Mobile Computing: All About Wi-Fi
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The other day, a headphone-wearing dude sitting near me at Starbucks suddenly burst out laughing at his laptop screen.
I can certainly understand screaming at your computer screen, but suddenly laughing at it? In public? Had this guy consumed one too many Mocha Frappuccinos?
Out of curiosity, I peered over Delirious Dude's shoulder and discovered the source of his uncontrollable mirth: a streaming video clip of comedian Chris Rock.
And there you have it--proof that the wireless Internet party is in full swing.
These days, Wi-Fi (short for wireless fidelity) networks are popping up all over town, in places public (such as Starbucks and McDonald's) and private (homes and businesses). Research firm Gartner estimates that the number of hot spots--the catch phrase for wireless network access points--will jump from roughly 14,000 in 2002 to over 150,000 in 2005. (For more details about the Garner study, see "
What's up with that? The short answer is that wireless networks can make work easier and life more fun.
With wireless Internet access, business travelers can quickly grab their e-mail at airports and in hotels. College students can instant-message each other all over campus. And at home, a wireless network enables you to share a high-speed Internet connection as well as a printer, scanner, other peripherals--and of course, your files--between multiple computers, without upsetting your interior decorator.
And you can wander around with your laptop and go online from most anywhere in your house. Imagine ordering groceries online while you're in the kitchen, or hooking up your laptop to your stereo system and listening to your MP3s, and you can see why wireless networks are hot.
In short: If you travel with a laptop or have several computers at home that aren't networked, it's probably time for you to join the Wi-Fi party. Going wireless is fairly inexpensive. But first, you need to know a little bit about how wireless networks work and what equipment is required.
Most people today install wireless networks at home to share a high-speed Internet connection between multiple PCs and to tap into that connection from various rooms using their laptop(s).
To create a wireless network in the typical home environment, your DSL or cable modem is usually connected to a hardware device called a wireless access point router (or gateway). A popular model is the $70
The access point router, using one or more antennae, transmits your high-speed Internet connection over radio waves, up to 300 feet, theoretically. Any wireless network adapter--whether built into a PC, notebook, or PDA, or added later as a peripheral device--within range of the access point's radio waves can, if permitted, connect to your network.
For step-by-step instructions on installing a wireless network, see "
Increasingly, laptops come with wireless networking adapters already built in or as an inexpensive configuration option. For instance, built-in wireless networking is now a free option when configuring an
A wireless network adapter can be added affordably, too. A laptop user's best bet is a wireless network PC Card, which fits into an available PC Card slot on your machine.
Wireless network adapter cards cost anywhere from $30 to $120. To check out the variety of cards available from Linksys, D-Link, and others, visit
(By the way, some Palm and Pocket PC handheld devices now include built-in wireless network adapters, too. Read the hands-on reviews in "
Keep in mind that each computer you plan to network requires its own wireless network adapter. Otherwise, that's it--with a high-speed Internet connection (DSL or cable modem), wireless access point router, and wireless network adapter in your computer, your network is good to go.
Or is it? Horror stories abound about otherwise sane citizens driven mad by trying to install a wireless network at home.
I've endured the agony of wireless network installation myself, though I blame my former ISP's lousy tech support for the hassles. So unless you're proficient with computers, I'd strongly recommend asking a network-savvy buddy to help. If you don't know anyone fitting that description, consider hiring someone for the job. Check your local computer retailers for help. CompUSA, for instance, provides a
If you plan to go wireless away from home, at a cafe or an airport for instance, then you'll need a wireless network service plan.
For example, the wireless Internet access at selected Starbucks establishments is offered by
For my review of T-Mobile's Starbucks service, see "
Plenty of Wi-Fi hot spots offer free access, too. For a guide to free and fee-based hot spots, check out "
Now that you've got a basic understanding of Wi-Fi, it's time to learn your ABGs.
As you shop for wireless equipment, you'll be faced with a choice of equipment compatible with the slew of wireless network standards--namely 802.11a, 802.11b, and 802.11g. Here's the skinny:
The 802.11b standard has been around since 1998 and is by far the most widely used wireless network standard today. As a result, equipment based on 802.11b is generally less expensive than 802.11a and the newer 802.11g devices. And you're less likely to experience compatibility issues with 802.11b-based wireless equipment.
The newer 802.11g standards offer faster data transfer speeds than 802.11b. But for most people, 802.11b-based equipment is plenty fast.
Consider this: A wireless network using 802.11b equipment is supposed to deliver data transfer rates up to 11 megabits per second. But a recent
Offering data transfer rates up to 54 mbps, 802.11g is essentially a faster version of 802.11b. Devices based on the new 802.11g standard are compatible with 802.11b equipment. If you buy an 802.11g network adapter card for your laptop, for instance, it will work with 802.11g devices as well as 802.11b-based wireless networks, such as those served up at Starbucks, though at the slower speed, of course.
Both 802.11g and 802.11b devices share the same radio spectrum as 2.4-GHz portable phones and microwave ovens, which may cause some slight network interference. For instance, if you're wirelessly transmitting multimedia files, such as MP3s, from your computer to your stereo set, you may notice some dropped notes on occasion. Otherwise, though, you probably won't experience any truly noticeable interference.
The 802.11a standard also offers data speeds up to 54 mbps, but it isn't compatible with 802.11b or 802.11g devices.
Also worth noting: 802.11a typically offers a range of only 200 feet, compared with the 300-foot range of 802.11b and 802.11g devices. (As with any Wi-Fi network equipment, the farther you roam from a wireless access point, the weaker the signal and the slower your connection speed.)
Does anyone really need the faster speeds that 802.11a and 802.11g offer? If you're interested in installing a wireless home media network to send streaming video and audio from one device to another, the answer is yes. Large media files need all the bandwidth they can get.
If you want to hedge your bets, consider buying dual-band wireless networking equipment. These devices support both the 802.11a and 802.11g (and thus, 802.11b) standards but are generally more expensive.
For example: A
You've probably heard that it's relatively easy to eavesdrop on a cordless phone conversation. That's because cordless phones transmit using radio waves, which can be intercepted.
The same is true for wireless networks: They simply aren't as secure as wired networks, because wireless networks transmit data using radio waves.
If you're concerned about security, encrypt your home wireless network. Without encryption, anyone within range of your wireless router can use your network to go online. And if they know what they're doing, these freeloaders can tap into your computer, too. For tips on how to secure your network, check out "
By now you should be armed with enough information to plan your network and go shopping for hardware. When the time comes--and your notebook has the necessary Wi-Fi card plugged in--head to your favorite wireless-networked coffee shop, and join the party. Just try to refrain from sudden outbursts, please.