Elsewhere in this issue,
weíve discussed the advantages of networking home computers, and reviewed
some hardware options for setting up a home network. If you use a notebook
computer, however, itís a shame to tether it to any sort of wire, whether
itís an Ethernet Category 5 cable, a telephone wire, or a powerline adaptor.
Doing so eliminates one of the primary attractions of a notebook computer:
mobility. A wireless network gives you all the advantages of a wire network,
but lets you move around freely in your home or office, within a useful
but somewhat limited distance from the hub.
There are several competing types of wireless networks, but the dominant
one is the IEEE 801.11b system, popularly known as Wi-Fi. Itís much better
established than competitor HomeRF, and the up-and-coming Bluetooth wireless
standard is not really a competitor, since itís designed as a short-range
substitute for connecting wires. Wi-Fi manufacturers quote speeds up to
11 MB/second, similar to the old Ethernet 10 MB/second. Although 11 MB/second
would be pretty slow for moving large data files, itís just fine for high-speed
Internet connections and printing files. For faster connections, an IEEE
801.11a network will provide speeds up to 72 Mbps ó close to a wired networkís
The Wi-Fi standard uses radio links in the 2.4 GHz band, which is shared
by newer cordless phones. Although many Wi-Fi manufacturers claim ranges
up to or beyond 1000 feet, in reality, the range is reduced by house walls
and wiring. Thus itís really hard to say how far away from the wireless
hub a laptop can operate effectively. In practice, I found I could connect
to the Internet about as fast as I can from my directly connected desktop
computer from anywhere in my house. But when I tried going outside to my
front yard, the connection became unreliable.
So what does a Wi-Fi system look like? The centerpiece is a wireless
router which connects both to your Internet modem and optionally, via a
network cable to a desktop PC. The network cable to the PC provides a faster
(100 MBps) connection, using the network card that is a defacto standard
in newer PCs. The router has radio antennas that enable the wireless connections
to several different computers via radio links.
I related in an earlier article, I chose a wireless router and wireless
network adapter (a PC card that plugs into a notebook computer expansion
slot) made by SMC. I reasoned that devices from the same company would
work best with each other, although all Wi-Fi devices are certified to
be compatible with each other. SMCís Barricade router offered three 100
MBps wire connections in addition to the connection to an Internet modem.
It also offered a feature I thought would be quite useful: a built-in print
server. That should have enabled me to connect a parallel printer to the
router and share it among all computers without having to turn on the desktop
computer. Unfortunately, that theory didnít work as well as I hoped. The
print server worked only with unidirectional printer connections, so any
printer that uses the now-standard IEEE 1284 connection (bi-directional)
wonít work. That meant I would have to leave the printer plugged into the
desktop PC and leave that computer on when I needed to print something
from the notebook. The wireless router installed easily, thanks to Windows
XPís wonderful network and Internet wizards, which do all the work of establishing
network and Internet connections. Although those features are really the
hardest part of setting up a network, the wizards made them both effortless.
Initially, I had trouble getting the PC Card wireless adaptor to work
in my Hewlett-Packard notebook computer. SMCís excellent tech support tried
many approaches, but it just wouldnít work. Finally, one of the technicians
suggested I upgrade the then-new computerís BIOS. Skeptically, I complied.
To my surprise, that fixed the problem!
I quickly ran Windows XPís network and Internet setup wizards on my
HP notebook to establish network and Internet connections. As part of the
network setup, I had to designate the printer attached to the desktop computer
as a shared device, so I could print from the notebook. That turned out
to be harder than necessary, but I finally figured I needed to change the
printer name. Then it worked fine. For some reason, the Internet wizard
on my notebook was even able to detect my ISPís e-mail server addresses,
which I had to enter manually on my desktop PC. That may be because the
wireless router is external to the desktop computer, while the wireless
PC card is a PCMCIA plug-in card that essentially becomes part of the computer.
One danger of using a wireless network (and yes, it really is a danger)
is that anyone nearby who has a notebook computer with a Wi-Fi card can
join into your network uninvited. Like all IEEE 802.11b systems, SMC uses
a WEP (Wired
algorithm to protect your communications from eavesdropping. A secondary
function of WEP is to prevent unauthorized access to a wireless network;
this function is not an explicit goal in the 802.11 standard, but it is
frequently considered to be a feature of WEP. Activating those features
turned out to be easy, although the instructions were virtually nonexistent.
SMCís tech support again helped me out with what turned out to be a simple
process, at least if you understood what you were doing. Setting up WEP
was different for the router and the notebook computer. WEP doesnít provide
the strongest protection in the world, but probably would withstand attacks
from most hackers. There are two levels of encryption: 64-bit and 128-bit,
with the latter providing the most protection. Implementing the 128-bit
WEP slowed down network speeds perceptibly, but unless you need absolute
maximum speed, I would recommend you not ignore this protection feature.
Some manufacturers offer 256-bit encryption. Of course, turning on encryption
means you canít log onto the Wi-Fi net in your local airport or Internet
Now that Iím fully online from my notebook computer, if I just want
to read e-mail or surf the Net, all I do is turn on the wireless router;
but if I want to print, I need to turn on the desktop computer through
which the printer is connected. Although thereís a slight slowdown in surfing
speed when using the notebook computer, itís still quite fast enough for
my needs. However, if Iím close to the printer, I usually connect it to
the notebook computer with a USB cable, which is faster and doesnít require
turning on the desktop computer.
Wi-Fi is not just for notebook computers. If you have a desktop computer
you want to add to a network, but canít use one of the wired options, a
wireless adaptor is available for it, too. The adaptor plugs into a USB
port and uses a small, external box with an antenna to connect into the
network. The external antenna may perform better than the ultra-compact
antenna on the notebook wireless adaptor, but thatís just a guess. Thereís
no reason you couldnít use one of these network adaptors with a notebook
computer, but it isnít as convenient at the type that plugs into the PCMCIA
slot in the notebook.
Now that I have been using the Wi-Fi network for a year, I would
offer the following advice to someone who wants a wireless network in their
home or office:
Make sure the equipment comes with the correct drivers for your computers.
Many manufacturers were slow to release Windows XP drivers. Windows 2000
drivers may work, but not always.
Make sure you have downloaded and installed all operating system updates,
BIOS upgrades, and the latest hardware drivers before attempting to install
the Wi-Fi equipment.
Buy from a company with really good tech support, and insist they give
it to you. Once SMC knew I was serious about it, they were extremely helpful.
A toll-free tech support number is a very handy feature.
Iím still happy with the SMC equipment I bought, but have no experience
with competing brands. Prices are fairly uniform for this type of equipment;
wireless routers usually cost about $100, and wireless PC cards cost about
$80. Frequent sales often improve those prices dramatically, as do visits
to eBay or Samís (which has the delicious-looking Microsoft Wi-Fi equipment).