Monday, October 15, 2007

SSC #41 Wireless for beginners

by Jeff Smith

So you need to connect 2 or more computers in your house, but they're not in the same room, and you don't want to run cables all through the house, or drill holes in your walls... you need wireless networking.

Wireless networking doesn't have to be hard, and for Windows users it generally isn't. But there are some things to keep in mind.

First off, sharing a dial-up connection is pointless and will only give you frustration, so I wouldn't recommend it, while you may get it to work, dial-up is notoriously slow on ONE computer, imagine how slow it will crawl when you divide that connection in half!

There are many different kinds of wireless. Aside from infrared, and Bluetooth, or cellphone based wireless connections, there's the common wireless networking protocols 802.11something, which is what we'll be covering today.

I say "something" because theres lots of things that can go on the end of 802.11. There's A B D G and soon to be N. B and G are compatible together, whereas A routers connect only to A cards and the case is the same with D. 802.11N is a new standard that is due out soon, which is expected to be backwards compatible with B and G as well. On the equipment you buy, it may not say 802.11g, it may instead say Wireless-G (or B... you get the picture) Don't worry, its the same thing. Marketing departments just feel that letters are less scary to consumers than numbers are.

To network your broadband around the house, you're going to need a wireless router. These come in varying shapes and sizes, and a wide range of prices. Being the spendthrift (ladies, you would call it cheapskate) that I am, I've only used the less costly equipment. So I can't really tell you if spending more money makes a big difference.

Some routers are more easily configured than others. Generally, LinkSys makes some good ones that are easy to set up. D-Link are pretty good as well. I've had some problems with Belkin, and their tech support is horrid, but thats just my own personal experiences. You yourself may enjoy talking to people who barely know english. Personally, I don't. For Linux users, you won't be able to just put in the "Easy Install Disk" that comes with these routers, you'll have to configure them yourself. Its really not THAT hard, you might just have to submit to learning something new, which never hurts... too much.

Ok, so you got your wifi router, whats next? If one of your machines is near your router, you should just be able to plug it in via ethernet cable. Cool, you're halfway there. Now for the other machine, you'll need to get a wireless card. These come in many forms. If you have a desktop system, you can get a PCI wireless card, but you'll have to open up your case to install it.

Or the easy way out is to get a USB wireless card. This will work in any computer with an unused USB slot. This is what I recommend for those of you who aren't quite brave enough to venture inside your computer tower.
If you're on a laptop, you can get a PCMCIA wireless card that will slide right in the cardslot, but chances are if you have a fairly new laptop, it will have a wireless receiver built into it. Just make sure you know what type (A B D G) that it has inside before purchasing your wifi router. USB wifi cards will work for laptops too, but you may find them to be a bit unwieldy as they usually have a 6 ft cord on them.

You must understand going into this that you will NEVER get the advertised range out of these things without modifying them. Those ranges are based on some theoretical perfect situation that is unlikely to happen in your house (or mine).

Effective signal range can be shortened by just about any obstacle, like thick walls, furniture, or extremely lazy pets that won't move. If you think you're going to have a range problem, look into getting a wireless router with removable antennas. This will enable you to upgrade the antenna to one that will throw out the signal a little better. Adjusting antennas trying to get a stronger signal will likely remind you of the days before cable TV when you had to work the rabbit ears just right so you could watch Mork and Mindy without snow in the picture.

If you're a tinkerer, like me, its pretty easy to make a homemade directional antenna from a large coffee can, but while that gets the job done, and done well, it isn't likely to color coordinate with your wife's idea of taste.
Another inexpensive way to boost your signal a bit is to make a reflector shield out of aluminum foil. Though you're probably not going to see a really huge difference, its a good cheap way to boost a weak signal.

For the advanced-geek, you can REALLY increase your wifi router's range (5 to 10 miles line of sight) by jacking in to a modified Primestar dish!

Personally, I'll be keeping my eye out for any derelict dishes that I can pick up on the cheap! Who knows? Maybe I'll mount one on my car. While the increased wind resistance is sure to hit me in the gas tank, on the other hand, it will likely be so tacky that my wife will refuse to drive it... and that will save me some gallons in the long run. (but honey, it can pick up our wireless network from the Tennessee!) Do you think she'll go for that??

Me neither. :(

I'll continue next week by following up with the pros and cons of wireless security.

For more 802.11something information, check out

Ubuntu 7.10 Gutsy Gibbon is OUT! To request a free copy, go to
or for more info, go to

See you next time!


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