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The Internet: The Missing Manual by David Pogue, J.D. Biersdorfer

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Chapter 1. Getting Online

The Internet, as you may have heard, is a parallel universe. It's a travel agency, bank teller, music store, video player, radio station, and newspaper wire service, not to mention a bulletin board, chat room, post office, and global chess tournament. Or at least the Internet can be all that stuff if you can connect to it. That can be the tricky part.

The basic components you need for Internet fun include:

  • Internet service. Lots of stuff on the Internet's free, but getting to the Internet usually isn't. In fact, you have to sign up for an account with somebody—your cable TV company, phone company, or an outfit like America Online—to get your computer connected.

  • Equipment. Your computer may already have what it takes to get you online: a modem (if you want to get online via phone lines), an Ethernet jack (to connect by network wire), or a wireless card (to connect wire lessly). Details in a moment.

  • Internet software. If you're going to send email and browse the World Wide Web, you need special programs to do so. Luckily, your computer came with these programs already on the hard drive.

This chapter explains each of these elements in more detail.

This chapter also describes each of the three primary methods people use to get their computers connected to the Internet these days, in this order:

  • Broadband connections. These are high-speed, extremely satisfying connections that are growing in popularity—but they're fairly expensive.

  • Dial-up connections. Your computer can also connect to the Internet by dialing out over ordinary phone lines. It's slow, but cheap.

  • Wireless connections. Pure heaven. Might even be free, if you're in the right place.

Broadband Connections (Fast)

A broadband connection delivers songs, videos, and digital photos to your computer in minutes instead of hours. We're talking at least 20 times faster than a dial-up modem. Complex Web pages that take almost a minute to appear in your browser with a standard modem will pop up almost immediately with a cable modem or DSL.

And that's not the only reason about half of all Internetters have signed up for broadband service. Here are some of the other perks:

  • No dialing. These connection methods hook you up to the Internet permanently, full time, so that you don't waste time connecting or disconnecting—ever. You're always online. There's no 40-second wait while your modem screeches and dials.

  • No weekends lost to setup. You can set up the equipment yourself to save a few bucks. But most people take the easy road: they allow a representative from the phone company or cable company to come to their home or office to install the modem and configure the Mac or PC to use it.

  • Possible savings. Cable modems and DSL services cost $30 to $40 a month. If you, a dial-up customer, have been paying for two phone lines just so you can talk and be online at the same time, you'll actually save money with broadband because you can cancel the second phone line.

Broadband connections usually come in the form of a cable modem or DSL box (digital subscriber line). (In some remote areas, you can also get broadband satellite service. But this method is slow, expensive, and rare in residential areas.)

As the name suggests, a cable modem (Figure 1-1) uses your cable-TV company's network of wires to pipe data into your house, right alongside Comedy Central and HBO. DSL, on the other hand, uses your existing telephone lines to carry its signal. You usually sign up for DSL service through your phone company.

External broadband modems, like this Motorola model for cable Internet service, connect to the back of the computer with an Ethernet or USB cord. Most modems also need their own power supply, so pick a spot within reach of an electrical outlet. Some broadband modems can even connect to your computer wirelessly, but ask your Internet provider about the system requirements.

Figure 1-1. External broadband modems, like this Motorola model for cable Internet service, connect to the back of the computer with an Ethernet or USB cord. Most modems also need their own power supply, so pick a spot within reach of an electrical outlet. Some broadband modems can even connect to your computer wirelessly, but ask your Internet provider about the system requirements.

Note

Cable modems are often slightly more expensive—and slightly faster—than DSL.

Broadband connections generally require a computer with an Ethernet jack.It looks like a telephone jack, but slightly fatter. This jack's an indication that your computer contains a network card, used for creating a wired connection to a home network, office network, cable modem, or DSL box. Most computers sold since about 2001 have such a jack.

