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Wireless Networking
With Wi-Fi

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 100 MBps. 

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. 

wireless routerAs 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 Equivalent Privacy) 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 café.

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).

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