Many home technology users, especially those who work from home, have two or more computers. As computing devices proliferate in the home, these users can realize some business-related benefits by installing a LAN. Internet connection sharing, file-and-print sharing, and centralized backup are common home-network usage scenarios. Other, less business-related benefits include playing network-enabled multiplayer games, surfing the Web poolside, or sending an instant message to your kids when it's dinnertime.
Although you can easily see the advantages of a home network after the network is in place, installing the network infrastructure hasn't always been easy, until now. Wireless networking is poised to invade homes throughout your neighborhood during the next few years. Corporations and universities have used the primary technology—the IEEE 802.11b wireless standard—for several years, and this technology is now priced attractively for home environments. The 802.11b standard offers up to 11Mbps throughput and effortless installation.
The Pieces and Parts of an 802.11b Network
The type of network components you need depends on how many and what kinds of devices you want to network. The two basic types of 802.11b networks are ad hoc and infrastructure. An ad hoc wireless network consists of two or more computers, each equipped with a wireless adapter. These computers communicate with one another independently and must use the same radio channel. An infrastructure network adds a component called a wireless Access Point (AP). The AP's primary purpose is to let wireless devices communicate with computers on a wired LAN. You might use this configuration if you have a small, wired network in your home and you want to expand it. Another advantage to adding an AP to your wireless LAN (WLAN) is that you can theoretically double your transmission range. For example, imagine setting a laptop on a table and walking 1500' away (i.e., the theoretical maximum distance for a line-of-sight connection) while you use a second laptop to wirelessly communicate with the first laptop. You could install an AP at that point and walk an additional 1500' away and still communicate between the two laptops.
Aside from choosing an AP and specialty devices such as a wireless print server, you need to select the proper wireless adapters for the equipment you want to connect. A wide range of adapters is available, including PCI cards for internal installation, PC Card adapters for laptops, USB adapters for simple installation in desktop computers, and CompactFlash (CF) slot adapters for mobile devices such as Pocket PCs. The Lab has gathered and tested 802.11b networking products from vendors that offer a range of adapters to provide single-brand solutions for diverse home networks. We asked each vendor to provide an AP and adapters using PCI card, PC Card, USB, and CF card technology. SMC Networks, D-Link Systems, and Linksys all provided entire suites of products; NETGEAR and Efficient Networks provided all the pieces except the CF card; and SOHOware provided an AP, PC Card, and PCI card. We considered Compaq's, Intel's, Proxim's, and Agere Systems' wireless networking components for review but didn't include these vendors' products because they didn't provide a wireless PCI card.
The test environment was a two-story house with a finished basement. An office in the basement includes three systems that connect to a 100Mbps Ethernet switch on the middle floor of the house. My primary goal while testing the wireless networking equipment was to provide connectivity for stationary computers on the middle and upper floors and mobile connectivity for a laptop and a Pocket PC device without any additional cabling. Additionally, I wanted to ensure secure network traffic and maintain optimal throughput of 11Mbps. Keep in mind that 11Mbps is the maximum throughput for all connections. As a result, all devices connecting to the AP share the 11Mbps pipe.
For each brand of products, I installed the same type of adapters in the same machine. I installed the PCI card in a desktop PC running Windows 2000 Professional, the PC Card in a laptop running Windows XP Professional Edition, and the USB adapter in another desktop PC running XP Home Edition. I installed the D-Link, SMC, and Linksys CF cards into a Compaq iPAQ H3800 running Pocket PC 3.0. For each AP, I installed each device in the same location and plugged each device into the existing network switch.
SMC. Each SMC component came with a small printed user's guide and a 3.5" driver/utility disk. The SMC2655W EZ Connect 11Mbps Wireless Access Point features a dual dipole antenna. I used a Category 5 Ethernet cable (not included) to connect the AP to the network switch and installed SMC's AP Manager utility on a Win2K Pro system physically connected to the network. After I configured the managing computer's network adapter IP address to match the AP's subnet, AP Manager detected the AP and I was able to log on to the AP and configure it by using the AP Manager interface. SMC enables a DHCP client on the AP by default, which saves you from manually configuring the IP address if you have the DHCP service on your network. I installed wireless adapters in my other computers to make sure everything could communicate. Installation was simple for every device; Windows detected the adapters and requested the driver media, I placed the driver/utility disk in the 3.5" disk drive, and Windows loaded the appropriate drivers. To load the drivers for the SMC2642W EZ Connect 802.11b 11Mbps Wireless Compact Flash Card onto the iPAQ, I had to use Microsoft ActiveSync to run the installation program on the computer to which the iPAQ was connected. In about an hour, I had added four wireless clients and an AP to my network by using the SMC hardware.
