By SEAN CAPTAIN
New York Times News Service
While global unity may still be a distant goal, uniting the electronic gadgets around the home is becoming easier, especially thanks to wireless products that eliminate some of the messiest entanglements. And the latest technology, called 802.11g, improves both speed and security.
The “g” standard is the newest version of 802.11 radio technology â€” often called Wi-Fi by PC users and AirPort by Apple loyalists â€” that lets computers and other devices exchange data without wires. Devices called access points or wireless routers serve as the hubs of these networks, managing traffic between the computers and letting them share a connection to the Internet.
Hotels, airports and cafes like Starbucks often use them to give customers Internet access. The 802.11 capability is included in more and more laptops and even many hand-held organizers, or can be added to a computer by installing an adapter card. Other adapters provide wireless connections for devices including printers, game consoles, televisions and stereos.
ABGs of wireless
Of the various standards, 802.11b was the first to appear, and is still the most common. A bit later, 802.11a emerged. It is faster, but has a shorter range and doesn’t work with 802.11b devices. Consider it the Betamax of wireless. About a year ago, 802.11g arrived, combining the approximate speed of 802.11a with the approximate range of 802.11b (about 120 feet in a home). And it works with the older 802.11b devices, though at the slower 802.11b speeds.
While 802.11b is fine for basic networking, 802.11g opens up more options.
But first, some bad news. 802.11g may not extend your coverage. In fact, even 802.11g products must switch to the 802.11b standard (and speeds) when they move far enough apart. Still, one benefit of upgrading to 802.11g is that newer wireless chips generally have greater sensitivity and can pick up weaker signals at longer distances.
Alas, even at close range, 802.11g will not speed up Web surfing, because even 802.11b is faster than most high-speed Internet connections available through cable, a digital subscriber line or satellite. For that reason, 802.11g is unlikely to replace 802.11b equipment anytime soon at spots like cafes or airports.
But 802.11g will speed file transfers in your network, especially at close range (say, in the same room or in adjacent ones). If you have a laptop and you want to look at digital pictures residing on a nearby PC, for instance, 802.11g should get them to you at least twice as fast as 802.11b.
The big promise of 802.11g is that it will provide enough speed to beam video reliably over a network. While 802.11b is fast enough for digital music (like MP3s) and often even for video, 802.11g offers an extra cushion in cases when multiple computers use the network, or when other devices like cordless phones cause interference.
The advent of 802.11g coincides with advances on the wireless security front, important in ensuring that your network does not become a thoroughfare for intruders. A newer standard for encrypting data, WPA (for Wi-Fi protected access), is now a prerequisite for products certified by the Wi-Fi Alliance, a trade association. It replaces an older system, WEP (wired equivalent privacy), which is good enough to deter a casual snoop but not a determined hacker.
Equipping a computer
If you buy a laptop computer, you may not need an adapter card for 802.11g. Apple has made 802.11g, which it calls AirPort Extreme, standard on most of its laptops. Intel recently upgraded the chips in its Centrino line for laptops to 802.11g. Many other laptops come with Wi-Fi chips from companies like Atheros and Broadcom.
But if you do need an adapter card for 802.11g, it is fairly easy to install. Owners of newer Apple laptops (or desktops) running OS X 10.2.7 or later can add 802.11g with Apple’s $99 AirPort Extreme Card. Owners of Windows-based laptops can buy cards, costing about $70 (U.S.), from such companies as Belkin, Buffalo Technology, D-Link, Linksys, Netgear, and SMC Networks. Setup is usually a two-step process of installing so-called driver software and then inserting the card itself. The adapter cards all provide pamphlets that take you through this process.
The card software includes utilities that help you find available wireless networks, connect to the one of your choice, and set up WEP or WPA security. These utilities are a must for older versions of Windows. Windows XP provides its own wireless utility, though you may prefer the software that came with the card. The Linksys Wireless-G Notebook Adapter, for example, has a straightforward program that is easier to navigate than the XP utility. Whatever option you choose, be sure to run a Windows Update to get the latest operating system patches. You will probably need one, for example, to enable WPA security.
