Cutting the Cord and Going Wireless
When you first saw cordless phones, you probably thought, "Who on earth would spend that much money just to walk around the house and talk?" Today, you've probably got two of them, and you don't think twice about the ability to answer the phone from anywhere in the house.
Wireless computer networking is the next step in that evolution, and your house can be wireless for about $200. There's a great freedom in being able to carry your laptop into the living room, park yourself on the couch, and surf during the commercials. On beautiful days, you can sit out on your patio and get some work done in the fresh air. You can share your Internet connection, files, and printer among multiple machines without paying more per month or running cables all over the house.
How It Works
Think of it like a cordless phone: the new-fangled ones let you use multiple phones with a single base. The one base plugs into the phone jack, and then you can have several cordless handsets. And just like you don't have to pay your phone company extra for having several cordless phones, you also don't have to pay your Internet provider any extra per month for having several computers on your wireless network.
With wireless networking, the base is called a wireless router. The router plugs into your cable modem or DSL modem and works with it directly. Then, you put a wireless network adapter in your laptop(s) so that they can communicate with the base. The range you get with your router is probably a lot like your home cordless phone: it depends on how many walls you're trying to go through. You shouldn't need more than one router unless you've seen Robin Leach going through your house with a camera crew.
You can have any number of laptops connect to your router - for example, when my coworkers come over to do a programming session, they all just turn on their laptops and they're instantly connected to my router.
Fair warning: if you're still using Windows 95, 98, ME, or NT, then this isn't completely automatic. You have to tell Windows which wireless network you want to hook up to. With XP or Mac OS 10, the process is especially easy - your computer will automagically connect to any available network.
Is it any different than having a conventionally wired network? Well, just like you can probably tell when you're on a cordless phone, you can tell when you're on a wireless network, because it runs slower. But trust me - as a power user, it's worth it. I'm typing this on a laptop while sitting at a coffee shop, wirelessly connected to the Internet and chatting, and the speed is still more than fast enough for me.
Picking the Protocol
When you buy cordless phones, you have to decide between 900mhz and 2.4ghz models. 2.4ghz ones are more expensive, but have better quality. Wireless computer networking has the same kind of choice: 802.11a vs. 802.11b. 802.11b came first (don't ask), and since it's slightly older, it has the advantages of being cheaper and more widely available. 802.11a is about five times as fast, but since even 802.11b is at least five times faster than your DSL or cable modem hookup, I heartily recommend 802.11b.
The hidden advantage to choosing 802.11b equipment is that you can use your laptop in most Internet cafes like Starbucks and KavehKanes (downtown Houston) as well as free public wireless access points, like those run by www.HoustonWireless.org.
Picking the Gear
For home users, I recommend the Linksys BEFW11S4, which goes for around $125-$150, and it's widely available at computer shops. It has all of the features that will be important to you down the road:
It has external antenna jacks that will allow you to plug in a more powerful antenna later. You can pick up antennas from places like www.fab-corp.com and www.signull.com that will give you a bigger coverage area. You can even make a directional antenna out of a Pringles can - directions are online at www.oreillynet.com/ cs/weblog/view/wlg/448.
It acts as a personal firewall to keep most hackers from getting to you through the Internet. If you leave your computer on all the time on DSL or a cable modem, people are constantly trying to hack your machine and you don't even know it.
It also has four switched 10/100 ports, which means you can plug up to four computers into a wired network as well - there's no need to make your desktop computer wireless unless you're going to move it around the house.
Finally, Linksys is a company that's been making wireless gear for quite a while, and they do a bang-up job of keeping their support site up-to-date. Next, you need to get the cordless handsets - oh, I mean, the wireless network card. Most wireless geeks are wild fans of the Lucent Orinoco series of PCMCIA cards, but they're getting hard to find these days. I'm always hesitant to recommend products that my readers can't pick up locally, because I would always encourage you to build a relationship with a local vendor. So here's the deal: if you want to buy online, go to www.CDW.com (or your favorite online vendor) and search for Orinoco Silver or Orinoco Gold. It will run you around $75 with shipping, and you can rest assured that it's the best available card out there.
Setting It Up
The router's antenna is like a TV antenna: sometimes you have to experiment if you want the best reception. Put it as high as you can, not down behind your desk. If you want to roam out in your yard, put it in front of a window. I've got mine so that I can see it from outside, and I can roam a few hundred feet and still get signal.
Of course, the router's placement is also determined by your cable modem or DSL modem, since they're connected with cables.
Every router's setup programs are different, but the basic idea is that you plug it in and then configure it using a web browser.
Before you plug it in and go hog-wild making configuration changes, go online and print out every piece of documentation you're going to need. Remember, once you start playing with this, you're not going to be online until it works!
This setup won't be plug-and-play no matter what operating system you're using, and the best piece of advice I can give is that if you have problems, get help from a local geek. And how would you find one?
The Local Wireless Community
www.HoustonWireless.org is the local user's group for wireless computer networking. We get together once a month in person, as well as every day online in IRC chat. It's a friendly group made up of geeks of all ages and experience levels. No matter what you're trying to do in the 802.11b world, you can find someone here that's already done it and willing to help. The group's recent discussion topics include mesh networking, building your own antennas, and the big one: covering Houston with free public wireless access.
I'm a member myself, and it's a great group of people. (Myself excluded. I'm not so great. But they let me in anyway.)
Brent Ozar is a HAL-PC member, web developer and network admin. He lives with his girlfriend, two turtles, and the sad knowledge that he will never kick his coffee habit. He can be contacted at email@example.com.