Article ID: 871209
Wi-Fi is the technological watchword of the moment. Coffee shops are offering wireless web access, hackers are breaking into networks from their cars and now you’re able to get on the internet from the bottom of your garden. You can wirelessly link all the PCs in your home for under a few hundred pounds, and – this is Wi-Fi’s killer application – you can then connect them all to broadband internet.
The hub of your Wi-Fi network is a wireless router that acts as the access point for transmitting and receiving data. The router transmits to other PCs and either connects to your broadband modem, or has a modem built-in. Each networked PC also needs an adapter installed that can either be a PCI, PCMCIA or WET device. Some products, such as Tablet PCs and newer notebooks, already have a built-in Wi-Fi adapter and with Intel’s new Centrino mobile technology, launched earlier this year, we can expect most notebooks to be Wi-Fi-enabled by 2004 (for more information see www.intel.com/centrino).
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Wi-Fi is the industry body for wireless networking products; it’s short for “wireless fidelity” and is the catch-all term also used to describe products that follow the 802.11b set of standards – developed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE).
The most popular wireless standard is currently 802.11b, which operates in the 2.4GHz band (the same frequency as microwaves and cordless phones). It transfers data at 11 and 22Mbps – speeds more than 20 times faster than a standard ADSL net connection – and can connect devices up to 300 feet apart.
It’s a spaghetti soup of standards, but the experts consider this necessary.
“Standards can be confusing to customers, but organisations like Wi-Fi have simplified it for customers,” explains David Soares, European Managing Director at Netgear – one of the UK’s leading Wi-Fi manufacturers. “Adoption of wireless has been fast and these standards have probably helped because customers generally feel more comfortable buying something that has a stamp of approval from a standards body.”
Although 802.11b is currently the most popular flavour of wireless, more and more products are adhering to the new 802.11g standard, with its hefty transfer speeds of 54Mbps. With all these different speeds to choose from you may be tempted to just go for the highest, but this doesn’t necessarily equate to the best choice.
“Small networks with just one or two users connected wirelessly to the internet would not benefit much from going for faster wireless speeds,” says Soares. “However, bandwidth on wireless networks is shared and protocol overheads are high, so performance drops as the number of users increases. Therefore, if you expect the number of users on your wireless network to grow, you’d be better off choosing a faster wireless standard.” In short, if you’re a business go for 54Mbps, if not 11Mbps is plenty fast enough – and it’s cheaper too.
Obtaining decent Wi-Fi equipment is easy and there are plenty of products to choose from. Also, because of the Wi-Fi standards that manufacturers must adhere to, products from different companies will still work perfectly well together – just look for the ‘Wi-Fi certified’ guarantee on a wireless product’s packaging.
Prices for networking products are similar across the board (£100-200 for an access point/router, and £50-100 for an adapter) and you can buy great combined packages.
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Once you have your kit, setting up a wireless network in your home is a piece of cake. Gone are the days of Ethernet cables trailing from one PC to another, and the need for a power tool and some well-placed holes has been banished forever. The chaos that was a wired network has been replaced by Wi-Fi. Most Wi-Fi products come with simple installation instructions, but the principle remains the same. First you need to install your router/ access point and then install your adapters (the cards that enable your wireless machines to connect to the network).
Windows XP simplifies wireless networking by providing ‘zero configuration’ for 802.11b devices. This enables you to chose a number of different networking options via a simple wizard; you just plug in your adapters, Windows XP automatically detects them and then scans for an available network. This is a great feature, but it also enables anyone else with a wireless adapter to sniff out your network – which is why security is so important.
The main thing you need to consider when installing your access point is whether you want to share files and printers with other PCs on the network, as well as your net connection. If you do decide to share your printer and files, then enabling security isn’t an option – it’s a necessity (see our three-step guide).
Once you have your network up and running you can have a bit of fun – see just how far your networks transmits, and whether there are any other networks in your local area.
