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Obviously, linking computers together via a local area network offers far greater benefits than just multiplayer frag fests. But should you stay wired or go wireless?

Obviously, linking computers together via a local area network (LAN) offers far greater benefits than just multiplayer frag fests. For instance, it provides users with resource sharing, such as trouble-free program and data access, as well as Internet connectivity.

For our purposes, though, let’s focus on networking from a purely gaming perspective. That’s only logical, given the release of such high-powered first-person shooters as “Doom III,” “Half-Life 2,” and “Unreal Tournament 2004” looming on the horizon. We’re headed for a multiplayer smorgasbord of extreme proportions, folks, and we need to be ready.

That preparation involves creating your own multiplayer gaming LAN and, to help you do that, several options exist. Choices include wired and wireless, with several variations in both camps, each of which has its own strengths and weaknesses. Still, regardless which route you follow–tethered or not–similar components are required for the task.

Thanks to improved integration, numerous motherboards include on-board networking. However, if the motherboard in your game rig doesn’t feature an imbedded network connection (or two), a network interface card (NIC) is a required add-in when fashioning a LAN. In most cases, a central device, such as a hub, switch, or router, is also needed to collect and distribute the network signals. If going wired, cables are a necessity, too. All this stuff can be acquired from such companies as Belkin, Linksys, and Microsoft, to name just a few.

Let’s examine the two approaches to networking and the exact requirements for each. In the wired camp, the principal alternative is 10/100Base-T Ethernet that transmits data at either 10 or 100Mbps, or the more recent and speedier Gigabit Ethernet (GbE) technology supporting data transfer rates of up to 1Gbps. Just to clarify, don’t confuse the transmission quantifiers Mbps and Gbps with the storage measurements megabyte (MB) and gigabyte (GB). Gigabit and gigabyte are not identical.

Each computer on a LAN requires a NIC. If the network consists of a single pair of computers, a crossover cable can be used. Referred to as two-node networking, this allows two computers to share resources or play games without a hub or similar device–just as long as you don’t exceed the 100-meter maximum length (about 328 feet) that this setup allows.

When more than two computers are networked (this works for two PCs as well), they must connect via standard Ethernet patch cables to a central device, such as a hub, switch, or router, that collects and distributes the network signals. A word of caution: While a patch cable looks identical to a crossover cable, functionally it’s distinct. Don’t confuse the two.

Essentially, a hub contains multiple ports and connects all devices in a network, broadcasting each packet (a “message” containing data and its destination address) to every port on the hub. A switch–a type of hub–forwards each packet only to the required port. As such, it provides substantially better performance than a basic hub. A router also forwards data packets across a network, but its actual purpose is to connect two or more networks. In most home-based LANs, a router (also called a gateway router) connects a network and a broadband DSL/cable modem to provide a shared Internet connection. Traditionally, routers also incorporate a hardware-based firewall to protect a network from outside intrusions.

Other wired options–phoneline, which uses telephone lines, and powerline, which employs standard 110-volt electrical wiring–are less desirable alternatives and should be avoided. If it’s impractical to run Ethernet cabling between computers, wireless options are far superior to either phoneline- or powerline-based products.

With wireless networking, the alternatives are improving and expanding. Current favorites include 802.11b (referred to as Wi-Fi) and the newer, faster 802.11g. There’s also Bluetooth, a short-range, radio technology protocol. Respectively, maximum transmission speeds are 11Mbps, 54Mbps, and 721Kbps. (Kbps is a transmission speed quantifier of 1,000 bits per second, not to be confused with kilobyte, a storage unit of 1,024 bytes.) Naturally, faster is better, so if you can afford the higher throughput of 802.11g, elect that over 802.11b or Bluetooth.

Each computer in a wireless LAN is fitted with a wireless NIC that transmits data to and receives data from a Wireless Network Access Point (a communication hub for wireless devices that connects them to a wired LAN) or wireless DSL/cable gateway router (to connect a wireless LAN directly to a broadband modem). These devices often incorporate an integrated 10/100Base-T Ethernet switch for connecting wired computers to the network.

Wireless networks can coexist with wired networks as well as with Bluetooth devices, and offer an indoor transmission range extending from approximately 150 feet to 300 feet or more (depending on building construction). As with wired networks, wireless routers include hardware-based firewall protection against intrusions from outside the network, as well as data and network security via wireless wired equivalent privacy (WEP) encryption, a necessity since wireless LANs are inherently less secure than their wired counterparts.

The question then arises: What’s the best option for LAN gaming, wired or wireless? The answer is that it really depends on your needs and your limitations.

Wired networking is more affordable, costing approximately $150 to network a pair of PCs via NICs, a basic router, and cabling. Going wireless more than doubles the outlay for two computers, causing it to run closer to $400. And so, from an affordability standpoint, wired LANs are more cost-effective, especially as the number of networked PCs increases. For huge multiplayer gaming parties, wired is the way to go.

Speed is another concern. For a room full of gamers fragging each other on first-person shooters, the data throughput of a wired LAN is superior to that of wireless. Even with 802.11g technology, 54Mbps is more theoretical than achievable. Actual transfer rates of 25-27Mbps are attainable under ideal conditions. Compare that to the 100Mbps or 1Gbps of wired networks, and there’s quite a performance gap. It’s one that’s great enough that if signals weaken even momentarily, you’re sure to get fragged instantly.

For home use, however, you need to consider the proximity of the computers being networked and the ease or difficulty of running patch cables. If several rooms or floors exist between the computers, wireless technology may make more sense in spite of its inherent failings.

So what’s the answer? It all depends on your circumstances, and what you’re after. I say, go with whatever gets you up and gaming while offering the best performance and the least hassle.

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