WWD Ultimate Guide to Wi-Fi: From Network Setup to Power User Tips

Many web workers already can’t live without their Wi-Fi technology, and want to extend the benefits they get from going untethered. Others are in need of simple, inexpensive ways to deploy and secure their wireless networking. Meanwhile, a new, much faster and more robust proposed Wi-Fi standard—802.11n—is already producing draft products that can really improve the way you work. This special report on Wi-Fi technology will deliver important information on how to get much more out of your wireless networking. Whether you have yet to set up a home Wi-Fi network, or you’re an expert looking for power user upgrades, this report is for you.

In a recent post focused on those who have not yet put in a Wi-Fi network at home, I supplied complete instructions for deploying one for under $200. You’ll find easy to follow instructions there for setting up a secure, Wi-Fi network in about 30 minutes. Make sure to follow the security advice at the end of the post.

I guarantee that very few tech upgrades will give you more satisfaction than a home Wi-Fi network, but once you’ve got a network installed, there are still more ways to get much more out of your mashup. I’m going to delve into many of these in this post.

Access Point, Or Not to Access Point. It was interesting to note that many of the comments that came back after my post about setting up a Wi-Fi network were from people who eschewed my advice to use a Wi-Fi access point in addition to a router. Instead, many people prefer to just use a router and claim that they get reasonable performance without putting in an expensive access point to repeat the Wi-Fi signal throughout a home.

I’m sticking with my router-and-access point setup, as described in the link above. I maintain that a router-only solution will result in degradation of performance when you’re far from the router, but be aware that many people do put in a router-only home Wi-Fi network for under $100.

Securing Your Public Wi-Fi Use. If you use public Wi-Fi hotspots, or Wi-Fi in places such as hotels and airports, see my post Free VPN Solutions for Securing Your Public Wi-Fi Sessions. and also see the really excellent reader comments at the end of that post. Also see my post Keeping Your Public Wi-Fi Sessions Secure and check the good reader comments at the end of that one. Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) provide a secure tunnel within which you can encrypt all your communications on a public Wi-Fi network, and there are many other reliable, cost-free ways to stay secure described in those posts.

Connecting to Wi-Fi Networks in Windows Vista. To connect to Wi-Fi networks in Vista, you use the OS’s Network and Sharing Center. First, right-click on the network status icon in your system tray. Select the network you want, and connect. Vista will let you know when you are fully connected.

Connecting to Wi-Fi Networks in Windows XP. In XP, you’ll find an icon in your system tray that looks like a computer with pulses emanating from it (see below, and if you right-click on it you’ll see a summary of your current Wi-Fi connection status). Double-click on it to display available wireless networks, and select one to connect to. You may have to wait several seconds to connect.

Connecting to Wi-Fi Networks in Mac OS X. Open the System Preferences (Apple Menu, System Preferences). Click the Network icon to view networking options. Choose AirPort from the Show menu to view settings.

If there is no AirPort choice, select Network Port Configuration, check AirPort, and click Apply Now. Choose how you want to connect.

Optimize the Placement of Your Router and Access Points. I’ve seen people put Wi-Fi routers and access points in cabinets, underneath and in back of large tables where a computer sits, and worse. Remember, Wi-Fi is radio technology. You are best off with your router positioned in a high place so that it can broadcast with as few obstructions as possible. Likewise, centrally located spots—such as at the top of a centrally placed staircase—are ideal locations for access points, which essentially function as repeaters for the radio coming from the router. Experiment.

Optimize Your Home Wi-Fi Network Performance—Windows Users. Many people who put in a Wi-Fi network at home pay little attention to the architecture of the network, and don’t measure its performance on an ongoing basis. This is a shame, because optimizing the performance of a home Wi-Fi network is very easy.

If you have a Windows PC and want an excellent free tool for checking many performance metrics on your home Wi-Fi network, and troubleshooting, try Qcheck, from IXIA. It’s a completely free tool, and you can download a PDF that has lots of good information about what it does.

Qcheck quantifies network response time, throughput and streaming performance. Especially if you roam around the house a lot streaming video or other rich media files, use it. For response time testing, Qcheck delivers minimum, maximum and average numbers of seconds required to complete a transaction. For throughput testing, Qcheck tells you the amount of data per second that was sent between two endpoints. For streaming tests, the program returns the rate at which streaming data was received by the second endpoint.

The last test I mentioned there—streaming testing—is what you really want to run on any roaming Wi-Fi devices you have around the home. You’ll get good information about the kind of performance you get when you’re closer to a router or access point as opposed to far away, and more.

Optimize Your Home Wi-Fi Network Performance–Macintosh Users.
If you’re a Mac user and you use the Airport Extreme base station for your Wi-Fi network, the AirPort Utility is your best friend when troubleshooting, configuring and testing your network. It’s in the OS X operating system, and is very easy to use.

Put USB Devices on Your Wi-Fi Network. As long as you’ve already got a Wi-Fi router in place at home, you can easily put all kinds of USB devices, such as external hard drives and printers, on your network with a Network USB Hub. It speaks USB and Wi-Fi. If you have, say, a multi-function printer, this is a very easy way to be able to roam around the house sending print jobs, faxes and scanning documents. Gefen has a well-liked wireless USB hub worth checking out.

Optimizing File Sharing on Your Home Wi-Fi Network. A lot of people who have successfully put in a Wi-Fi network neglect to optimize the way files are shared between computers in a home or workgroup. You can choose ways to organize shared files, and ensure that files are shared securely or not visible to other users on your Wi-Fi network very easily.