To add Wi-Fi capability to a desktop PC, comparably priced internal cards are available. Except for having to open the computer case, the setup process is essentially the same as for a laptop.
The companies that make cards also sell wireless routers for about $90 that serve as the hub of a home or small-office network. The routers all have Ethernet ports for connecting to a cable or DSL modem and then sharing the Internet access wirelessly among computers, whether Windows PCs or Macs. They also provide a few ports in case you want to attach computer to a router by Ethernet cable.
Initially you will use a wired connection to log into the router from your computer and set up the wireless network. All of the routers have straightforward setup wizards that run either from a CD or a Web browser and guide basic configuration.
Many new routers, like the D-Link DI-624 ($75), the Linksys WRT54GS ($80) and the Netgear WGT624 ($75), promise speed enhancements even beyond the 802.11 standards when paired with the manufacturer’s latest adapter cards for PC’s and laptops. A big speed increase was not evident during informal file-transfer tests at close range with some of these products, but the combination of the Netgear router and its WG511T adapter card for laptops appeared able to maintain high 802.11g speeds over a longer distance than combinations from other companies.
Several wireless products let you share digital music, video and photos on your computer with devices in the living room. Two of the best are SMC’s $215 EZ-Stream Universal Wireless Multimedia Receiver and Prismiq’s $200 MediaPlayer. Each has outputs for attaching a television and an audio system. The SMC product has both 802.11g and 802.11a networking built-in, while the Prismiq device requires a laptop-style adapter card. Both reliably connected to 802.11g routers about 80 feet away (though the SMC first required a software upgrade, available by download, to work dependably).
Each device scans the network for PC’s running its software (Windows only) and presents the content in menus on your TV. Using a remote control, you can pick music to play on the TV or a stereo and photos and videos to watch on the TV.
Video content is scarce, however. While all the receivers can play generic MPEG1, MPEG2 or MPEG-4 video and many support a derivative format known as DivX, they generally don’t play the most common formats found on the Internet: QuickTime, RealVideo, and Windows Media Video. But in the fall D-Link plans to introduce a receiver, the DSM-320, that plays QuickTime, and Prismiq says it plans a player-recorder before the end of the year that will transmit Windows Media Video, including feature-film downloads from CinemaNow.
Other products let you connect computer peripherals to a network, whether Mac- or PC-based. For example, Netgear’s $150 Wireless Media Router includes a USB 2.0 port for attaching an external hard drive. This setup provides a central location for storing files rather than leaving them on a PC or laptop that might be turned off or carried away, making the files unavailable to the network. Buffalo’s 120-gigabyte LinkStation Network Storage Center is a $300 hard drive that can be attached at any location on a network. It has two USB ports for hooking up additional drives or even a shared printer (although getting a network printer working is a poorly documented challenge).
Such a print server, with a USB port, is also included in SMC’s SMC2804WBRP-G wireless router ($70). And Belkin sells a stand-alone Wireless Print Server ($115) with connections for two printers.
Note that the LinkStation hard drive is not a Wi-Fi device itself â€” it is equipped for a standard wired connection â€” but you can get around this with an adapter, or bridge. Belkin’s Wireless Ethernet Bridge ($130), for example, attaches to the wired port of a networkable device like the LinkStation or a game console and provides an 802.11g wireless connection.
And Apple recently extended the range of wireless product categories with its AirPort Express, a $129 palm-size device. It can serve as a wireless router, but if you have Apple’s older AirPort Extreme router, the Express can act as a repeater â€” a wireless relay that extends the router’s range. (Several other companies also make repeaters that work only with their own wireless routers.)
The AirPort Express has a USB port for attaching printers and a stereo jack for attaching an audio system. It does not include a remote control â€” but you can control it (and play music) from any PC or Mac running Apple’s iTunes software.