Tip

Your computer may even have both a modem jack (described later in this chapter) and an Ethernet jack. The two jacks look very similar and accept the same sort of plastic plug on the end of the connecting cord, but the network jack is slightly wider. Using a flashlight, magnifying glass, and small child—if necessary—look for tiny identifying icons on each jack; a tiny telephone handset icon denotes the modem jack.

If your computer doesn't have a network card, you can add one, as an internal card that you install inside; a metal, credit card-size card that fits into a laptop card slot; or an external box that dangles from the computer's USB connector.

The Broadband Setup

If you've ordered cable-modem or DSL service, a technician may come to your house to do all the necessary wiring and configuration for you. All you have to do is be home to let the technician in.

In some cases, however—especially if you already have cable TV or phone service—you may be offered a self-installation kit. As thanks for doing the cable person's job, a tasty discount is usually part of this arrangement.

If you opt for the self-installation route, your kit probably contains the modem itself, a software CD, an Ethernet or USB cable to connect to your computer, a splitter box (Figure 1-2, top) to divide your incoming cable line into two, and paperwork containing account names, numbers, and passwords.

Note

If you've opted for a DSL box, your kit may also include several plastic DSL filters. You're supposed to attach them to all your active phone lines except the one the computer's using. (DSL works by maximizing the amount of data that your regular old copper phone wires can carry, but doing so makes the line noisier than a teenage girls' slumber party. The filters you attach to your telephone, fax machine, or other working phone lines screen out the data noise and let you use the phone to order pizza, even as you're downloading a big video file from the Web.)

One-eyed jacks are fine for cards, but splitters like these convert one cable or telephone connection into two so you can share your cable or phone line with your computer. You can buy either of these for a few dollars at places like Radio Shack or computer stores.Top: Screw the coaxial cable from the wall into the single end of this connector. Then screw a cable to each of the two other connectors; one goes back into the TV or cable box and the other goes into your cable modem.Bottom: Snap this splitter into a phone jack in the wall. Plug in your dial-up modem line or DSL cable into one open jack. If you have DSL, plug in a DSL filter to the other jack, and then plug your phone into the end of the filter.

Figure 1-2. One-eyed jacks are fine for cards, but splitters like these convert one cable or telephone connection into two so you can share your cable or phone line with your computer. You can buy either of these for a few dollars at places like Radio Shack or computer stores. Top: Screw the coaxial cable from the wall into the single end of this connector. Then screw a cable to each of the two other connectors; one goes back into the TV or cable box and the other goes into your cable modem. Bottom: Snap this splitter into a phone jack in the wall. Plug in your dial-up modem line or DSL cable into one open jack. If you have DSL, plug in a DSL filter to the other jack, and then plug your phone into the end of the filter.

The company's setup instructions will probably direct you to unscrew the round coaxial cable that runs from the wall to the back of the cable box and attach the splitter. Then you use the additional cable provided to connect one side of the splitter to the cable box, and the other side to the back of the cable modem. Use the Ethernet or USB cable to connect the cable modem to the computer's network (Ethernet) or USB port. Figure 1-3 maps the typical setup.

Your TV and your PC can share the single cable coming out of your wall, thanks to a splitter box provided with most do-it-yourself cable-modem installation kits. As shown here, you just need to attach the splitter box to the cable coming out of the wall jack, which converts a single cable jack into two. Then use the coaxial cable provided in your modem kit to connect the cable modem to one side of the splitter; connect the television cable box to the splitter using another cable. When it's all connected properly, you can surf the Web while you watch the Discovery Channel.

Figure 1-3. Your TV and your PC can share the single cable coming out of your wall, thanks to a splitter box provided with most do-it-yourself cable-modem installation kits. As shown here, you just need to attach the splitter box to the cable coming out of the wall jack, which converts a single cable jack into two. Then use the coaxial cable provided in your modem kit to connect the cable modem to one side of the splitter; connect the television cable box to the splitter using another cable. When it's all connected properly, you can surf the Web while you watch the Discovery Channel.

