Thinking about putting a computer in the kids' bedrooms but moaning over how you're going to wire the network? Tired of having to run a cable to your laptop just to get a Net connection? Perhaps you should set up a wireless network (also known as "Wi-Fi") at home.
Easy to do
Wi-Fi installation is technically straightforward. You connect your DSL or cable modem to a Wi-Fi router, then install a Wi-Fi card in each of your untethered computers. A few configuration steps later, and voila, you're doin' email on the coffee table while watching the latest episode of Dog: The Bounty Hunter.
Picking the right hardware
If you don't feel comfortable in comparing technical product specifications, just ask your ISP for a recommendation. Oceanic's Road Runner High Speed Online customers can get Wi-Fi in their home for a monthly fee which includes free installation.
On the other hand, if you want to geek-out and pick your own equipment, here's a list of features to consider:
64/128 bit WEP (Wired Equivalency Privacy). A must, included with just about all Wi-Fi routers.
WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) and WPA2 are newer-generation protocols. If you've got uber security concerns, you'll want to make sure you have this, otherwise WEP will be sufficient.
802.11b (older protocol) & 802.11g (newer, higher speed) support for maximum compatibility.
At least a 4 port switch (so you can plug your wired devices into it too).
SPI (Stateful Packet Inspection) firewall to filter out unwanted traffic.
uPnP (Universal Plug and Play) easily auto-configures with your existing network and ISP.
Good reception is the most important thing to consider; home construction materials and electronic interference will affect signal strength the most. John Bingaman, District Sales Manager for CompUSA says, "Wood poses little problems and concrete may require boosters, but it's the steel-framed homes to watch out for as they bounce signals all over the place". Nam Vu of ShakaNet adds, "Interference can be an issue if you have other products that use the 2.4Ghz frequency such as cordless phones. Microwave ovens can also be very bad for Wi-Fi signals."
So what to do? For my own home network, I opened up my laptop, walked around the house, and paid close attention to how the signal strength varied. By making slight adjustments to the location of the Wi-Fi router and replacing the stock antennas with high-gain versions, I was able to get a good signal in every active room of the house. Large or multi-level homes may need additional signal boosters to ensure adequate coverage.
Don't operate your Wi-Fi network unless it's secured, otherwise strangers can steal your bandwidth and break into your home computers. I can't cover all the security details but I'll supply you with a quick checklist. See your installation manual for more details:
Change the default SSID ("Service Set Identifier") setting. This way people can't easily guess the name of your network.
Disable SSID Broadcast. Typical home use doesn't need this feature.
Turn on WEP/WPA encryption. Don't operate your Wi-Fi without it!
Wi-Fi is quickly establishing itself as a standard way to connect consumer electronic devices. You can look forward to Wi-Fi-enabled products that let you share mp3s with your home stereo, send digital photos to LCD picture frames, and stream video to your wifi-connected TV; some digital cameras are even wifi-enabled for cable-free downloading. A home Wi-Fi network is the perfect way to connect today's computers and tomorrow's digital entertainment.
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