As home networks become increasingly complicated, with clients and other devices scattered throughout the house, it's a full-time job for a home user to keep clients, printers, VoIP phones, network drives, and a variety of media devices on the network. Pure Networks' Network Magic software helps you keep everything connected and better distribute LAN resources with file and printer sharing. All told, this software is well worth its $50 price tag and is a great tool for novice networkers; however, it doesn't work with all routers, and it leaves non-Windows machines out in the cold.
Documentation for Network Magic is a mixed bag that includes a quick-start guide, online help, and a series of tips but no printed manual to peruse. The simple installation takes a few minutes, but the software works only with PCs, is limited to five client computers, and is compatible with merely about 100 of the most popular routers on the market. While 100 routers sounds like a lot, and Pure Networks plans to continually add more hardware support, Network Magic currently overlooks many smaller router brands, such as Hawking Technology, Trendware, and ViewSonic. To get the most out of Network Magic, you should load it on to every PC on your network. Those computers that don't or can't accept the app--including Mac and Linux systems--still show up, albeit with limited information and features.
The first thing you'll notice about the Network Magic interface is how simple and functional it is. At the top are large buttons labeled What's New, Network Map, Shared Folders, and Printer Manager. Network Map is the most interesting function because of its ability to visually track and detail any network device that has an IP address, including routers, PCs, PDAs, printers, media players, and even connected gaming consoles. Each device gets a simple, renameable icon in the Network Map pane. Network Magic quickly scanned our setup and found five connected PCs, four printers, a networked hard drive, a video camera, and a PS/2 console, but it missed a D-Link five-port switch that lacked an IP address. While Network Magic is great for LANs with a couple of PCs and printers, it can't accommodate networks with more than five PCs. Although you can scroll, a zoom feature would have been a great addition--with three or four PCs and a few peripherals, the network map won't fit on most screens. It would be great to be able to zoom out a little to see the whole landscape.
While the Network Magic program keeps an eye on your broadband connection, the Details section in a window on the right also lets you explore the inner workings of network devices. This feature provides an excellent summary of each highlighted device, including its rated top speed, IP and MAC addresses, OS, and more. The bad news is that Network Magic doesn't allow you to save or print the map or its details, so it's inappropriate for archiving a network's topology for later troubleshooting or upgrading.
In addition to streamlining file-sharing setup, Network Magic lets any client send print jobs to any connected PC's printer. While both of these functions are available in Windows XP, Network Magic simplifies these tasks, consolidates the setup, and allows Windows 98 to talk to XP computers. This program really shines when things aren't working--for example, because of IP conflicts or erroneous client network addresses. Network Magic's Repair button scans the network for faults but stops short of automatically fixing problems. Ultimately, you'll have to do the dirty work; the software runs a troubleshooting routine and suggests some fixes, but the suggestions are on the general side. In addition to supporting more routers, Pure Networks plans to add online remote-access capabilities by early 2006 (no word yet about whether this will be an upgrade or a new product), as well as Macintosh and Linux compatibility.
Pure Networks offers lifetime support for Network Magic, and its Web site provides lots of help, including detailed FAQs, an update section for the latest additions to the program, and a forum with loads of great information on how to optimize the application. If you're not ready to invest the $50, you can download a two-week trial of the software from the Pure Networks site. Both e-mail and phone support are free during the trial period and after. The toll-free support line is open 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. PT.