At its most basic, WiFi is the Internet equivalent of a cordless phone. Instead of replacing a coiled-up phone cord, WiFi takes the place of Ethernet cable, the thick wiring that stretches under desks in offices.
Doesn't sound too exciting, does it?
But WiFi has done this basic job a little too well -- it has made local area networking so cheap and (mostly) easy, people can set up networks in ways that would have been too difficult before. Few people would go to the trouble of connecting a computer to a stereo or giving away Internet access in a park if it meant littering Ethernet cable all over the place, but with WiFi those scenarios are eminently possible.
In that sense, WiFi is more Swiss Army knife than cordless phone. The downside of this? WiFi can be pretty hard for the uninitiated to grasp.
So for those who haven't tried out wireless networking yet, here's what you need to know.
First, realize that a WiFi network can't replace your existing Internet connection -- it can only make it better by extending its reach beyond one outlet. You can take your laptop to the sofa for your Web browsing instead of being cabled to a desk.
You'll need two pieces of hardware to build a WiFi network. One is an access point, a book-sized device that shares your Internet connection by broadcasting a signal to computers as far as 150 feet away, but more likely several dozen feet (taking into account the way walls and floors can weaken the signal). Most cost about $100.
The other is a receiver -- a card or pod that plugs into a computer. Most new laptops include receivers already, but if you need to add one it should normally cost $30 to $70.
These gadgets come in two main flavors, called 802.11b and 802.11g in lieu of catchier names (those numbers and letters are how the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the author of the standards governing WiFi's workings, catalogues its publications). 802.11b is the oldest, best-established form of WiFi; newer 802.11g gear can transfer data more quickly while still working with 802.11b hardware.
How much faster? 802.11b has an advertised speed of 11 million bits per second (Mbps), but the actual speed you get after subtracting for losses from overhead and interference is more like two to four Mbps. 802.11g's advertised speed is 54 Mbps -- but for the same reasons, its real-world performance is closer to 20 Mpbs. In networks that include both b and g hardware, g slows down still more.
Most people buy WiFi just to share an Internet connection, and for that purpose good old 802.11b is more than fast enough -- most residential broadband connections max out at 1.5 Mbps. G's extra speed is useful only for sending lots of data between computers and the home network.
But even though 802.11g's speed may not yield any real benefit, you'll probably wind up buying it anyway. Older, slower b gear is getting hard to find while offering few savings compared to g devices, and almost all g hardware includes a much better security system.
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