Network and File Sharing Made Simple

By Sean Michael Kerner | Posted December 23, 2005

Microsoft Windows has had some form of PC networking support since version 3.1 was released in 1992. That's not to say it was easy to hook two PC's together and actually get them to share files then (or even now). While Window XP offers dramatically improved networking and file-sharing support over its arcane 13-year-old ancestor, many people still have difficulty easily sharing files and printers among networked computers in their home and small offices.

That's where Network Magic comes in. The newly released Network Magic 2.0 promises to make file- and printer-sharing across a network an easy point-and-click affair. It even allows for access to your shared files remotely via the Web.

Beyond Windows XP
We've never had too much trouble using Windows XP's file sharing capabilities. A simple visit to the "My Computer" tab on XP shows a folder called "Shared Documents," which other connected PCs on the network (with the proper credentials) should be able to see. XP's My Computer tab also clearly shows what other networked drives are connected to your PC. For that reason, we were somewhat skeptical at first about what Network Magic 2.0 could add to what XP already provides.

After testing Network Magic 2.0, however, we realized that it does add value. The problem with the default XP file-sharing capability is that it's incumbent upon you to get the machines connected and actually see other shares. By default, XP is not necessarily aware of everything that is on your network either.

Network Mapping
In contrast, Network Magic 2.0 automatically discovers and maps your entire network, including other PCs, wired and wireless routers, printers and anything else that may be connected to your network. The mapping feature also provides information about the connected devices such as status, manufacturer, IP address and MAC address.

It also allows you to track a network device as an "intruder." However, with the default installation, all you can do with the intruder is track it and not much else.

That's where Network Magic's "Power Toys" extensions are supposed to come into play. Power Toys are experimental extensions designed to add functionality to the application. One of them is called Intruder Blaster and is supposed to allow you to kick such intruders off your network. Unfortunately, router support for the Intruder Blaster is somewhat limited and as such we were unable to successfully test it.

Network Magic is also Windows-specific and did not properly recognize Linux machines or their associated SAMBA shares in our test environment. The program also didn't properly recognize a stock Motorola VoIP ATA adapter either. Though Network Magic didn't know what the Linux and VoIP ATA devices were, it did detect them as "Network Devices" and the program does let you change the label and name of detected devices on the network map.

Our test environment also included a Linksys unmanaged Gigabit switch, which went completely undetected by the program (not so surprising though, since it's nearly impossible for most applications to detect an unmanaged switch).

The program can be configured to automatically let you know when a new device connects to the network and when a device leaves the network. There is also a "What's New" tab that shows a log of what has logged on and off your network as well as any new file shares that may have been added.

Sharing Folders Locally
Sharing folders is where the magic in Network Magic happens.

You need to download and install the Network Magic application on each Windows PC in your network, which is a simple and painless exercise. Next, you create shared folders that other Network Magic clients on Windows PCs can see and interact with. You can share a folder by walking through the basic step of selecting a file through the Network Magic interface — or, alternatively, thanks to a Windows shell extension that Network Magic installs — simply right click any folder and select add "to shared folders". It's really quite easy.

You can set security options for the shared folder to be either password-protected or publicly available to other Network Magic users on your network. When disconnected from your Home network, the Shared Folders are not shared with others and are secured by what Network Magic calls its "PC Shield."

Sharing Folders Remotely
Another innovative feature that Network Magic 2.0 introduces is the capability to share folders and access them remotely via a Web-browser. The service is called "Net2Go" and provides Dynamic DNS mapping for your PC so you can access your shared folders over the Web. Folders that are set as publicly viewable are seen on the main page without the need for a user to log in. Password-protected folders are available to users who log in via the Web interface.

The log-in page for the Net2Go function concerns us a great deal as it is not secured by SSL or an https login interface. As such, the login screen for Net2Go is not all that secure. When we sent a query to Network Magic's technical support on this point, they replied, "passwords are passed plain-text and could be sniffed. We recommend using a password that isn't used for anything else."

Certainly you can try to make sure that you're on a remote PC that you think is secured, and you can clear cache and empty cookies. All that being said, the absence of a proper SSL represents a risk that makes us uneasy to say the least.

Sharing Printers
The other key feature provided by Network Magic 2.0 is the capability to share printers with all members of your network. The network map is supposed to automatically discover all the connected printers and allow for access to other Network Magic users on the network. We found that Network Magic actually found all the printers that had been configured for a particular PC and added those to the list of available printers. On a test notebook, which had been loaded with support for multiple printers, all of the configured printers (and not necessarily those that were active and connected) showed up on the network map.

According to the Network Magic help screen, "for a printer that uses a parallel connection, Network Magic uses the same icon whether the printer is turned on and connected, turned off or disconnected." In our test case, the same was true for USB connected printers, too.

Not knowing whether a printer is on or even connected is a serious shortcoming of Network Magic. Certainly if you only have printers configured that you are connected to and always on, that's not a problem. In that instance, Network Magic does an admirable job of making it dead easy to share a printer.

Easy Networking
Despite a few shortcomings, we suspect that Network Magic 2.0 will indeed seem like magic for most Windows users. It is one of the easiest ways that we've seen to map network assets and to easily share files between PCs. If you've had difficulty using the default features in Windows XP to share files and printer, Network Magic is available as a 14-day free trial, so you don't have anything to lose by trying it.

Price: $49.99 (includes one year of the Net2Go service and updates)

Pros:

  • Automatically maps network
  • Easy file and printer sharing
  • 14-day trial

Cons:

  • Doesn't properly recognize all hardware
  • Doesn't support SMB Linux shares
  • Online file sharing security doesn't have SSL
  • PowerTools aren't fully supported or tested

Adapted from PracticallyNetworked.com, part of the EarthWeb.com Network.

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