Linksys. Each Linksys component came with a quick installation guide and a driver/utility CD-ROM. To set up the WAP11 Instant Wireless Network Access Point, I connected its two detachable antenna, plugged in the AC power adapter, and connected the AP to my network switch with the included Cat 5 Ethernet cable. The AP was easy to configure using the GUI Setup Wizard on the included CD-ROM, which I ran from a Windows system physically connected to the same network that the AP is attached to. The Linksys AP includes an integrated Web-based browser utility, which let me manage activities on a wired or wireless node. The Linksys wireless adapters required that I run the Setup Wizard and select configuration options before I installed the hardware. This approach didn't affect the time it took me to install the product, but it might be a "gotcha" for those who like to jump in before reading the directions. The Setup Wizard asked me to choose either infrastructure or ad hoc mode, then choose either the communication channel or Service Set ID (SSID) depending on which mode I selected. (For information about service sets, see the Web-exclusive sidebar "ESS and BSS Service Sets," http://www.winnetmag.com, InstantDoc ID 26408.) After I reviewed the settings, the wizard installed the software and drivers and rebooted the computer. The software reported that the PCI card firmware was old and automatically performed a firmware upgrade from the included CD-ROM. After effortless installations of the WMP11 Instant Wireless PCI Card and WUSB11 Instant Wireless USB Network Adapter, I was surprised to have a problem installing the WPC11 Instant Wireless Network PC Card in my laptop. A call to Linksys technical support revealed that the printed instructions for installing the card under XP weren't up-to-date for version 3.0 of the hardware I was testing. The support technician stepped me through the process of removing the conflicting driver and installing the XP-supplied driver. The CF card installation was simple, and like the SMC process, used ActiveSync to install the drivers and configuration utility on my Pocket PC device. Aside from the PC Card problem, the Linksys devices installed easily and I was communicating at 11Mbps from all nodes in about 65 minutes.
D-Link. The D-Link components each came with quick installation guides and user's manuals, and a CD-ROM containing device drivers and .pdf versions of the documentation. You can use either the USB Configuration Utility from a nonnetworked node or the SNMP Management Utility from the networked managing computer to configure the D-LinkAir DWL-900AP wireless AP; both utilities install from the included CD-ROM. The USB Configuration Utility provides the easiest initial setup, but because it requires a USB connection to the managing computer, I used the SNMP Management Utility for initial configuration and ongoing management. The DWL-900AP uses one antenna instead of a dipole configuration. Theoretically, this design would detract from the AP's coverage range, but the only place in which I noticed a relatively weak signal was on the desktop with the D-LinkAir DWL-520 wireless PCI adapter installed. All the D-Link adapters worked at 11Mbps and were easy to install, including the D-LinkAir DCF-650W/K CF wireless adapter. Like the other CF card adapters, DCF-650W/K used ActiveSync to load the appropriate software onto the Pocket PC device.
NETGEAR. Each of the NETGEAR components came with an installation guide and CD-ROM containing drivers and documentation for the respective product; unfortunately, NETGEAR's electronic and printed documentation was barely adequate. You can use a USB utility or SNMP utility, either of which you can install from the CD-ROM, to configure the dual-antenna-equipped NETGEAR ME102 802.11b Wireless Access Point. The AP doesn't support DHCP, so you must either configure your PC with an IP address to match the AP's default subnet or use the USB utility for initial configuration. I used the USB utility to set up an initial IP address, then used the SNMP utility to configure other security-related options. The MA401 802.11b Wireless PC Card and MA101 802.11b Wireless USB Adapter were easy to set up and connect to the NETGEAR AP. The MA301 802.11b Wireless PCI Adapter also worked well, but it acts only as a carrier for the NETGEAR PC Card. NETGEAR shipped only one PC Card, so I had to test it in the laptop first, then put it in the PCI carrier and install the PCI adapter in the desktop. Because of this extra step, I spent a little more time installing and testing the NETGEAR components. Overall, the equipment provided full 11Mbps throughput from all computers and boasted impressive range.
Efficient Networks. The SpeedStream wireless networking components each came with a quick start guide and a CD-ROM containing drivers and documentation. The SpeedStream SS2623 Wireless DSL/Cable Router serves as Efficient's home AP. Although the device includes additional functionality, I tested only base AP-specific functionality. Initially, the dual-antenna-equipped AP acts as a DHCP server, so by letting the AP assign an IP address to my workstation, I was in the correct IP address range to attach to the Web-based configuration utility. I installed the SpeedStream SS1021 Wireless PCMCIA Card and SpeedStream SS1022 Wireless USB Adapter, but because of some misleading documentation regarding the XP driver for the USB device and lack of information regarding installing the PC Card under XP, the installation was an exercise in trial and error. The SpeedStream SS1023 Wireless PCI Adapter is only a PC Card carrier and doesn't include the wireless PC Card. I first tested the Efficient wireless PC Card in the laptop, then installed the PC card in the PCI carrier and tested the device's functionality in the Win2K desktop computer. Both installations, as well as the wireless USB adapter-equipped computer installation, connected with 11Mbps throughput.
