Wireless Networking: Misery Awaits You

Expect hours of hassle to get your PCs talking

At any given time, I may have almost as many computers in my house as I have rooms. The no-name desktop and Toshiba laptop are mine, and up to a half-dozen others are assorted Windows-based and Macintosh units I'm reviewing for my job. For me, creating a network that allows me to swap files and hook all the PCs to my high-speed cable modem makes a lot of sense. But running wires through my 75-year-old house would be impossible.

So I decided to try something potentially better: a wireless network. Such a setup offers the added bonus of letting you surf the Web not just from any computer but from any room in your house--or even the backyard. It's something lots of other people are discovering as well. Now that a standard known as WiFi (or 802.11b) has opened wireless-networking technology to at-home users, tech research firm Cahner's In-Stat/MDR expects 4.5 million U.S. homes to use such systems by the end of this year--triple the number today.

After spending many hours over several weeks getting my network up and running, though, I can tell you the process is not for the faint-hearted. Not only did I have to make numerous calls to various tech-support hotlines, but I became far more conversant with networking technology than I had ever aspired to.

Some of the problems I encountered: Even with the WiFi standard, different brands of gear don't always communicate smoothly. And when the pieces do work together, there's no consistent look and feel to the software that controls them. So configuring the system gets more complicated if you mix and match equipment. Finally, manufacturers exaggerate when they say you can connect computers as far as 300 feet from each other. My Compaq laptop sits downstairs in the kitchen, just 30 feet--as the termite might bore--from the network antenna upstairs in the office. But reception is iffy, and it disappears altogether when I move 20 feet farther from the kitchen to the dining room.

Still, when the network works, it's great. So if you decide to press ahead, the first thing you'll need is high-speed Internet access. Otherwise, there's little reason to bother. Sure, it's nice when your computers can share a printer and exchange files. But getting online from any PC in your house is what makes setting up a network worth the hassle.

Next, you'll need a wireless adapter card for each machine. These cards, from manufacturers such as Linksys, U.S. Robotics, 2Wire, Apple Computer (AAPL ), and a host of others, function as the antenna and radio that let your computer communicate with the network. Internal units for a desktop--which you have to open up the case to install--cost about $50. If you don't want to do surgery on your PC, you can buy a $100 stand-alone card that connects to your USB port--the slot where you plug in most digital cameras. For a laptop, you can get a $100 credit-card size unit that slides into the PC slot. Or, if you're in the market for a new laptop, spend an extra $100 to $150 more for built-in wireless capability.

Now comes decision time. If all you're doing is sharing a Net connection--and you don't care about swapping files--a simple wireless-access point ought to suffice. An access point plugs into your cable or DSL modem and lets the computers communicate with the modem. It works well and will set you back $150 to $200, although you'll have to use e-mail or floppy disks to move files from one computer to another. Linksys makes a $150 unit that's easy to configure. With it I was able to quickly get online from any PC in my house.

But I wanted more--and that's when my problems really started. The best way to share files among your machines is with a router, which lets computers on your network communicate with one another. You could add a stand-alone router to your access point, but many manufacturers sell access-point-and-router combinations, which should be easier to set up and cost less than two individual devices.

Linksys made the $180 unit I finally settled on. But it took a good deal of head-scratching and time on the phone with tech support to get it working right. Sharing my Internet connection among my computers--including an Apple iBook--was no trouble at all. Within a half-hour of opening the Linksys box, I was online. The problem was, I couldn't get the computers to communicate with one another. I called Linksys support, and after 45 minutes on hold, finally got through to a techie who told me--politely but firmly--that the company doesn't help customers configure their networks. As long as I was able to get to the Internet, Linksys was of the opinion that my network was working. Anything else, and I was on my own.

She directed me to a Web site on networking, but that was no help. I finally called someone I know at Linksys, who got another techie to call me. He spent nearly an hour going through all of my settings, with no luck. Then I happened to mention that I was running the Norton Internet Security 2002 firewall to protect against hackers. "Oh, that's a real network killer," he told me. Bingo! As soon as I disabled Norton's firewall--which was redundant since the router provides similar security--I was in business.

The lesson here is that myriad tiny issues can stymie your wireless-networking efforts. And that's going to keep many customers from getting WiFi despite its benefits. You may not run into the problem I had with the Norton program, but chances are something else will come up. Before I settled on Linksys, I had tried equipment from three other manufacturers--ActionTec, Apple, and U.S. Robotics--and ran into small problems that kept me poring over installation manuals for hours.

The good news is that things will get easier. My Toshiba laptop with Windows XP was far simpler to hook up to the network than machines running Windows 98 or 2000. Sure, I still had to fuss with the computer for 10 minutes or so. But in the complex world of wireless networking, that's no time at all.

By David Rocks

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