If you have Windows XP, follow the simple steps from Microsoft in the following link to configure Simple File Sharing (a module) in XP. Simple File Sharing will let you set permissions for various devices and users on your network.

On a Mac, all you need to do is put files you want to share in your Public folder, then go to System Preferences, pick Sharing, and select Personal File Sharing. In Windows Vista, you just use the OS’s Network and Sharing Center to optimize file sharing. Right-click on the network status icon in your system tray.

Auto-Connecting to Wi-Fi Hotspots.
There are many utilities you can use for automatically connecting to Wi-Fi hotspots and municipal Wi-Fi signals. For Mac users, I recommend the free solution from Devicescape. After you’ve downloaded the software, Devicescape lets you know what Wi-Fi hotspots are in range, and can auto-connect to ones you’ve defined to connect to. For users on Windows systems who want the same functionality, I recommend JiWire. You’ll get good results from Wifinder.com and hotspothaven.com as well.

Wi-Fi in the Hotel. Do you spend a lot of time in hotels? If so, a Wi-Fi travel router is an essential tool to carry. Belkin has one that I like a lot. It lets you share your hotel’s broadband access even if broadband is only available through a hardwired Ethernet connection. It can share access among multiple computers and devices and free you up to roam. If you’re a Macintosh user, Apple’s Airport Express is a great travel buddy and great way to extend your Wi-Fi signal in the home.

Ping if You Have a Network Problem. Do you ever have problems with Wi-Fi connections at public hotspots, hotels, airports and the like? If you’re a Windows user, there’s an old-school way to check if you have the problem or the wireless network does: sending a ping. In Windows, click Start, point to All Programs, point to Accessories, and then click Command Prompt. Yes, my techie friends, this is DOS. At the command prompt, type cmd and Return. Then type the word ping and the name of a web site. If the task times out, that means the problem isn’t you communicating with the wireless network, but the network communicating with the Internet.

What if you’re a Mac user? To send a ping from Mac OS X, launch the Network Utility. (Applications/Utilities/Network Utility).

Consider a Range Extender. Wireless range extenders are a very easy way to greatly expand the coverage you get from your Wi-Fi network. You can make good use of one of these on, say, a back porch if you want to be able to roam around with a connected laptop outside.

In Public Wi-Fi Sessions, Use SSL With GMail. Anytime you’re using GMail at a public Wi-Fi hotspot use this URL to make sure your session is encrypted with SSL security: http://gmail.google.com The “s” in the beginning keeps your whole session SSL protected.

Send Photos Wirelessly to Your Computer. There are now several Wi-Fi cameras on the market. The one I like is the Canon PowerShot SD430 Digital Elph Wireless.

It lets you transfer pictures wirelessly to computers on your network or to printers. Get one, and you no longer need to hassle with memory card, cables and other gear.

Add a Wi-Fi Phone to the Mix. Apple’s iPhone is not the only phone that can place either cellular or Wi-Fi calls. There are several new dual-mode phones available that do so, including the Nokia E65 and the RIM BlackBerry 8820. These can be very convenient and you can use them at any hotspot, and save on your phone bill.

Wi-Fi Everywhere. Don’t forget that the list of products you can hang off of your Wi-Fi network is constantly expanding. The general trend is for Wi-Fi technology to be integrated into many kinds of hardware products. For example, the new Apple Touch iPods have integrated Wi-Fi and Internet browsing features. That means that you can even do some kinds of web work on them, you can stream YouTube videos on them, and more.

What to Make of 802.11n Wi-Fi. If you’ve gotten lulled into complacency by incremental upgrades in wireless technology, the upcoming 802.11n Wi-Fi standard promises to rattle you. It’s going to usher in vastly faster Wi-Fi speeds, better range, and will even usher in brand new types of wireless applications. For example, you’ll probably see enough throughput speed to send multiple HDTV streams around a home—unthinkable with 802.11g Wi-Fi. The problem is, 802.11n is only a draft standard at this point, and ratification isn’t expected until 2008.

However, it is true that many people can benefit from the draft-N products that have already arrived. They were kludgey at first, but are vastly better now. Many of them have dropped in price since they were first introduced, and they incorporate key parts of what we know will be in the final 802.11n Wi-Fi standard, especially very powerful MIMO (Multiple Input, Multiple Output) antennas. They do come with risk, though, and that risk surrounds whether they will end up being compatible with ratified 802.11n products.

If you are an Apple user and you use the AirportExtreme base station for your Wi-Fi, and you have relatively new Apple technology on your network, then you’re already using draft-N technology. If you’re a PC user and you want to upgrade to draft-N technology, D-Link’s Xtreme N Gigabit Router is a good router choice and costs about $150. The Linksys WRT150N Wireless Home Router is also good, at about $100.

Linksys and D-Link also both sell good 802.11n access points, which you’ll need if you want to extend the wireless range of your router’s signal. If you’ve never installed a Wi-Fi network, there is a link at the top of this post to an explanation I provided on how to do so securely. The CDs that come with the routers walk you step-by-step through installation, including diagrams. You can definitely put in a solid draft-N Wi-Fi network in your home for under $200, so you may very well be willing to take the risk of not having the products compatible with the final 802.11n standard.

And that’s what the Wi-Fi scene looks like right now. I hope you found some material to help you on your wireless way in this post.

Do you have any tips on Wi-Fi networking, using Wi-Fi hotspots, Wi-Fi security or 802.11n?


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