Farallon has always held a special place amongst Macintosh networking vendors for taking the simple and making it even simpler. The company rose to prominence in the mid-1980’s after realizing that a LocalTalk signal could be carried over regular phone cabling instead of the custom cable included with Apple’s relatively expensive LocalTalk Connector Kits. Farallon’s PhoneNet product let anyone create a peer network of Macs with incredible flexibility – instead of paying $40 for a connection kit with a fixed six-foot cable, you could pay $30 for a PhoneNet connector and use phone cable of whatever length reason and your local Radio Shack would allow.
Today, although they didn’t invent the technology, Farallon brings the next generation of local area networks over phone cables to Macintosh customers. The world has changed in fifteen years, and so have local area networks. The new HomeLINE products connect both Macintosh and Windows computers at 1 Mbps, four times faster than LocalTalk, and they not only do it over regular phone lines, they do it over phone jacks already in your walls – without interfering with voice transmission or DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) Internet connections.
Welcome To HomePNA — The Home Phoneline Networking Alliance is an eleven-month-old consortium of companies aimed at providing fast, easy-to-use networking over the phone lines already in homes. According to market research firm Dataquest, 44 million U.S. homes already have at least one computer installed, and 18 million of those – 40 percent of all U.S. households with computers – have more than one computer.
Marketing people possess intense interest in what the residents of these multiprocessor domiciles would like to do if their computers could talk to each other. The researchers find that the primary request is a way for multiple computers to share a single Internet connection, enabling all computers in the house to surf the Internet over a single modem. Eliminating one phone line and one ISP account could save the average household anywhere from $250 to $500 per year. The next most frequent request is a way to play multi-player games, followed by networked printer and file sharing, although the continuing drop in high-quality printer prices makes printer sharing less important.
Today’s HomePNA products are based on the HomeRun technology from Tut Systems, makers of equipment to provide networking over regular phone lines. Tut Systems’ Expresso MDU and related products are aimed at dormitories, apartment complexes, hotels, and other large multi-residential facilities wishing to provide network access without adding cable in every room, so phone cable was a natural target medium. Even PhoneNet wouldn’t work in these situations – PhoneNet uses only two of the four wires in a standard phone cable, but it’s not uncommon to see phone cables that include only two wires instead of the standard four. PhoneNet also can’t share wires with voice phone traffic, but Tut Systems needed a technology that could, so networking computers wouldn’t block any phones using the same wires as any computers using the network.
The solution is an innovative technology that shares the same pair of wires as voice traffic, but at a different frequency, allowing both voice and data traffic on the same wires at the same time. The frequency also differs from that used for DSL data, so all three standards can use the same wire at the same time.
HomePNA’s networking and packet format has a theoretical maximum of 1.2 Mbps, but HomePNA members claim throughputs of 1 Mbps, compared to regular Ethernet throughput of 2 to 3 Mbps on 10Base-T networks (which theoretically max out at 10 Mbps). You’d notice a difference on sustained bulk transfers, but for regular interactive Web surfing the two standards would probably "feel" about the same, especially since HomePNA’s 1 Mbps will outrun almost all home Internet connections.
According to Farallon, HomePNA technology is extremely forgiving of old or dubious phone wiring, with no drops in speed or connectivity in most situations. If your phones all ring (without needing help from a PBX or other phone device in your house) when a call comes in, HomePNA should work over your phone wires.
HomePNA is aimed at people who already have multiple phone jacks for the same telephone number, but don’t want to run cables through the house. You could use HomePNA just like LocalTalk, running a telephone cable between the computers you want to network, but if you’re going to run that much cable you might as well use the Ethernet connections built into most modern Macs and get the faster speed, especially if all your computers support 100Base-T Ethernet.
Enter the Macintosh — Although Macintosh users generally think of Intel solely as the supplier of the Pentium chips used in PCs, the company is in fact devoting vast resources to becoming a powerhouse in the networking arena. Intel is fond of pointing to the 18 million multiple computer households to show the vast untapped market for connecting those computers. As with USB, Intel is involved with HomePNA on several levels, not only in manufacturing chipsets to implement HomePNA technology (licensed from Tut Systems) but also in selling its own line of HomePNA-based products, called AnyPoint, that use either a PCI slot or a parallel port to connect Windows-based computers to a HomePNA network.
Until today, however, no HomePNA products were designed to work with the Mac. That’s where Farallon comes in. The company’s new HomeLINE solutions, debuting today, feature PCI cards that work on either Power Macintosh or Windows-based systems, but they come with Farallon’s cross-platform software bundle that’s completely Mac-friendly. HomeLINE supports both AppleTalk and TCP/IP (Farallon supports System 7.5.5, but recommends Mac OS 7.6.1 and later for improvements to Open Transport), and comes with a cross-platform CD-ROM with a selection of software goodies.
