You've done the hard work of optimizing your Wi-Fi network, and it reliably beams high-speed data to every nook and cranny of your home or office. Now, it's time to take it to the next level by connecting more than just computers.
There's a whole world of gadgets out there that can help you get work done and entertain you -- all without wires. From wireless print servers and security cameras to Internet radios and VoIP phones, the variety of Wi-Fi appliances available is astounding. There's even a Whirlpool refrigerator equipped with interchangeable wireless modules to serve up recipes, digital photos and Web sites. (Personally, I can't imagine stopping to check the weather when what I really want is a cold beer.)
But let's stick with more practical devices. Any of the 10 Wi-Fi gadgets in our list can liberate you from the tyranny of cables by wirelessly printing, phoning, moving photos, playing music and more.
It's easy to get started, but a word of warning: Time and again, the hardest part of setting up these wireless wonders was entering the Wi-Fi network's encryption codes with clunky on-screen keypads rather than a standard keyboard. Still, it's the best way to cut the cord and stay connected.
Wireless Printing: Two-Way Data Street
Linksys WPSM54G print server
One of the best things a wireless network can do is print without cables. It may seem like magic, but the latest print servers, like Linksys' WPSM54G ($90), can also send scans from any recent multifunction printer (MFP) to a computer. It all works well, but my advice is not to be in a hurry.
After plugging the WPSM54G into my Canon Pixma MP780 MFP, it took 5 minutes to load the software, enter the security codes via my PC's keyboard and configure the print server. Capable of linking to 802.11b/g/n networks, the server is small (about 5 by 1 by 4 inches) and works with Windows 2000/XP/Vista systems, but not Macs or Linux machines. It has a range of 95 feet and demands to be the system's default printer.
Unfortunately, speed is not of the essence with the Linksys print server. It printed a two-page color Adobe Acrobat document in one minute 51 seconds and scanned an 8-by-11-in. color magazine cover in 6 minutes 30 seconds, or about half as fast as with a USB cable.
Hewlett-Packard OfficeJet J4680 multifunction printer
I also tested HP's OfficeJet J4680 ($130), an MFP with a built-in wireless print server that works with both Windows and Mac computers. The device has a range of 90 feet. After an agonizingly slow 30-minute software installation, it took me another couple of minutes to correctly enter the network's encryption code with the printer's clunky phone-like keypad. The device works with 802.11b/g networks only.
Once set up, however, the OfficeJet zoomed along. In contrast to the Linksys print server, the OfficeJet J4680 printed the same file in 37 seconds and scanned the document in 47 seconds, making it a wireless speed demon. For my money, I'd opt for the printer with wireless built in because I hate to wait.
VoIP phone: Wi-Fi Calls for Less
Panasonic KX-WP1050 Wi-Fi phone for Skype
By combining Skype's inexpensive Voice-over-IP (VoIP) phone service with Panasonic's wireless KX-WP1050 phone, calling anywhere in the world just got a lot cheaper.
Everything you'll need comes with the KX-WP1050, including the 3-oz. handset, access point (the handset has to use its own) and cables. Setting it all up took me about 10 minutes. Although I was able to quickly type the network connection information with my computer's keyboard, I had lots of trouble entering my Skype username and password with the handset's awkward alphanumeric keypad.
Happily, you only need to do this once. After that, calls connect as fast as with a cell phone, are about as reliable and sound surprisingly good. The phone's 60-ft. range is a bit skimpy and the phone can use only an 802.11b/g network, but the handset's battery was good for four hours 30 minutes of talk time; it's recharged with a mini-USB cable from the access point.
At $400 MSRP (you can probably find it for $300 if you shop around), the KX-WP1050 is expensive. On the other hand, once you've got it, the costs are low: Skype charges $3 a month for unlimited calling in the U.S. and Canada, and you'll need to rent a local phone number for $6 a month. All told, that's about one-third the price of Vonage and other VoIP phone services, proving that talk really is cheap.