One reason for the popularity of wireless networking is its reasonable cost.
Wireless hardware is as cheap as chips these days, and you can save money by not running network wiring all over your house. You'll spend less on internet connections, share peripherals such as printers and scanners, and use your PC to drive other applications around your home, such as your home-entertainment center.
Of the many benefits of wireless in the home, most have one thing in common: sharing. When you connect the computers in your house through a network, you can share files, printers, scanners and high-speed internet connections.
In addition, you can play multiuser games over your network, access public wireless networks away from home, check wireless cameras or even enjoy the MP3s stored in your stereo system from work.
Whether you've got one computer or several, there are many good reasons to want a network -- reasons that until recently just didn't exist.
The plummeting cost of wireless technologies, combined with fast-paced technical development, has meant that more and more manufacturers are getting on the home networking bandwagon. That means that more applications around your house are going to try to ride your wireless backbone -- talking amongst themselves and to the Internet. Wireless is here to stay and will become central to the home.
Wireless networks may be less expensive than more traditional wired networks but they are also much easier to install. However, this wasn't always the case. In the early days of wireless, where 2Mbps (megabits per second) of bandwidth was the norm, setting up a wireless network used to be a headache.
Mercifully, ever since Windows XP Service Pack 2, the process has been much simplified. Read on to get networking without wires -- or too much stress.
SETTING UP AND SECURING A WIRELESS NETWORK
1. First, choose your hardware. If you already have an ADSL connection, a wireless ADSL router will give you Wi-Fi, shared broadband, a four-port hub, an SPI firewall and an access point to an existing wired network. A router like this kills plenty of high-tech birds with a single stone.
2. As well as a router, each PC will need a wireless network card. Most modern laptops will already have this, so there's nothing to install. However, desktop PCs don't often ship with a wireless card so you'll need to buy and fit one. You can get them as PCI cards (above) or plug-in USB dongles. The latter are much easier to install.
3. The router doesn't need any software, but a wireless network card does. Many wireless network cards like you to install the driver software before you plug in the hardware. Either way, the hardware will be recognized and set up by Windows XP. Here, driver software for a Netgear WG511 Wi-Fi PC Card adapter is set up.
4. Next configure the router for Wi-Fi -- we've assumed you've set up the ADSL connection via a wired connection. Open a browser and navigate to the home page of your router. Here, we've enabled the wireless access point and renamed the access point SSID. The Wi-Fi status LED on the front of the router should be lit.
5. Now set up wireless security. We're not a big company with an authentication server, so we've selected the option for WPA with a Pre-Shared Key. You need to enter an encryption passphrase of between eight and 63 characters. From now on, wireless devices wanting to connect to the router must supply the passphrase.
6. Some vendors -- Buffalo with AOSS, and Linksys with its SecureEasySetup -- have simplified Wi-Fi security. In the case of Linksys SES, with a single click you can configure the SSID and enable WPA security. Hit the button on the router then click the SES button in the Linksys driver on the workstation client.
7. With your wireless network card correctly installed on your PC, Windows XP should show an icon notifying you that it has located a wireless network. Right-click the wireless network icon in the lower-righthand corner of your screen, then click View Available Wireless Networks. You should see your network listed.
8. You might see other wireless networks that happen to be close by. If your network isn't listed, click Refresh network list in the upper-left corner. Click on your network name, and then the Connect button. The small padlock icon means that Windows XP has recognized that the wireless network security is switched on.
9. When you click Connect you'll be prompted to enter the passphrase you chose in step five in the 'Network key' and 'Confirm network key' boxes. Click Connect to log on to the wireless network. You'll have to enter the passphrase only once -- from now on you should be connected automatically.
10. To reconfigure the wireless security settings, open Network Connections and right-click Wireless Network Connection. Click the Wireless Networks tab, select the network you wish to adjust and choose Properties. You can change authentication type and the encryption method. You can change the network key, too.
11. Many modern wireless routers, access points and wireless network cards support a newer and better wireless security, WPA2. Its biggest improvement is support for the AES (Advanced Encryption Standard). You can download the required WPA2 patch for Windows XP from www.support.microsoft.com/?id=893357.
12. There are other ways to tighten security. You can switch off SSID broadcasting to prevent hackers finding your network while browsing for open connections. Unless they know the SSID, they won't see your network. To turn off SSID broadcasting, open the configuration page of your router and untick 'Allow broadcast of SSID' or similar.
13. Every network card has a unique MAC address and you can specify (on the router) the MAC addresses of only those PCs you want to grant access to. Again, navigate to your router's Access List settings -- you need to turn on Access List control and then add the MAC addresses of those PCs permitted to join the network.
14. If you use the network hardware vendor's management software, you'll get extra features to those in XP. For example, Intel's PROSet/Wireless software includes a wireless troubleshooter and predefined profiles that activate when you connect. You even specify an exclusion list of wireless networks.
TIPS & TRICKS
If you have a lot of wireless PCs to network, rather than type in the settings each time, you can use an XP SP2 feature, the Wireless Network Setup Wizard, to automate the procedure. You can use the wizard to send all the wireless-network settings to a USB flash drive as an XML file and then automatically transfer the settings to each PC by inserting the USB flash drive. This makes the wizard run and install the configuration settings. Some Windows Connect Now-compatible wireless kit sports a USB socket so that it can be configured as well.
BRING ORDER TO SEVERAL NETWORKS
If you flit between LANs or undertake a number of wireless network transmissions, it makes sense to specify the default wireless network to connect to. You can set an order of preference for other networks if your first choice isn't available. In this way you can connect to a network without being bothered by pop-up dialog boxes. Right-click Wireless Network Connection, select Properties and click the Wireless Network tab. Use the Move Up and Move Down buttons to adjust the pecking order of networks you want to connect to.
FIND THAT LAN NetStumbler is a Windows tool for detecting wireless networks. A trimmed-down version called MiniStumbler is available for Pocket PC devices. It's commonly used for verifying network configurations, checking broadcast coverage and detecting causes of wireless interference (www.stumbler.net).
WI-FI DETECTIVE AirSnare is an intrusion detection system to help you monitor your wireless network. It alerts you to unfriendly MAC addresses on your network, and DHCP requests. If AirSnare detects an unfriendly MAC address, you can track its access to IP addresses and ports, or launch Ethereal (www.stumbler.net).
KEEP AN EYE INSIDE AOL Active Security Monitor is a diagnostic tool that monitors your computer and reveals your PC and home-network security status. A score is determined by evaluating the status of the components required to keep your PC and network safe ( free.aol.com/tryaolfree/index3.adp?promo=808531&service=asm).
FIND THOSE HOT SPOTS WirelessMon is an application that allows users to monitor the status of their wireless Wi-Fi adapters and gather information about nearby wireless access points and hot spots. The software is created by PassMark Software ( www.passmark.com), located in Sydney.