Wireless networking has, in a notably short time, gone from being a minor miracle used only by the geeky elite to a mainstream technology, thanks to falling prices, newer, faster standards, and the ubiquity of broadband connections. Going wireless is cheaper and easier than ever, and the latest devices are fast enough to handle heavy-duty tasks like large file transfers and streaming audio and video.
Modern wireless networks offer much more than just wireless Internet access; devices like digital audio and video players are adding wireless features that let you share your digital media around the house. You can even put nonwireless devices like printers and game consoles onto a wireless network with the help of products that quickly and easily convert them to wireless.
To help you build the best possible wireless network, we tested dozens of products and chose the best routers and adapters, print servers, wireless bridges, audio and video players, and travel routers. Our chart of the top wireless kits compares sets of routers and adapter cards. Our Best Buy comes from Netgear: A moderate price, combined with above-average performance and a very simple setup, place this kit at the top of the chart.
But while setting up and maintaining a wireless network is getting easier, it is still far from being foolproof. So we also offer tips for getting the most from your setup. We also look at the five most common wireless security mistakes, explain what you can do to extend the coverage of your wireless network (see "Extending the Range"), and describe upcoming standards that will enhance and change the way wireless works (see "The Future Wireless Network").
Currently two standards dominate wireless networking: 802.11b and the newer, faster 802.11g. Several manufacturers have created enhanced versions of 802.11g that they claim can transmit and receive data at up to 125 megabits per second (up from the standard 802.11g's 54 mbps). The 108-mbps Super G technology (developed by Atheros) is used by D-Link and Netgear, while 125-mbps High-Speed Mode technology (developed by Broadcom) is included in products by Belkin, Buffalo, and Linksys, as well as other vendors. Although plain-vanilla 802.11b and g products are compatible with each other, the different types of enhanced modes are not.
The bottom line: For the simplest installation and troubleshooting, and for maximum performance, your Wi-Fi components must use the same type of technology, preferably from the same vendor. Sticking with one manufacturer also means just one tech support call, which is one reason why we looked at wireless kits. Often vendors won't help if you mix equipment from various sources. The exception is if your laptop has built-in Wi-Fi.