Wireless Network Boosters

Ready to go mobile? Here's how to make the most of your wireless network.

Set your peripherals free

Any device with an ethernet port can be untethered via a simple Wi-Fi-to-Ethernet bridge, which lets you move it around the house or place shared peripherals in a central location. The bridges cost about US$50 to US$100, and are available from Belkin, D-Link, Netgear, and other vendors. They're used primarily as wireless game adapters for GameCubes, PlayStations, and Xboxes, but they work with other ethernet-equipped products, such as printers and external hard drives.

If your Wi-Fi network is configured to use DHCP, there's a good chance that your wireless bridge will work right out of the box. Otherwise, you'll have to connect the bridge to your PC, and then assign it an IP address manually by opening the machine's network settings. Some older game consoles need a separate network adapter with an ethernet port. Also, the Xbox 360 has a USB port, for which Microsoft sells a Wi-Fi adapter.

Find nearby services

Who needs gps when you have Wi-Fi? The Loki service (loki.com) has mapped out the Wi-Fi networks in most major U.S. cities, letting you use your Wi-Fi-equipped PDA, smart phone, or notebook to pinpoint your location. Loki installs as a toolbar in Internet Explorer or Firefox, which allows you to look up nearby movies, stores, restaurants, weather, traffic, and other information. My two favorite Loki services are driving directions (see FIGURE 8) and the location of Wi-Fi hotspots. Other channels provide Amtrak train schedules, a radio-station finder, apartment rentals, and real-estate values.

A nice touch: At the press of a button, you can send an e-mail or SMS with your location to a friend, who then clicks a link to look at a map and get directions to join you. Another way-cool feature lets you create "geotags" to attach to blog entries, Flickr uploads, and other Web-based content, showing the location at which it was created. Best of all, Loki is free!

I spy Wi-Fi

Unfortunately, Wi-Fi hotspots are not always secure. Whether you're using a public Wi-Fi connection at a coffee shop, a hotel, or some other public place, each time you log on, you're sending your ID and password over open airwaves. Nefarious Wi-Fi opportunists can set up pirate SSID names similar to what you expect to receive from the Wi-Fi router, such as 'wayport' or 't-mobile', and then capture your private data.

Outfox the would-be thieves by encrypting your data and e-mail, and by using a virtual private network (VPN). Many employers provide VPNs to their mobile workers, so check with your IT manager first. Casual hotspot users can opt for a paid VPN service such as Boingo's Personal VPN (free trial with hotspot subscription, US$30 to keep) or WiTopia personalVPN (US$40 a year); both are simple to install and use. Microsoft is beta-testing its new Windows Live WiFi Suite, which will include VPN service. Pricing is not yet set.

JiWire, noted for its free Hotspot Finder service (see the following tip), offers solid Wi-Fi security and e-mail encryption with its Hotspot Helper software. The free download automatically encrypts your inbound and outbound Internet traffic, and adds a firewall to prevent unauthorized access to your PC. The program protects e-mail no matter which client you're using. Hotspot Helper incorporates JiWire's on-demand Hotspot Finder and is free for the first 10 days of use; it costs US$25 annually for unlimited use.

Don't pay for hotspots

It's easy to get sucked into the habit of heading for the nearest McDonald's or Starbucks when you need to find a Wi-Fi hotspot--but at US$5 to US$10 per connection, this quickly becomes expensive. Why pay latte prices for Wi-Fi when you can get it for nothing? Free public hotspots are proliferating in city parks, libraries, independent coffee shops, universities, and airports (including those in Las Vegas, Orlando, and Sacramento).

The problem is finding free hotspots when you're offline. The solution: Download hotspot directories before you travel. Free hotspot locators are available from AnchorFree (free locations only) and JiWire (both free and paid). AnchorFree has a version for iPods, and both companies let you access their online directories from cell phones using a WAP browser.

Becky Waring is a freelance writer based in Northern California.