Wireless Home Networking, Part I - Product Types

By Joseph Moran

November 04, 2002

Kicking off our series on what those of you new to home and small office LANs need to know about wireless: A look at the type of products you can get to connect your PCs sans cables.

It wasn't very long ago that the notion of a home network was virtually unheard of. Networks were typically reserved for denizens of the tech world -- after all, who had more than one computer? Besides, they were so difficult to set up.

Home networks got more popular in the late 90's, as wiring homes (both existing and new) with Ethernet cabling was becoming all the rage. As networking hardware became smaller, less expensive, and easier to use, home networks started to become a reality to more and more households.

Wiring, however, was always the rub. Although the hardware to do so has gotten more plentiful and less expensive (you can now find it in major warehouse stores like Home Depot), wiring a home still requires skills and knowledge that most people don't have (or want), plus it can be disruptive and requires compliance with municipal codes.

In the last few years though, the advent of wireless networks have opened up the world of home networking to the common computer user. Like any other technology product, wireless networking products have gotten smaller (and faster), cheaper, and easier to use. This puts a wireless local area network (WLAN) for the home within reach for anyone.

In this series articles, I'll discuss the various aspects of wireless networking that you'll need to consider as you contemplate a home network of your own. First up, I'll describe the various types of network devices you may need to buy.

Device Types

Wireless Routers/Gateways and Access Points

The cornerstone of any wireless network is an access point. An access point essentially acts as a bridge between a wired and wireless network. It aggregates the traffic from all the wireless client PCs and forwards it down the network to the switch, router, and (in most cases) the Internet connection beyond.

One access point may be all you need. However, depending on how large your home is -- and the lot itself, if you're trying to cover the outdoors as well -- and how it is laid out and constructed, you could use more. Remember, an access point has to be wired to your network-- back to the router or switch -- or at least the Internet connection.

Many broadband cable modem and DSL routers -- the hardware that allows you to share an Internet connection with multiple computers -- now incorporate a built-in wireless access point. Sometimes they're called "wireless gateways," as in, 'your wireless gateway to the Internet.' Having both devices in one chassis is space-saving and convenient and it might even be a little cheaper....but it's not a no-brainer.

For example, if you've already got an Ethernet-based network router in place, you may not want to discard it to add a new product just because it has wireless. Conversely, having the router and wireless access point as separate units lets you replace or upgrade each individually, which you may want to do at some point -- particularly the access point, as wireless standards evolve and improve.

Units that combine the router and access point often (though not always) offer fewer features than discrete products, since vendors may need to reduce capabilities to meet a specific price. However, combo units typically cost a good deal less than what they would cost if bought separately.

Stand-alone access points tend to provide slightly better performance than those contained within routers. This is because the stand-alone access points don't need to share computing power with the other functions.

Finally, and perhaps the best reason for keeping the two devices separate is so that you have the flexibility to optimally place and position the access point. You may find that you get better reception from your access point when you mount it closer to the ceiling (a scenario not at all uncommon). If your access point is part of your router, it will almost certainly be a more difficult to place since you're likely tethered to your broadband connection, and it's aesthetically inferior as well since you'll have to deal with multiple cables.

Wireless NICs

You'll need to have a wireless network interface card (NIC) for every computer you want to have wireless network access. Wireless NICs come in three basic varieties or form factors that can be purchased off the shelf and added to existing computers.

PC Card

The most ubiquitous type of wireless NIC is the PC Card . Not surprisingly, PC Cards are a natural choice for use with a notebook because they're small and light and fit almost entirely inside the machine. Only the antenna area of the card protrudes, typically by an inch or less.

Because of their small size, PC Card NICs usually have the smallest and weakest antennas of the three NIC types. This is outweighed by the convenience they offer however, and most PC Card NICs still provide excellent range.

Because PC Card NICs are the most common, they're also typically the least expensive to buy. If you're looking to give a notebook wireless access in the simplest and least obtrusive way, then a PC Card is the way to go.

