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What to Look For in Wireless networking: Range, Speed and Standards.

What to Look For in Wireless networking: Range, Speed and Standards.

Not sure what you’re doing in your wireless card shopping? Want to make sure you’re buying the right thing but just have no idea what it is you’re looking for? Well, you’ve come to the right place. When you’re looking to buy a wireless network card, I can tell you right now that you’re looking at three key issues: range, speed, and standards.

A Typical Specification.

This is a typical specification for a Linksys wireless PCMCIA laptop card:

11 Mbps high-speed transfer rate; interoperable with IEEE 802.11b (DSSS) 2.4Ghz-compliant equipment; plug-and-play operation provides easy set up; long operating range (up to 120m indoor); advanced power management features conserve valuable notebook PC battery life; rugged metal design with integrated antenna; compatible with virtually all major operating systems; works with all standard Internet applications; automatic load balancing and scale back; model no. WPC11. (source: amazon.com).

Now, some of those things can be pretty much ignored. Really, ‘virtually all major operating systems’? That means nothing. The reason I’ve put it here, though, is so you can see which things are important to keep an eye out for.

Range.

See where it says ‘up to 120m indoor’? This tells you that the maximum range of the wireless card you’re looking at is 120 metres — that’s what it would be if everything was perfect. In practice, thick walls and interference can reduce this number by as much as 90%.

Without enough range, your wireless network is going to be pretty useless. It’s not much fun having no wires when you have to keep all the computers in the same room to get them to connect to each other.

As a rule of thumb, unless your walls are made of drywall or wood, it’s best to buy about four times the strength you’d think you’d need. Even in perfect conditions, get twice as much, to be safe. If you need to convert from metric to imperial units, remember that there are 30 centimetres (0.3 metres) in a foot and about 2.5 centimetres in an inch — you shouldn’t have too much trouble.

Speed.

Do you see where it says ‘Mbps’ in that description? That number is the speed of the wireless connection. 11 Mbps is about one and a half megabytes per second — to convert megabits (Mb) to megabytes (MB), just divide by eight. 802.11b wireless cards all have a speed of 11Mbps, while 802.11g ones run at 54Mbps — the next generation will be even faster.

Speed is important to your wireless network because it’s going to directly influence how long you have to wait for things like files to transfer from one computer on the network to the other. It is less important for Internet use, however, because there are currently very few Internet connections running at speeds over 11Mbps — it’s really as much as you need, at least for now.

Standards.

Somewhere in the specification of what you’re looking at, you should see the number ‘802.11’, followed by a letter ‘a’, ‘b’ or ‘g’. This is the standard that the wireless device conforms to, and tells you whether you will be able to use it with your other wireless devices.

Basically, 802.11b and 802.11g are compatible with each other. 802.11a is not compatible with either and is quite a bad standard all round, so you shouldn’t buy 802.11a. Out of b and g, b is cheaper but slower, while g is more expensive but faster. It’s worth considering that adding a b-speed device to a network that has g-speed devices will often slow the whole network down to b-speed, making the g-devices pointless.

If your wireless device doesn’t conform to the right standards, it’s not going to be much good to you. I often see naive people bidding for used wireless equipment on eBay, not realising that it’s going to be terribly slow and not work with any other equipment they might have. Always make sure that you check what standard the wireless equipment is — if you don’t know the 802.11 letter, don’t buy it!

Ad-hoc or Access Point – Network Structures Explained.

Ad-hoc or Access Point? Network Structures Explained.

What happens to many people is that they’re just about to buy some wireless equipment, and then they have a sudden realisation — they have no idea how their network layout is going to work with a wireless connection. Well, there are a few things you need to think about when you decide how you’re going to connect up your computers with all that great new wireless stuff.

Ad-hoc Networks.

Ad-hoc networks are the ones your wireless devices create more-or-less on their own — they are also known as peer-to-peer networks. In an ad-hoc network, each computer on the network acts as an equal ‘peer’, with each one sending data to any other. This arrangement is most often used in place of a real LAN, to allow employees in a company, for example, to exchange files. You can create ad-hoc wireless networks between any computers that have wireless equipment — access to the Internet is not required.

