If high-speed Internet access is finally coming your way via satellite or a wireless system, you probably are feeling the need to upgrade or replace your current computer system.
“There is a ripple effect when you go to high-speed Internet,” says Mark Lage, a Sheffield, IA, farmer who runs a computer store, Countryside Computers, from a renovated barn on his farm in central Iowa.
“Before you buy any of the fast Internet services, evaluate your computer and what it will do,” Lage advises. “If you have bought a new computer in the last year or two, you probably will be okay. But if you haven't, you may need to buy a new one, depending on the service you are considering.”
For example, StarBand Communications, which provides two-way, satellite-delivered Internet service, doesn't support Windows 95, the operating system on many older computers. A USB port, which isn't common on older machines, also is required to hook up a StarBand modem.
“If you put Windows 98 on an older machine, it seems to slow down dramatically,” Lage says. “You also may need more memory and a larger hard drive. You could easily spend $600 to upgrade. You could buy a new machine for $800 to $1,500.”
Adding high-speed Internet service doesn't necessarily require more computer horsepower, though. For example, Prairie iNet, which provides high-speed, fixed wireless Internet service, requires a relatively modest Pentium-class, 133-MHz PC, with 32 mb of RAM, 100 mb of free hard disk space and an available PCI or ISA slot.
But Lage warns that such a computer may not have enough hard drive space to allow you to take advantage of downloads that a high-speed Internet connection encourages.
The new computer market has been soft, which is good news if you are in the market for a new computer.
Notes Lage: “My customers are paying about the same for computers now as they were a year ago, but the computers are almost twice as fast for the same amount of money.”
Adding an always-on, high-speed Internet connection raises other hardware and software issues, too. Here's an overview of the considerations to keep in mind.
Networking ahead. If your family has more than one computer, there's a good chance you'll end up sharing the high-speed Internet connection to eliminate competition for online access. When more than one computer is active online, you'll be sharing the bandwidth. But unless you are downloading a large file, it's unlikely you will notice much of a slowdown. Depending on how your network is set up, in addition to the Internet, you'll also be able to share printers, scanners and other peripherals, as well as files.
Both hard-wired and wireless networking systems are available. Hard-wired options include systems requiring dedicated cables, or systems using existing telephone or electric wires. Wireless options tend to be more expensive than hard-wired systems (excluding the labor cost of cabling). A ballpark cost for networking ranges from $25 to $300 per PC.
The simplest solution for linking two PCs, especially if they are close to one another, is to link the computers via their Ethernet ports using a cross-linked Category 5 Ethernet cable. Most newer PCs have Ethernet ports; a port is inexpensive to add to an older machine.
If the two PCs aren't close together, if you have more than two PCs, or if you don't want to turn on your “host” computer to allow the other computers to access the Internet, you might want a more sophisticated network using a hub or switching device.
Before setting up a network, be sure to check the subscriber agreement from your Internet service provider (ISP) to see if a network is allowed. Some high-speed ISPs restrict networks to certain service packages or may charge extra for networks.
“My customers are paying about the same for computers now as they were a year ago, but the computers are almost twice as fast for the same amount of money.”
In addition, ISPs generally don't provide technical support for a network. However, once a simple network is set up, it generally requires little or no maintenance to keep it running.
Fend off infection. With always-on, high-speed Internet connections, computer security is more important than ever. The two main threats to your computer system and data are viruses and intrusions by rogue hackers.
Computer viruses come from tainted e-mail attachments, which can hit an unprotected computer whether it gathers e-mail via a dial-up or full-time connection.
Lage says his customers have noticed increased virus activity in recent months. Infected computers have had one thing in common: They weren't protected, either because they had no antivirus software or because virus definitions hadn't been updated.
Part of the problem is that, because computer viruses are becoming more common, the media have stopped warning computer users about them. In the first three weeks of January this year, McAfee, an antivirus software manufacturer, reported 21 new viruses.
“We have been assaulted since November with so many more viruses than we had in the past,” Lage says. “The idea that we are in the middle of nowhere and we aren't truly connected isn't realistic. We are in the middle of nowhere, but we are terribly connected. It is wonderful to be connected, but you have to be cautious.”
Last fall one of Lage's customers brought in a computer infected by a virus known as W95.MTX. The computer was completely unusable, because the virus altered vital system files. To repair the drive, Lage had to remove it and insert it into an uninfected computer with updated virus protection software.
Lage's advice: Install antivirus software, including the latest definitions from the software Web site; scan and repair the hard drive; and update virus definitions at least once a week. Several antivirus programs, including versions from McAfee and Norton, have automatic update features. Consider using this feature to keep your virus protection up to date.
Virus hoaxes also are on the increase. Before passing along a warning, check antivirus software Web sites. If a virus alert turns outto be a hoax, don't pass it along to your friends.
Thwart the hackers. It may seem farfetched that a hacker would pick on your computer, but with a full-time Internet connection (and assuming your computer is turned on for hours at a time), your chances of hacker intrusion are greater than with a dial-up connection. Hackers use sophisticated scanning software to check for unprotected connections. Most of them reportedly conduct intrusions to “just do it,” but some may have more devious intentions.
To protect your computer, you'll need a firewall. Hardware firewalls that monitor and stop unauthorized traffic to your computer can cost several hundred dollars. Software-based firewalls cost $50 or less, or are free.
Your ISP may recommend firewalls. For example, StarBand's Web site recommends two software-based firewalls: ZoneAlarm and Blackice Defender. Norton and McAfee, as well as other software companies, also sell firewalls.
Be aware that automatic update features common with some software will “set off” your firewall alarm, Lage says. This is nothing to worry about and is a good reminder that your firewall is working.
Make backups. You've heard it before: Regularly back up your hard drive to avoid the possibility of losing all your data. This advice is especially important with the higher use and greater number and size of downloads likely with a full-time, high-speed Internet connection.
Lage says his customers are turning increasingly to rewritable CD drives for backing up data. A single CD disk, which costs $1.50 to $3, can hold up to 650 mb of data.
“Most computer users don't back up their drives; it's a big mistake,” Lage says. “A CD is a good means of backing up data. But remember, CDs can be scratched.”
Expect to pay $150 to $300 for a CD read/write drive, depending on speed. For most users, an 8X-4X-32X (write/rewrite/play) drive should be adequate, Lage says.
And because you also can use the drive to download music onto a CD, the teenager in your family will love it, too.