We installed a popular ‘sniffing’ tool (NetStumbler – available at www.netstumbler. org) onto a notebook with a wireless adapter, and spent five minutes walking up and down a few streets in our local neighbourhood (in the outskirts of Bath Spa). Bath is hardly a hotbed of technology but in this time we managed to sniff out four wireless networks – two were secured and two had been left open, enabling anyone with an adapter to get online. The common consensus (especially in the press) is that an unsecured network guarantees you’ll be the victim of some heinous hacking act – not so.
The owners of the unsecured networks we found had only opted for enabling internet sharing, so all we could do was access the net via their connections. Whether you secure your network or not is entirely up to you, but don’t be put off if you think it’s going to be a complicated affair – securing your network takes a few minutes at the most. Now we’ve set up and secured our network, it’s time to sit back and enjoy the freedom Wi-Fi can provide.
A whole host of products are being developed that incorporate Wi-Fi technology, and the Smart Display has to be one of the most appealing. Using wireless technology, Smart Displays provide you with access to your computer with Windows XP Professional from anywhere in your home.
Smart Displays use the 802.11b standard to connect to a PC running Windows XP Professional with Service Pack 1. Simply lift your flat panel display out of its docking station and you can then access your desktop PC from up to 100 feet away, using the Smart Display and a stylus.
“We have seen a great response from consumers since the U.S. launch [of Smart Displays] and we’re excited to see our partners carry this momentum to Europe,” said Keith White, Senior Director of Marketing for the Embedded and Appliance Platforms Group at Microsoft. “As a quantum leap in the evolution of the monitor, Smart Displays free consumers from being tied to their PCs, allowing them to still have access to all their favourite applications and services, but from the comfort of any room in the home.”
ViewSonic already has two Smart Displays available but the latest to hit the market is the Philips’ 15-inch DesXcape 150DM. It combines a detachable monitor, base station, wireless networking adapter, and wireless keyboard, and retails for £999 in the UK (available from PC World and Dixons).
BT is another company investing heavily in Wi-Fi and it hopes to sell four million more broadband accounts by 2006 on the back of Wi-Fi. BT has its own range of Wi-Fi products in its Voyager range (www.bt.com/ voyager), but top of its desirable gadget list has to be its award-winning Digital Media Player.
This portable player (which goes on sale this summer priced at £159) enables streaming of MP3s, CDs and internet radio wirelessly from the PC to almost anywhere in the house and garden, and it recently won the Best of Innovations award at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
David Sales, Director of Home Communications for BT Consumer, claims that, “New developments in home technology – many of them powered by broadband – are bringing the vision of the connected home ever closer”. We agree; together Wi-Fi and broadband are revolutionising the way we live and work, and we’ve shown that getting involved yourself has never been easier – so what’s stopping you?
For the best wireless coverage, experiment with the position of your router
Xbox Live enables you to participate in gaming around the world
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Xbox Live is Microsoft’s new online gaming package, and with a wireless network you can experience the service without the need to trail an Ethernet cable to your modem, or router. Wireless Ethernet bridges (or WETs), which enable you to set up your Xbox with Wi-Fi, are now available from Netgear, U.S. Robotics and Linksys.
If you don’t use encryption on your network it’s simply a matter of turning off your Xbox, plugging in and connecting your bridge, turning the Xbox back on and then inserting your Xbox Live CD (and following the on-screen instructions).
If you have the security for your wireless network turned on you may need to consult your WET device’s documentation to get everything up and running, but it should only take a few minutes once you have your encryption key, MAC address, and ISP details to hand.
Be warned though, if you’re planning to play your Xbox over Wi-Fi, remember that you shouldn’t simultaneously use other devices that use the 2.4GHz frequency. We’re already hearing reports of microwaves kicking people out of MotoGP – seriously! You can buy an Xbox Live package from all good game stores for £34.99.
This material is the copyright material of or licensed to Future Publishing Limited
(http://www.futurenet.co.uk/), a Future Network plc group company, UK 2004. All rights reserved.
Article ID: 871209 - Last Review: 26 September 2004 - Revision: 1.0