Everything was working swimmingly when Harold Martin (in photo, left) first set up his wireless network. But after a few weeks, the wireless gateway mysteriously started having problems. "It would drop the connection after 5 minutes," said Martin, a tech support specialist with a Des Moines, Iowa, ISP.
Martin installed NetStumbler on his laptop, an application he hoped would help him diagnose the problem. NetStumbler found eight other gateways, all using the same Wi-Fi channel as his. But changing his gateway's channel solved nothing.
In the end, his connection was restored when Martin enabled the Wireless Zero Configuration service, a part of Windows XP that his wireless card software had disabled. "I turned it back on, and all of a sudden, the computer picked up the wireless network and kept on working," he said.
Martin's case differs from the experience of many Windows XP users and the recommendations of Wi-Fi experts, some of whom suggest ditching the Wireless Zero Configuration service altogether. But it illustrates the maddeningly unpredictable nature of Wi-Fi problems. What works for me might not work for you.
With 4.5 million households in the Unites States going wireless, the benefits of Wi-Fi--a fast, untethered way to connect to other computers and devices on a network--are hard to ignore, as are the problems you might encounter.
Besides conflicts with Windows software, wireless networking hardware can fail or have bugs. Our readers report that Wi-Fi devices are the most troublesome type of peripheral we asked them about.
In PC World's most recent Reliability and Service survey, over 9 percent reported that a new wireless network device had problems--a far higher rate than the one for PCs, or for any other peripheral we asked about. And 36 percent of the respondents said a problem significantly limited the usefulness of their gateway.
The difficulties our readers reported are borne out in tests performed by the wireless networking industry's standards body, the Wi-Fi Alliance. The group tests products in its labs to make sure they work well together. "About 25 percent of the products we get in the labs fail our tests in their first pass, from catastrophic failures to performance problems," says Alliance spokesman C. Brian Grimm. "And these are products that have been prepared for testing."
If you're singing the wireless blues, there's good news. We've got solutions to five common Wi-Fi problems: dead zones; Windows glitches that stop you from connecting, even when you should be able to; poor Wi-Fi range; interference jamming your network; and security gaps.