PC Cards are sometimes called PCMCIA cards (they conform to a standard from the Personal Computer Memory Card International Association) , and come in two flavors -- 16-bit cards, which can be used with any PC Card slot, and 32-bit CardBus cards, which only work with the latest systems. They have faster throughput and are used with the fastest wireless networks.

PCI

Next is the PCI card, which are a little more complicated. A PCI (short for Peripheral Component Interconnect) card NIC plugs into an internal slot on your computer, in much the same way as a conventional wired Ethernet-based NIC would.

There are two sub-types of PCI card NIC. One kind is modular; it contains a PC Card slot on the rear faceplate which accepts a full PC Card NIC, without which, it won't function. The PC Card NIC typically needs to be purchased separately. There are also self-contained PCI card NICs with an antenna that protrudes from the faceplate.

Both varieties operate in the same fashion, but that doesn't mean you should consider them equivalent or interchangeable.

Because the PC Card style is modular, you can move the PC Card between computers. If you had two computers-- a notebook and a desktop, but didn't use them both simultaneously -- you could buy one PC Card NIC and one PCI card with PC Card adapter, and move the PC Card between the two machines as needed, saving you the cost of a second full PCI card NIC. This is less of a concern as prices continue to drop.

The downside to a PCI/PC Card NIC is that the size and power of the antenna are smaller, which can negatively impact WLAN range. This is especially true if your desktop computer sits on the floor instead of a desk. If this is the case, then the non-modular type of NIC with its larger and more powerful antenna is a better choice.

When talking about any kind of radio antenna, higher is better -- why do you think those cell phone towers are so high?. Wireless networking is no exception, so regardless of the kind of NIC you have in your desktop, the higher up the computer is, the better your reception is likely to be. Some PCI NICs even offer a tethered antenna that can be placed on the desktop to optimize reception.

USB

Universal serial bus (USB) NICs are simple -- they plug right into the USB port found on just about every computer made today.

USB NICs have the distinct advantage of being installable without opening the machine's case, and you automatically get the benefit of a larger and more powerful antenna. They're designed to sit on top of your desk and obviate concerns with where your computer is situated, since the antenna is not part of the machine's chassis.

There's no reason why you couldn't use a USB NIC with a notebook as well, but laptops should stick with an internal PC Card NIC unless the notebook spends most of its time sitting on a desk.

USB comes in two flavors, the newer High Speed USB (usually called USB 2.0) and Full Speed USB (previously called 1.1). High Speed is about 40 times faster. For right now, all USB-based NICs are still made to support USB 1.1 so there's no need to upgrade to faster USB ports.

Print Servers

In a home environment, printers are often directly connected to a single computer via a parallel cable. If you have a home network, this printer can easily be shared with other computers on the network if you set it up in the operating system.

What if you want to locate the printer somewhere other than 15 feet (the maximum distance of a parallel cable) from a computer? By using a wireless print server, you can put a printer anywhere in range and make it available to all computers on the network.

Wireless print servers function in much the same way as the wired versions that have been used for years. You connect the printer to the print server, configure it with the proper network information, and it communicates wirelessly with your network.

The devices described above represent most but not all of the possibilities of wireless network devices. There is a range of other possibilities, from wireless surveillance video cameras to wireless office phones, under development.

What does it cost?

The cost of hardware for the various WLAN technologies does differ, but its low enough that it ought not be a major factor in your decision, at least if youre only buying a couple of pieces of equipment.

At the low end of the spectrum, not surprisingly, is 802.11b. PC Card-based 802.11b NICs can be had for around $60, and sometimes even less. PCI or USB based NICs typically cost $10 or $20 more. Access points usually sell for about $100 and routers that have built-in access points sell in the neighborhood of $120. Faster standards are usually about twice as expensive, with PC Card NICs going for approximately $110 and access points in the $220-$250 dollar range.

Coming inPart II : What you should know about the various WLAN Standards.

802.11 Planet Conference Curious about video over WLANs? Join us at the 802.11 Planet Conference & Expo, Dec. 3-5 in Santa Clara, CA. One of our sessions will cover Distributing Wireless Entertainment.



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