SOHOware. SOHOware's CableFREE II Wireless Hub AP, CableFree II PC Card, and CableFree II PCI card make wireless home networking as simple as possible. The detailed User's Guide steps you through the installation and configuration of all three devices and also covers some rudimentary networking concerns such as file-and-print sharing. The AP features built-in dipole antenna, and its metal case sets it apart from the rest of the equipment in the review. After I connected the AP's included power and Cat 5 Ethernet cables, and installed the PC Card and PCI card, the two-node wireless network was operable in about 10 minutes. The installation asked me to install the NetBlaster II utility, which let me monitor and configure the local wireless access device as well as the AP to which the node is wirelessly connected. SOHOware's Network Hopper 3 software, which lets you save profiles for different wireless networks you might travel between, installs with the utility. SOHOware directly targets the home and home office environment, and its products are well suited for installation by less-technical installers.
As the distance between communicating devices increases, the signal strength decreases. The 802.11b devices automatically trade link speed for reliability, unless you configure the devices to link at only a certain speed. In my testing, I used the default setting for all equipment, which specified that speed should be attenuated as signal strength decreased. For consistency, I installed devices of the same type in the same location for each vendor and noted signal strength and link speed. I then took the laptop equipped with the various PC Cards and walked around the perimeter of my yard to test for connection anomalies. All the devices I tested had a strong enough signal in their initial locations to establish an 11Mbps connection and maintained a full-speed connection within the bounds of my yard. I then walked along the sidewalk away from my house and monitored ping statistics to determine at what distance communication became too unreliable to use. As with an AM or FM radio, direction and positioning of the adapter's antenna make a difference in how well you receive the wireless signal. For all practical purposes, the non-line-of-sight range for most of the products was between 250' and 280'. NETGEAR's product stood out from the pack when I was evaluating signal strength, providing a usable connection for almost another 100' beyond the furthest distance for the other products.
Security and Encryption
Although you can communicate with your AP from up to a block away, so too can your neighbors unless you take the necessary precautions. Two wireless networking security measures designed to help are Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) and media access control (MAC) address filtering.
WEP is a means of encrypting wireless traffic. When you use WEP, even if someone intercepted your wireless transmission, that user would need a special code to decrypt the information. If you encrypt your wireless traffic, you must configure the AP and each node with a matching encryption key. WEP uses 64-bit, 128-bit, or 256-bit encryption. Stronger encryption levels provide more protection from prying eyes, but they negatively affect network thoughput. Some vendors advertise encryption levels differently because 24 of the bits are factory set and the user creates some bits. For example, 40-bit encryption is the same as 64-bit encryption, but the vendor isn't accounting for the factory-provided bits. Another security measure is MAC address filtering, whereby you can specify the unique identity of the hardware devices that can communicate with your access point. Although either security method might be suitable for your home network, you might need to mix both if you're transmitting sensitive data over your WLAN. All the devices I reviewed provide WEP encryption, and most include some variation of MAC addressing. See the Web-exclusive sidebar "Vendor-Specific Security Settings" (http://www.winnetmag.com, InstantDoc ID 26410) for a description of the security and encryption features specific to each vendor's products.
Up to the Task
All the equipment I reviewed is suitable for creating a wireless network in your home. Unless you live in a mansion or have lead walls, one AP will likely provide enough range to give you access from any room in your house and probably your yard as well. None of the products were difficult to install, although some require knowledge of IP networking and addressing. SMC's, Linksys's, and D-Link's products get kudos for providing a broad spectrum of devices to accommodate a single-vendor wireless network solution encompassing a variety of clients. The Linksys and Efficient wireless networking products both have robust security features but need updated drivers and documentation for XP installations. The NETGEAR equipment fared the best on range testing, but ironically, NETGEAR's security functionality lagged behind all of the other products that I tested. SOHOware doesn't offer the selection of wireless adapters that the other products do, but the SOHOware products are easy to install and manage. For cross-vendor compatibility, Linksys and NETGEAR have the most Wi-Fi certified adapters, followed by D-Link and SMC. (For information about the Wi-Fi certification, see the Web-exclusive sidebar "What Is Wi-Fi Certified?," http://www.winnetmag.com, InstantDoc ID 26411.) If you've thought about installing or expanding a network in your home, the wireless capabilities of these products can simplify the job and will be well worth the expense.