Originally created 09/07/02

A better way for wireless networking



Just a few short years ago, home networking meant hours in the attic or the crawl space dragging lengths of CAT-5 cable from one wall to another. That was just to share a printer, since networking a modem made little sense.

Then along came phone-line networking and rudimentary versions of wireless networking along with broadband that is worth sharing. It was crude and slow and worked part of the time if you had a computer nerd nearby to help install it all.

Today we can finally say that wireless networking has arrived. It's easy enough, fast enough and reliable, the three things that mark a successful introduction.

The first generation of wireless devices is called "802.11b" and offers top transfer speeds of about 11 megs a second (though you won't have nearly that kind of performance in the field).

Today, routers and "access points" (which connect to a router to broadcast your home network around your house) in the "b" speed range can be had for less than $100, often much less on sale and on eBay.

That's because, like everything else, technology marches on. Now there is "802.11a," a relatively new version of the protocol that allows speeds of up to 54 megs a second. (Again, your mileage may vary, probably wildly.)

Access points and routers that offer this much faster protocol are about twice the price but offer amazing performance. And, no wire pulling in the crawl space.

I recently installed an Actiontec 54 Mbps Access Point and found its performance very solid. The access point plugs right into your router (a good first step to "split" the DSL or cable modem signal coming into your house). That installation was simple - a plug and play affair from the start.

I then installed an Actiontec wireless networking card into my laptop. This device is a little larger than a normal networking card and sticks out of the side. I installed the device drivers in Windows XP. When I rebooted, XP scanned my house and connected me to the Internet wirelessly. Whenever I was within range of the signal I was connected automatically.

Actiontec claims a range of 400 feet, which varied a lot based on the number of walls between me and the access point. However, the range was at least double that of my first-gen "b" device. And it's pretty cool to be able to access the Web while outside on the porch. (Although the pesky mosquitoes are still an issue.)

Another plus side of wireless networking is that a number of public facilities are now installing access terminals you can use during layovers, at Starbucks, etc. So the $100 invested in a wireless NIC is certainly worth the investment long-term. (Yes, the older "b" NICs will work with the newer "a" access points, too.)

For details, head to www.actiontec.com

WEEKLY WEB WONDER: A new version of Quicktime has solved my issues with Windows XP. You can get the free version at www.apple.com

(James Derk is computer columnist for Scripps Howard News Service. His e-mail address is jderk(at)evansville.net)

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