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Wireless Network

Wireless Networks Buying Guide
The abilities of wireless networking hardware have exp...
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Wireless Networks Buying Guide

The abilities of wireless networking hardware have expanded quite a bit in the past couple of years alone. What used to be slow and troublesome, can now be a high speed, long distance option that is good for basic home setups and small offices. With newer wireless N hardware being able to exceed speeds of a basic 10/100 wired connection and provide a signal several times more powerful than older wireless G hardware, wireless no longer needs to be an option only considered for things like moving around the house with your laptop. Although a wired gigabit (10/100/1000 connection) can still exceed any wireless network for speed, a wireless setup can be excellent for not only eliminating the need to run wires but also to connect everything in our digital lifestyles (gaming systems, phones, laptops, etc). There are two basic components in any wireless network; the router/access point and the card in the system accessing the router. I'll give you the basics of each component in the paragraphs to come.

Router/Access Point
The way in which a wireless signal is transmitted is either by an internet router (or modem) with wireless capabilities built into it or by adding a wireless access point onto an existing wired network setup. An access point is essentially just a gateway between the wireless world and the wired; think of it like simply plugging an antenna into your wired setup. A wireless router is often the most common method chosen due to the fact it can easily be added on to any existing setup, occupies little space and won't cost a whole lot to purchase. A wireless router works by taking a signal from your existing internet modem and distributing it though [usually] four wired ethernet ports and also wirelessly. The wired ethernet ports give you the ability to hardwire up to four systems to the router. This is nice for systems that are nearby the router (saves the money of an unncessary wireless card) or for systems which may need the added network bandwidth of a wire (such as home severs or computers moving large files around). You'll want to check into what speed the wired ports are because some will be 100mbps and higher models will go up to 1000mbps (gigabit). As the numbers show, gigabit will give a huge increase in network bandwidth which will benefit copying files around a network, steaming media, gaming or things like a home sever computer (this won't affect your internet speed though, as it is likely under 15mbps).
The two common wireless formats you will find on the market are G and N. Depending on the configuration, G is capable of going up to 108mbps and N is capable of going up to 300mbps (make sure you check the revision though, because it is usually only "enhanced" G models that will go up to 108mbps since most G devices are only 54mbps). Wireless G is rated at a maximum distance of 400ft and wireless N is capable of going in excess of 1000ft - both are LINE OF SIGHT ratings though and will be decreased by walls, furniture, metal ducting and just about anything that can get between the transmitter and receiver.

Cards
PCI - PCI wireless networking cards plug into a PCI slot on your computers mainboard and have one, two or three antennas which are on the back of the card outside the computer case. The advantage to PCI wireless cards is that they are faster than their USB counterparts because of the added bandwidth of the PCI bus, they generally have much stronger and larger antennas and the antennas can typically be upgraded (most use an SMA connector).

USB - As with most USB peripherals, a USB wireless card is a quick and easy way to add wireless to virtually any system with a USB port. The straightforwardness of USB wireless adapters means they are a great option for those who are uncomfortable opening up their computer to install an internal PCI card style of adapter. Their compact size, usually only slightly larger than a USB flash drive, means that USB wireless adapters can also be taken from computer to computer or used on a laptop too (as long as the system has the appropriate drivers installed). As mentioned earlier, a USB wireless adapter will have slightly decreased range and speed compared to a PCI adapter but for straightforward internet use and basic home networking you probably won't even notice this speed difference.

Cardbus/Express Card - Most laptops will already have some form of wireless adapter card built-in, but for those that don't you can easily add one with a cardbus or express card wireless adapter. Fitting in the card slot of your laptop, there is usually only a small nub (the antenna) that is left exposed on the outside of the laptop. Much like a desktop's PCI card, a cardbus or express card wireless adapter will usually be slightly faster and more powerful than a USB type.

For those who are unfamiliar with wireless technologies, it's handy to know that they are all backwards compatible with each other and brand names do not necessarily need to be match up. This means it is possible to use a G card on an N router, or an N card on a G router, etc. The wireless will only go as fast as the slowest link though, so by adding an N card in your computer to connect to your G router you will not see a speed increase! That being said, if you are building a wireless network from scratch then pay close attention to make sure you are buying all your components from the same wireless standard to maintain the fastest speed you can get!

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