Network Magic 3.0
April 20, 2006
UPDATED: Interface improvements and new features including some much-needed security put this home network management software in the must-try list.
Price: $29.99 per year (or $3.99 per month)
Pros: Makes it easy to view and manage all devices on the network; simplifies resource sharing and the configuration of some router features.
Cons: No WEP or WPA setup, subscription fees instead of outright purchase, no Mac or Linux support.
It was physicist and author Arthur C. Clarke who once wrote, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." This may help explain the design rationale behind Network Magic from Network Magic (formerly Pure Networks), a utility that aims to help users monitor, manage and get the most out of their home networks. The prior version of Network Magic was useful, but this latest iteration adds a couple of worthwhile features to the mix.
Network Magic has three main facets -- to provide information about the network and help facilitate mundane tasks like the sharing of folders or printers, to act as an easy-to-use interface for your router's security-related features, and to provide access to the network when you're away from home. The latter two require that you use a router specifically supported by Network Magic. The list of supported devices was a bit thin in the past, limited mainly to a handful of the most popular (read: inexpensive and vanilla) models. Fortunately, the list has grown much more extensive and includes many advanced routers like MIMO devices from D-Link and Netgear, so chances are good that you'll find yours on the list.
Getting Network Magic up and running on a PC isn't difficult and doesn't take very long. (You can install the software on up to three systems with the standard license.) As we proceeded through the installation wizard, the software deftly detected the presence of Symantec's Norton Internet Security software and proceeded to outline a series of simple configuration steps to ensure the firewall wouldn't inhibit Network Magic's function or prevent file and printer sharing over the network. Network Magic also successfully identified my (relatively) high-end Netgear RangeMax WPN824 wireless router and prompted for the unit's username and password so it could interact directly with the device.
Network Magic uses a tabbed interface that's well designed and easy to use. You can share system resources like folders and printers directly from within it, and it provides sharing wizards that are much more streamlined than the ones that come with Windows. Through the Network Map, you can check the status of your Internet connection as well as see a graphical representation of all the devices detected on the network. Network Magic successfully detected the presence of and identified a variety of devices on my network including multiple computers, a TiVo DVR, an Xbox 360 game console, and a wireless print server. (In cases where Network Magic can't ID the device, you can specify your own label and icon.)
Clicking on a particular device lets you view its IP configuration data, and right-clicking calls up a context menu of tasks and information appropriate to the specific device. For example, you may be able to log into the device (i.e. a router), or check the queue of a shared printer. In the case of another computer running Network Magic, you can view more detailed hardware and software info like the amount of memory, type of CPU, or Windows OS version. More importantly, you can share a folder or printer from a remote system and verify whether a firewall is turned on and if things like security patches and anti-virus definitions are up to date.
Network Magic maintains an alert log to notify you of any important network events, such as when a system running the software is not configured to automatically download new Windows vulnerability patches. There's also a separate log to track more mundane activity like when devices join or leave the network.
A major concern of many home network users -- particularly those with wireless networks -- is to keep unauthorized users away. Like its predecessor, Network Magic will let you know when a device joins the network and let you track it as an intruder, but version 3.0's new Wireless Protection Center actually lets you do something to send interlopers packing. It helps you configure your router's security features, specifically SSID broadcast and MAC filtering. It only works with select routers, and I did need to make sure I was running a particular version of the router firmware before this feature would work -- Network Magic includes firmware versions in its compatibility list.
It doesn't set up Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) or wired equivalent privacy (WEP) encryption keys on your router, nor on your client systems. You'll have to do that on your own. Network Magic does give you some generic instructions, but that's it. Hopefully, future versions will give you assistance here, much like the one-button encryption setup found on many routers today.
The features the software does help with can, of course, be accessed by logging into the router directly, but doing it through Network Magic is easier for those who don't care to wade through the morass of Web-based administration pages. This access can be had from any copy of Network Magic that's been configured to access the router, which makes it possible that others in your household could accidentally or intentionally modify security settings. The company says it is planning to rectify this issue in a future update.
With Network Magic's Net2Go feature, you can access your home network from any browser when you're on the road. Setting up Net2Go is easy, since basically all you need to do is create a unique Web address (you access your network by going to yourname.net2go.com) and select a password. Network Magic displays guidelines for good password creation (i.e eight characters, mixed case, include numbers) and helpfully ticks them off as you create a password that meets the criteria.
Once Net2Go is configured, you can access the data on any system running Network Magic by pointing a browser to your customized Web address. The password is used to protect access to those folders you deem private, but you can also set up public folders that anyone can get to. (Whenever you share a folder in Network Magic, you're given the option of sharing it via Net2Go as well.) The new iteration of Net2Go adds a few new capabilities, like the ability to publish your Net2Go page via RSS and view images from a USB-based Webcam. Net2Go's remote camera support is sparse, though, and many supported cameras don't allow you to view streaming video -- only still images that you have to manually refresh.
A feature that's still missing is the ability to log into Net2Go via a secure SSL page, which makes it technically possible (though unlikely) that an eavesdropper could intercept a Net2Go password, since it's transmitted across the Internet without any encryption. (Though to be fair, implementing SSL login would likely be a significant performance drag on the system running Net2Go.)
You can download a fully-functional trial version of Network Magic that works with any version of Windows (Mac and Linux users are out of luck) and use it for 30 days. That's the good news -- the bad news is that Pure Networks follows the increasingly common trend of licensing software on a subscription basis rather than letting the user pay once and use it indefinitely.
Registering the downloaded software costs $29.99 annually to run it on three PCs. That's pretty reasonable, or you can choose a monthly rate of $3.99, which is a lot less of a bargain. Five- and eight-system licenses are available for $49.99 and $59.99 respectively, with a corresponding increase if you pay monthly. (If you'd prefer to have an actual CD and printed manual, you can pick up a three-PC retail copy for $39.99.) If you don't register the software or let a registration lapse, you lose many of Network Magic's features, including Net2Go, network alerts, and the file and printer sharing wizards (though you can still set up sharing directly through Windows).
Network Magic's name certainly seems hyperbolic when you consider that some of the software's features are already available within the Windows operating system or a broadband router. If there is magic involved, it's in how Network Magic manages to aggregate and simplify these networking features so that the average non-technical person can actually find and use them. I can't speak for Arthur C. Clarke, but in this regard, the software does a pretty good job. It needs to go just a little farther to be 100 percent worthwhile for wireless users.
[Editor's Note: After the release of Network Magic 3.0, the company discovered that the built in Wireless Network Manager feature, which replaces Windows Zero Config as a primary way to control your wireless connection, doesn't work with all the wireless cards out there. It sometimes causing a Blue Screen of Death. The company has pulled that feature and it will release it separately as a Beta from Network Magic Labs in the future. -- 5/3/06]