By Chris Porter
September 15, 2004
So, you’re ready to go wireless! Heres some information from personal experience that may help you when you’re thinking of taking the plunge. Wireless routers (WAPs) are all the rage these days, and you can’t go any more then 10 feet at your local electronics/computer outlet without running into a vast amount of wireless accessories on the market for sale. This information directly relates to PC networks, so if you are running linux/unix, you are too l33t, and I bow to your computing superiority, but this ain’t gonna help you. You’re so smart with your fancy-pants computer, you figure it out! If you own a mac, go away, hippie. You disgust me.
There are currently about 20+ manufacturers selling home wireless networking kits. There are even a few selling router + 1 card/adapter kits in the $100.00 range. Bear in mind, you get what you pay for. I’d recommend budgeting around $200.00 for a fairly decent setup. Stick with manufacturers that are well known for networking devices (DLink, Linksys, Netgear), since they are usually the easiest to configure and setup due to good installation software that does mostly everything for you. Wireless cards and/or adapters are compatible with most PCI, USB, and PCMCIA ports on current desktop & portable PCs.
I went with Netgear’s MR814 802.11G wireless router, WG311 (PCI) adapters in my desktops, and a WG511 PC card (PCMCIA) in my laptop for my network. These components are perfect for a home network hooked up with a standard residential DSL or Cable Modem package. You could go with a lower cost 802.11B compliant router, but the B standard transfer speed is a scant 11 mbps compared to the G standard’s 54 mbps. Released at the same time as the B standard, but not quite as popular, is the A standard. Components using A standard are better suited for business application, are usually more expensive, and share the same 54 mbps transfer speed as the G standard. So, I recommend the G standard – its the latest and greatest, is backwards compatible to A and B standard cards/adapters, and offers better security features.
When looking for components, read the box CAREFULLY – make sure your windows operating system is compatable with the card/adapter you choose! Most cards/adapters are compliant with Win98, ME, 2000, and XP. 98% OF THEM NO LONGER SUPPORT NT 4.0 OR WIN95. If the box says it does, chances are, it lies! There is ONE adapter that I found that will supposedly work for both (for desktops ONLY – laptops are SOL -though I haven’t personally tested either), but twice as expensive because you have to buy 2 components to do it:
That PCI adapter is Netgear model MA301, and additional PC Card model MA521. The explanation is that this adapter adapts the computer’s PCI slot to a laptop standard PCMCIA slot. This allows the PC card to be plugged into it to work. Kind of a hassle, but perhaps thats what you get for sticking in the stone age…
It is very important to take note that when you switch from a standard 10/100 base T LAN network to wireless (WAP), the security vulnerability rate is much higher. When you install and configure most wireless routers, network access around the unit can be obtained from 200 to as much as 1000 ft., depending on the model. So, theoretically, a would-be hacker/unwanted squatter could be parked in a car nearby, or across the street, and have full access to your network! Its a good practice to read the manual carefully in order to get the most security out of your network possible. Heres a few tips:
Firewalls – Almost every wireless (and non) router unit sold these days has some sort of firewall included in it for base protection. Most are fairly easy to configure the first time out upon installation. However, you might consider going one step further and downloading an additional software firewall (BlackIce, ZoneAlarm) onto each system in the network for an added layer of security.
TCP/IP – If you are using TCP/IP for your file and printer sharing, stop. NetBEUI is the recommended method, since it uses a different protocol than TCP/IP, and has more robust file access-control.
WEP Encryption – As stated earlier, security on home wireless networks is far from perfected technology today, so any ways to combat unforseen weaknesses should be utilized. One option, and this comes standard for almost all wireless routers, is to enable WEP encryption. READ THE INSTRUCTIONS CAREFULLY WHEN DOING THIS. This allows you to set your own network encryptions (64, 128 bit) using allow or deny for access control on areas of the network. Bear in mind, this added bit of security has been known to impact performance.
I hope these tips can in any way help with your wireless queries. I got them from reading a few manuals and testing a few brands of routers, adapters and cards with different types of PCs using various port types. I don’t recommend any specific port type (PCI, PCMCIA, USB all seem to work with comparable results), but personally, I use PCI adapters on my desktops, and PC cards on my laptop to save precious USB space for additional devices (games, cameras, etc.) I may want to use. Good luck!