles per second, maybe 57." Not good enough. If the flow were constant, you could build circuits that filtered out this "electrical noise," but in fact the noise fluctuates all the time.

 

   So the bottom line is, if the network is not crucial to what you're doing, a Powerline link should be fine. If it's important that the data flow not be interrupted, go with direct network wiring.  Websites: www.linksys.com

 

The hand-made look

Squiggle 5

   "Squiggle" is a program for making mechanical drawings look like they were done by hand. The result is not completely convincing, but it is interesting.

   The program works with most CAD programs ("computer aided design") and Hewlett Packard plotter files. Squiggle slightly distorts the precise lines of CAD programs to make them look like they were drawn by hand instead of machine. Lines can be randomly altered in thickness and color to simulate hand work. The effect is pleasing in a way that lends itself well to client presentations and advertisements.

   The finished drawing can be exported in standard image formats (BMP, TIFF, PNG, GIF and JPEG) and can be printed by any Windows compatible printer or posted to the web. The process can be reversed: Squiggle drawings can be saved back to the computer as CAD drawings.

 

   Architects, engineers, designers and many others should find this a useful presentation tool; it would be nice for real estate sales as well. Squiggle 5 is the latest version, $149 for Windows; web: www.insightdev.com.

 

Ferreting it out

 

   Still can't find it on the web? Let "WebFerret," well ... ferret it out.

 

   This program has been around for several years but is often ignored because search engines like Google, AltaVista, Yahoo, Vivisimo, etc., do subject searches as a matter of course. However, WebFerret finds different answers to questions posed to the standard search engines. For example, when we did a search on "colloidal silver," a health fad product, the usual search engines simply turned up sellers. Web Ferret was the only search program that also turned up "quackwatch.com," a site that debunks fad health products, including colloidal silver.

 

   Web Ferret is free as a download from www.ferretsoft.com or $30 for a version without ads (the ads pay for the free version). The paid version 4.0 does faster searches and integrates seamlessly with Microsoft's Internet Explorer, so you can just click on it for web searches. A nice tool and a good one.

 

A great and grand adventure

 Neverwinter nights

   "NeverWinter Nights," $55 for Windows, from Bioware and Atari http://nwn.bioware.com. Here is something different. The game is set in an enormous medieval fantasy world that will be familiar to dungeons and dragons fans. You the player are the control. You can construct the scene, choose the characters, the monsters and traps, and organize your own adventure and friends. Can be played alone or online. This is from the makers of the hugely successful "Baldur's Gate," a D&D classic. It's new but has already shipped a million copies.

 

NOTE: Readers can search nearly four years of columns at the "On Computers" web site: www.oncomp.com. You can e-mail Bob Schwabach at bobschwab@oncomp.com  or bobschwab@aol.com.