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In the context of discussing computers, a network is basically two or more computers or peripheral devices - such as printers or scanners - connected to, and communicating with, each other. Technically, one computer connecting to another computer is considered a very basic network. More often though, computers and other devices on the network communicate through a device called a router. A router handles and manages all the network traffic, which is essentially the data being passed from one device to another, and ensures that the right data gets to the right device. You may have heard of other devices called switches or hubs, which operate similarly to a router, but with a little less sophistication and capabilities.
I am not going to get into the specific details here, and for simplicity's sake, I am going to refer to the network management device as the router, even though I could also say a hub or a switch, depending on what the device actually is. Now, the point of a network is to make it easy for all the computers in your home or office to communicate with one another. This allows you to share files directly with other computers without having to copy the files to a disk, or to e-mail them. Networks are also operating-system agnostic, so you can have both Macs and PCs on the same network. A network also allows you to have shared devices like printers and scanners, so each person doesn't need to have his or her own.
Another very common purpose of a network is to share a single Internet connection among all your computers. Many people these days have high- speed broadband Internet services in their homes and need to share that connection with several computers and other Internet-enabled devices in their household. Routers generally all have ports to accept the connection from a broadband modem. High-speed services, such as cable, DSL, and fiber optics are considered broadband. Now it's important to understand that just connecting to a network does not mean you are connected to the Internet. Connecting to a network means you are connected to the other devices on the network.
This is known as your Local Area Network, or LAN. For Internet service to be available to all the computers on your LAN, the Internet modem must also be connected to the router. The Internet connection is known as the Wide Area Network or WAN. Basically, the entire Internet outside your LAN is considered the WAN. Incidentally, sometimes the modem provided to you by your Internet service provider is also a router, negating the need to have a separate router and modem. Now, there are two main ways for your devices to connect to a network: wired connections and wireless connections. Wired connections involve cables that look like this, commonly called Ethernet connections.
The advantage of a wired connection is it requires very little setup or configuration. For the most part, you just plug one end of the cable into your router, plug the other end into your computer, adjust and check your settings, and you are immediately connected to your network and the Internet. Wireless connections, often called Wi- Fi connections, usually involve a little more setup, but offer the advantage of freeing your device from cables, and allowing you to connect to your network and the Internet from anywhere within the range of the wireless signal. That's another important point. In order to broadcast a Wi-Fi signal, you must have a Wi-Fi-enabled router.
But most Internet service providers today give you routers with Wi-Fi capabilities, and you can also purchase Wi-Fi routers inexpensively in any computer store. So in this chapter, we are going to look at how to connect to a network both via Ethernet and Wi-Fi, and we will also talk more about how to connect to the Internet through your network.
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