These networks work using something called an ‘SSID’ (Service Set Identifier). Essentially, this is the network’s name, decided on the computer that was the first to connect to the network (yes, a network consisting of just itself). The other computers that connect to the network can then simply connect by finding the network with the name (SSID) they want.

This is powerful. You can put your wireless-enabled laptop next to a friend’s, and the two computers can create a little network for themselves on the fly. Thanks to the way wireless networking works, they keep the connection even if you move them around — the only thing that will force the computers to disconnect from each other is if they go out of range. For many people, this spells the end of messing around with CDs and floppy disks — they can finally use their laptop just like a briefcase, carrying everything from one place to another.

Arriving somewhere with your laptop and being automatically included in the wireless network also gives you access to shared resources, such as printers. Imagine being able to take your computer to somewhere where there’s a printer, press print, collect the document and walk away again. Ad-hoc networking makes this a reality.

Access Points.

An access point, on the other hand, is a way of connecting your ad-hoc wireless network to a real, wired network. Note that this network could just be a LAN, or it could be the entire Internet. There are hardware access points and software ones, with either kind allowing you to connect your wireless device to a wired network. Internet Connecting Sharing, for example, is a software access point to the Internet, while a wireless router is a wired one. If you have wireless access at your office, the chances are it is provided as a wireless access point to the wired network, to let people bring in wireless devices and connect them to the office LAN.

A network that contains an access point is sometimes called an ‘infrastructure’ network, as opposed to an ad-hoc one. It’s worth remembering, though, that part of the infrastructure network still consists of the ad-hoc network between the computers — they can still communicate just the same as they could before.

If you think about it, you can see that the access point structure allows you to create a series of networks, all interconnected. The Internet, in this scheme, is just another wired network. You can connect your wired network to the Internet, connect your wireless network to an access point to your wired network — whatever you want.

The string of networks is potentially never-ending, with wired networks being able to break out into wireless ones as often as they need to. This concept is sometimes called lilypad networking, because it lets your computer be like a frog, hopping from lilypad to lilypad. Even though the whole area of the water isn’t covered with lilypads, the frog can still get through — and you can make wireless networks work the same way.

Fighting with Windows: Getting Wireless Set Up.

Fighting with Windows: Getting Wireless Set Up.

It was supposed to be so easy, wasn’t it? Well, usually it is — but sometimes, for some reason, Windows just doesn’t want to play ball. Here’s a quick guide to what to do when you’ve plugged in all your wireless equipment but it’s not connecting yet.

Insert the CD.

It’s not enough to just plug in your wireless card the first time you use it — you need to put in the CD it came with and install the drivers. If you’ve already done that and there’s still nothing, then you might need to update your drivers by paying a visit to the manufacturer’s website.

Note that the instructions below apply to Windows XP. If you’re determined to use Windows XP, then what you need to do next will be different depending on your wireless equipment’s manufacturer — you should take a look at your manual.

Use the Wireless Network Setup Wizard.

While it’s easy to use Windows to connect to an existing wireless network, you still need to create the wireless network to begin with. Don’t worry — once you’ve created it once, your whole network will be able to connect to and remember it, even if the computer you used to create the network is never switched on again.

The easiest way to open the Wireless Network Setup Wizard is through the Start Menu: go to All Programs, Accessories, then Communications, and you’ll find it there. If you can’t find it, you might need to visit Microsoft’s Windows Update at http://windowsupdate.microsoft.com to get it.

The first thing to do when the wizard appears is read the welcome message, and click Next. Type a name for your network — anything will do, as long as it’s relatively unique to you. You’re allowed up to 32 letters to express yourself, but remember that your neighbours might get to see this name at some point! If you bought equipment with WPA (stronger encryption), tick that box. Click Next again.

Unless you have a USB flash drive (it’s unlikely), choose the option for manual setup. Don’t worry — it’s just a matter of printing out some settings and entering them into your other computers. If you don’t use encryption, you can usually skip this step.

It Still Doesn’t Connect.