Tip

You can plug the cable modem straight into the computer. That's all you need if you only have one computer. But if there's more than one computer in the house, consider buying an inexpensive box called a router. If you plug the cable modem (and all computers) into that, they can all share the broadband connection for a single price. See Section 1.1.1.2 for more on sharing strategies if you've got multiple computers.

After everything's all plugged in, the wrapup steps differ slightly depending on whether you're using Windows or a Macintosh.

Wrapping up the Windows setup

Dig the CD out of the box, put it in your computer, and run the setup program on it. You'll be asked to plug in the account information from the cable or DSL company: your new account name, password, and so on. Your provider should also supply the settings and information you need to set up your new email address; see Section 14.1.4.4 for instructions on how to configure an email account.

CDs that come with broadband kits are designed to take your hand and walk you through the setup process. If you've got a fistful of account settings, user names, and passwords from your provider—and no fear of your computer's control panels—you can also manually plug in your new connection settings. Choose Start → Control Panel → Network Connections and then choose "Create a new connection." Click "Connect to the Internet" and then click Next.

On the next screen, click the button for "Set up my connection manually." Click Next again.

The next box presents you with two choices for a broadband connection: one that requires a user name and password and one that's always on. In most cases these days, you use the "always on" option, but check the papers from your ISP.

If your connection is always on, click Next to finish up. If your ISP requires a name and password to use your connection (some DSL providers do), the next few screens walk you through typing in the user name and password.

Wrapping up the Mac OS X setup

Once the cable modem or DSL box is connected to your Mac's Ethernet jack, you should be able to get online immediately; no software installation is generally necessary.

The beauty of cable modems and DSL service is that they offer a geeky but wonderful feature called DHCP, which means, "I'll configure all the network settings for you." Open your Web browser and enjoy.

Sharing a Broadband Connection

You're paying good money each month for that speedy broadband connection. If you have more than one computer around the house in need of Internet access, you can share your DSL or cable connection with the other, less fortunate machines. You do this by setting up a home network.

A home network is like your own personal Internet: All the computers in your house can share files, use the same printer, and divide up the high-speed Internet connection so everyone in the house can surf on their own Macs or PCs.

To create a basic home network, you need to buy an inexpensive, compact metal or plastic box called a router. It offers one jack for your broadband modem and several others for network cables from all your computers. Once you plug in the modem and network cables between the router and each computer, the router divides your modem's pipeline among the connected computers so they can all be online at once.

Some broadband modems and ISPs require that you type specific settings into the Mac's Network configuration box in order to get online with your new broadband service. To get to this box, choose → System Preferences → Network. In the Show menu, select either Built-in Ethernet (for a wired connection to your modem) or AirPort (for a wireless connection). If your ISP's this persnickety about the settings you use, odds are you need to select Manually from the Configure menu and then type in the numbers and other information they gave you when you signed up—or that their tech team gave you when you called to complain that you couldn't get online.

Figure 1-4. Some broadband modems and ISPs require that you type specific settings into the Mac's Network configuration box in order to get online with your new broadband service. To get to this box, choose → System Preferences → Network. In the Show menu, select either Built-in Ethernet (for a wired connection to your modem) or AirPort (for a wireless connection). If your ISP's this persnickety about the settings you use, odds are you need to select Manually from the Configure menu and then type in the numbers and other information they gave you when you signed up—or that their tech team gave you when you called to complain that you couldn't get online.

Note

You can also opt for a wireless router, which lets you share the broadband computer with all the wireless computers in your house. See Section 1.2.

Powerline networking, where your house's existing electrical system is converted into a discreet home network, is another way to get your computers connected without having to string the house with Ethernet cables.

For an in-depth look at setting up your own home network, check out Home Networking: The Missing Manual, which shows you how to make a wired, wireless, or mixed network out of PCs, Macs, or Macs and PCs.

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