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Hardware Review of:
Surfing the Net
on a Wi-Fi

 

Vade Forrester

From the April, 2002 issue of PC Alamode Magazine

I spend a lot of time on the Internet, which used to keep me tethered to the desktop PC where my Internet modem is located. I occasionally dreamed of being able to move around my home with a laptop computer, and still be able to use my high-speed Internet connection and my printer without trailing cumbersome network wires behind me. Then, for example, I could listen to my hi-fi system while Iím computing, and also let my wife use the desktop computer without limiting either of our online activities. The availability of reasonably cheap wireless network hardware promised a solution to my needs. Although several computer magazine articles warned of difficulties setting up wireless networks, I decided to take the plunge and try to set one up at home. I discovered that, in several respects, the nay-sayers were right. But in the end I triumphed, and now have a working wireless network that is almost all I hoped it would be.

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 provides 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 Internet connections and printer 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 range, the same band as newer cordless phones. Although many Wi-Fi manufacturers claim ranges up to or beyond 1000 feet, in practice, 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.

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 usually provides a faster (100 Mbps) connection, and takes advantage of the network card that is pretty standard in newer PCs. The router has radio antennas that enable the wireless connections to several different notebook computers via radio links.

I selected a wireless router and wireless network adapter (a PC card that plugs into a notebook computer expansion slot) made by SMC. My basis for selecting these units was 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. And they were on sale at CompUSA. The Barricade router offered three 100 MBps wired connections in addition to the connection to a wide area network where the Internet modem connects. It also offered a feature I thought would be quite useful: a built-in print server. That should allow 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 with the print server. 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. Disappointing, but not crippling. 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. 

The hard part came when I tried to install the drivers for the wireless PC card in my notebook computer. The Windows 2000 drivers just didnít work at all. The New Hardware wizard sent me a message telling me the wireless PC card would not start, and launched the wizard to remove the device. Fortunately, SMCís technical support works 24 hours a day/7 days a week, and has a toll-free number. The latter is really fortunate, since I always had to wait at least 30 minutes before a technician got around to me. At first, it seemed like the wireless PC card in my notebook computer would never work. I went round and round with different technicians for three weeks. I even installed the card on my old notebook computer, a pokey 133 MHz Dell running Windows 98. It worked flawlessly on that computer, so I knew the wireless PC card wasnít defective. 

Another technician suggested I download and install all the Windows XP Updates from the Microsoft Web site. I first thought that was somewhat goofy, since I wasnít able to get the wireless network operational to download files to my notebook, but then I realized I could make a wired connection from my notebook to the router, and use it to download the updates. That turned out to be easy. But the wireless PC card still didnít work. Finally, I got one of SMCís better technicians to call me. He didnít resolve the problem immediately, but suggested a last-ditch remedy: to update the BIOS on my new Hewlett-Packard notebook computer. Skeptical, I figured I had little to lose, and dialed up the HP Web site. I was surprised to find that my BIOS was apparently several versions old, so I downloaded and flashed the new BIOS, and then reinstalled the wireless PC card adapter. To my surprise and delight ó it now worked! I quickly ran the network and Internet wizards on my HP notebook and set up the 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.

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 Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) 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. 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. A little browsing around eBay showed the 128-bit WEP slowed down Internet speeds perceptibly, but unless you need absolute maximum speed, I would recommend you not ignore this protection feature.

So now Iím fully online from my notebook computer. If I just want to read e-mail or surf the Net, I just need to turn on the wireless router; but if I want to print, I need to turn on the desktop computer to which the printer is connected. Although thereís a slight slowdown in surfing speed when using the notebook computer, itís still quite fast for my needs.

Viewing the entire prospect with hindsight, I would offer the following advice if you want a wireless network in your home or office.

  • Make sure the equipment comes with the correct drivers for your computers before buying it. 
  • Make sure you have downloaded and installed all operating system updates, BIOS upgrades, and the latest hardware drivers before attempting to install the 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. 
Iím happy with the SMC equipment I bought, but donít have any experience with competing brands to compare it to. Prices are fairly uniform for this type of equipment; wireless routers usually cost about $200, and wireless PC cards cost about $100. Frequent sales often improve those prices dramatically, as do visits to eBay or Costco.


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