On one of your other computers, right-click on the wireless icon in the bottom-right corner of your screen — it looks like a small computer with two lines on the right of it. On the menu that appears, click ‘View Available Wireless Networks’. Now, you should see a list of the wireless networks your computer is in range of. Look for the name of your own network. This will be the name you typed in the setup wizard earlier or, if you use a router, it will probably be the name of your wireless equipment’s manufacturer.

Note that this is the screen to come to if you ever want to connect to a wireless network other than your usual one — just double click the one you want, wait a while, and it should work.

The most common problem is to find that your computer is trying to connect to another network near you, usually one belonging to your neighbours. If their wireless network has an unnecessarily wide range, it’s not at all unusual for you to be able to receive their signal in your house — I sometimes find as many as five networks in my area available to connect to. Fun as it would be, though, to go through all their shared files, your priority right now is getting their wireless network out of the way to let you connect to your own.

Getting on Your Network.

To make sure Windows knows which network is yours, you need to click ‘Change the order of preferred networks’ on the left of the available networks screen. You should click the ‘Add’ button to add the name of your network to this list, and use ‘Remove’ to take away any that aren’t yours.

When you’ve highlighted your network, click Properties, and then go to the Connection section. Make sure ‘Connect when this network is in range’ is ticked. If all else fails, you might have to take your printout from the Wireless Network Setup Wizard and enter that information on each computer.

What Can You Do Over a Wireless Network?

What Else Can You Do Over a Wireless Network?

Well, you’d be surprised. There really are all sorts of things you can do with wireless networks — you’re only really limited by your imagination! Here are a few weird and wonderful ideas to get you started, but don’t be afraid to try out anything else you think of.

Store Files in Your Car.

If you put a small wireless-enabled hard drive in your car, you can use it as a mobile file server, avoiding the need to send files around on the Internet or burn them to a CD. This can be especially good if you often move large files around. You could, for example, upload your files to the car-server when you’re at home, and then download them again when you get to work.

There are other uses of this too — you could, for example, send music files from your computer to the car to play on your journey, without having to physically move anything at all.

Build a Real ‘Network Neighbourhood’.

You can extend wireless networks as far as you want, using repeaters and directional antennas. If some of your neighbours put repeaters in their houses, then any networks in the area could be extended to cover a gradually larger range.

Ultimately, if you have co-operative neighbours, you could turn your whole street into a wireless hotspot: you could even all share one super-fast Internet connection, paying less per person than you usually would for a much slower one. There is even a name for this: a ‘freenet’ or ‘community net’. People who have tried it find that it makes people feel much closer to each other, bringing back long-lost social ties within the local community.

Bear in mind, though, that you’re basically running your own ISP if you decide to do this, with all the support issues that could involve. You might want to ask your ISP’s permission first, in case they get upset about you sharing your connection so freely. Whole books have been written about this topic — for more information, you might want to read one of them, such as Rob Flickenger’s ‘Building Wireless Community Networks’. If you live in a big city, you might even find that someone’s already trying to do it in your areas.

Make Cheap Phone Calls.

If you get a Bluetooth-enabled headset, you can use your wirelessly networked computer to make cheaper (or free) phone calls. Voice over IP (VoIP) software such as Skype makes it easy to call anyone in the world, and using a headset makes it even more convenient than using a phone — you can do whatever you want while you talk.

Most VoIP software is limited to calling other VoIP phones, which is free. Services like Skype, however, allow you to call real phone numbers too. Since the call is made in whatever country the number is in and then routed over the Internet to you, you can call worldwide for not much more than the cost of a local call. There are few things more fun than chatting to your friend half the world away for an hour and knowing it only cost you 50 cents — and that all they had to do was pick up the phone.

Watch Media on Your TV.

There is a new wave of wireless media devices that connect to your TV like a cable box or a DVD player, but allows your TV to play media files you have shared on your wireless network. If you use an operating system like Windows Media Center Edition or similar, it’s easy to watch videos from your computer on your TV — you even get a remote control. On top of that, you can record shows from your TV, TiVo-style, and then share these recordings over your wireless network.

You want things you digitally record on one TV to be viewable on all your TVs? Now they can be. Simply get two wireless-enabled digital recorders and they’ll form a network all on their own — simple as anything.