At 1 Mbps throughput, HomeLINE is faster than most home Internet access solutions, including 56K modems, ISDN, DSL, and even many cable modems – it’s two-thirds as fast as a 1.54 Mbps T1 line, and few homes have Internet access that fast. No matter what form your Internet connection takes, HomeLINE is fast enough to share it without being a bottleneck. And HomeLINE provides for the sharing of Internet connections out of the box by including a fully licensed copy of Vicomsoft’s SurfDoubler for the Macintosh.
SurfDoubler enables two networked computers to share a single Internet connection. The local network is not limited to two computers, but only two can access the Internet at one time, and one of those must be the computer on which SurfDoubler is installed. According to Ken Haase, director of marketing at Farallon, their tests have shown SurfDoubler to be more than adequate for most home-based situations – in normal usage, three computers all engaged in Web browsing might never trigger SurfDoubler’s two-computer limit because there might not be packet collision. A sustained video or file transfer would be a different story. If SurfDoubler doesn’t cut it, you can purchase the less-limited SoftRouter Plus directly from Vicomsoft and get full trade-in value for your copy of SurfDoubler – $64 off the normal prices. If you’re considering networking a number of computers in different rooms in a school, you might be more interested in the Vicomsoft Internet Gateway, which includes CyberNOT content filtering, but at higher prices.
Unlike Farallon’s Ethernet products, the HomeLINE PCI cards don’t have LEDs to let you know the network is correctly configured (it’s not feasible over regular telephone lines). Instead, the company provides the cross-platform HomeLINE Link Test application, which assumes that both AppleTalk and TCP/IP are inoperative and blasts packets directly onto the phone wires. You run the utility on all your HomePNA-networked computers, and if they can all see each others’ packets, a green status bar appears, ruling out the phone lines as the source of networking trouble. Farallon also provides a ping application for both Windows and Mac OS to test TCP/IP connectivity.
HomeLINE includes a trial version of Miramar Systems’ PC MACLAN 7.2 for Windows 95/98. PC MACLAN adds AppleTalk client and server functionality to Windows – Mac clients can share the PC’s disks and printers through normal Chooser-level AppleShare and printer drivers, and the PC can access all AppleTalk file servers and print servers. PC MACLAN even supports the AppleTalk Filing Protocol over IP, enabling full access to AppleShare IP servers. The trial version of PC MACLAN with HomeLINE is fully functional, but it works only for three hours after the PC is booted. To continue to use it after three hours, you’ll have to restart the PC to get an extra three-hour lease, but you can do this indefinitely.
Given that Farallon was the original name of Netopia and, until recently, a division of that company, it’s not surprising that HomeLINE includes a demonstration version of Timbuktu Pro. Timbuktu Pro includes file sharing, chat, intercom services, sending notes back and forth, plus its signature feature of letting one computer observe or completely control another. Farallon’s Haase points out that HomePNA and Timbuktu can almost replace a standard home intercom system. The trial version of Timbuktu Pro included with HomeLINE is fully functional, but expires after 30 days.
Some software with HomeLINE is fully licensed, like SurfDoubler. Some, like PC MACLAN, is trial software, but HomeLINE purchasers get "Friends of Farallon" pricing on full versions of that software, paying only the upgrade fee to get the full current version of any of the trial software. For PC MACLAN, that’s $100 off the retail price of $199 for the single-user version. For Timbuktu Pro, the upgrade is $70 for a two-computer license.
A Cross-Platform Solution — Farallon estimates that 3 to 4 million multiple computer households have both Macs and PCs, so cross-platform capability is a plus. On the Windows side, the HomeLINE CD-ROM includes Intel’s AnyPoint Internet sharing software for Windows, as well as the Windows trial version of Timbuktu Pro and the PC MACLAN software. Windows users can choose from a variety of hardware products, like Intel’s AnyPoint hardware, but Macintosh users haven’t been able to play before now. Farallon’s HomeLINE Starter Kit, however, includes all the hardware and software you need to connect two computers, Macs or PCs, over HomePNA. Each PCI card includes two phone jacks. You connect the included cable between one jack on the card and the jack in the wall, and you connect your phone to the other jack on the PCI card, giving you both telephone and network service from the single wall outlet.
Not every Windows machine can accept a PCI card, however, though HomeLINE’s software works on any Windows machine with a Pentium processor or greater, 8 MB of RAM, and Windows 95/98. (The Mac OS product requires 16 MB of RAM and System 7.5.5 or later.) Intel’s AnyPoint line includes a network interface that connects through the parallel port, ideal for notebook computers or desktop machines without a free PCI slot. If you need a product like that for your Windows machine, HomeLINE works with it, since both are based on the HomePNA standard. What’s more, you lose nothing by using other HomePNA hardware on your network, because every HomeLINE PCI product comes with the full cross-platform CD-ROM. Purchasing a single card so your Power Macintosh can talk to a Windows laptop doesn’t mean you lose out on the trial versions of PC MACLAN or Timbuktu Pro.
While not as cheap as Ethernet, the HomeLINE Starter Kit isn’t too expensive for connecting two computers. It features two HomeLINE PCI cards, two phone cables, the cross-platform NetPack CD-ROM, plus a user’s guide and printed QuickStart card for an estimated street price of $139. The HomeLINE Single Pack is the same except it has only one PCI card and one phone cable; it should sell for $79. Farallon expects to ship both products tomorrow and both are available directly via online ordering.
What We Think — The biggest limitation here for Mac users is the requirement of a free PCI slot. PowerBook and iMac owners need not apply. Farallon is keenly aware of the problem, especially since Intel has non-PCI solutions for Windows computers. Haase told us that Farallon is actively working on an iMac HomeLINE solution and will have products ready in the middle of this year but didn’t want to delay the release of today’s products because there are lots of PCI-capable Power Macs in homes already. Although HomeLINE’s 1 Mbps speed is well within even the slower 1.5 Mbps speed of the Universal Serial Bus, Haase points out that the USB Manager in the Mac OS doesn’t contain all the necessary connections to allow USB peripherals to function as network devices. Farallon refuses to describe their exact product, but says that an external HomeLINE product will be available this summer with pricing "in line" to PCI card pricing. [It’s more likely that the device would connect to RJ-45 10Base-T Ethernet ports, such as those on iMacs and recent PowerBooks. -Adam]
Note that HomeLINE is currently certified for use only in North America. Telephone technologies and regulations vary widely around the world, so there’s no telling when or if HomeLINE will be made available in other countries.
HomePNA isn’t the best networking solution available today, but it’s one of the most convenient. Households without extensive technical skills will find it easier to call the phone company to install a new jack than they would to install Ethernet cable in the walls (or, uglier yet, run it along the floor as so many people have to do today). One megabit per second is (pardon the pun) nothing to wire home about, but HomePNA isn’t standing still. Tut Systems has already demonstrated new chips, co-developed with Broadcom, that push 10 Mbps per second across ordinary phone cables – as fast as 10Base-T Ethernet, and fast enough to handle streaming video. The joint venture is competing with Epigram, makers of the InsideLine technology that already achieves 10 Mbps over phone cable and is scheduled to reach 100 Mbps by the end of 1999. The Home Phoneline Networking Alliance is currently reviewing both technologies to decide on the HomePNA 2.0 standard. Backwards compatibility with the current 1.0 standard is a major goal.
Competition for the HomePNA technology include recent advances in networking over power line wires and wireless networking. Although most homes have multiple phone jacks, there are far more electrical outlets than phone jacks in any house, and wireless networking technologies do away with the need for jacks entirely. However, HomePNA wins out over the electric line networking on the basis of being available today across platforms, being three times faster than the Windows-only Passport from Intelogis, and being more reliable. Wireless networking technologies can compete with HomePNA on speed, reliability, and ease of use, but they tend to be much more expensive.
The beauty of HomeLINE is that it’s a full Macintosh product, but it’s not only a Macintosh product. If you have two PCI-capable computers, you don’t need anything beyond the two-card Starter Kit to use HomeLINE – specifically, you don’t have to buy one card for the Mac, a different card for Windows, and then software to make them talk to each other. The Farallon-exclusive diagnostic utilities should also be a welcome relief to anyone unable to get the plug-and-play technology to work.
When HomePNA 2.0 arrives, the technology becomes a more interesting challenger to Ethernet in more home-based situations. As it stands, however, HomePNA 1.0 can outpace almost any Internet connection you might have at home, so the slower speed isn’t as much of a problem. It’s the software bundle that distinguishes HomeLINE. If you want to share an Internet connection through your Mac, you need something like SurfDoubler, and it sells exclusively online for $64. A single HomeLINE card is $79. It’s like buying SurfDoubler and getting HomePNA plus all the extra trial software, cheap upgrades, and diagnostic tools for $15.
If you’ve considered networking your computers together, and if you already have phone jacks next to them, HomeLINE makes HomePNA an extremely attractive choice. (And if you have two computers next to a single phone jack, a cheap phone splitter from Radio Shack will provide the extra jack you need to use HomeLINE.) If you have to string cable, or don’t want to pay for an extra phone jack, you might choose to stick with Ethernet, but as of today, you have a reasonably priced, cross-platform alternative, from the people who pioneered Macintosh networking over phone cables. Choice is good.
[Matt Deatherage is the publisher of MWJ, the Weekly Journal for Serious Macintosh Users, and the soon-to-return daily Macintosh journal MDJ. Free trial subscriptions to MWJ are available.]