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Community Newsletter: Q&A forum: 3/31/06 How does the wireless network thingy work?

by: Lee Koo (ADMIN) March 30, 2006 10:35 AM PST

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3/31/06 How does the wireless network thingy work?

by Lee Koo (ADMIN) ModeratorCNET staff - 3/30/06 10:35 AM


I've heard a lot lately about using wireless routers to connect multiple computers at home. I want to connect my son's computer with my two others so that we can share a printer and Internet access. Can this be done? The three computers run Windows XP Home Edition. Two have 512MB of RAM and one has 256MB. We already have DSL hooked up to one system. How does the wireless thingy work, and where do I begin? How much can I expect to spend? Thanks.

Submitted by: Anne B. of Boulder, Colorado



Home wireless networks are a great way to connect multiple computers to each other to share Internet connections, printers, and files. In many cases you can install and set up a simple working wireless network in about 30 minutes. As soon as you add file and print sharing, you could be at it for an hour or two, and longer if you run into problems. Since you have all Windows XP computers, you should be in good shape to get this up and running without too many problems. I am also assuming that all of your computers are in good working order and not infected with viruses and spyware. You hear many horror stories of wireless problems, most of which could have been prevented with a little planning and forethought. Since you neglected to tell us whether these are desktop or laptop computers, I will assume you have all desktop computers.

All three of your computers sound like they meet the minimum requirements for setting up a network, however you might want to keep your eyes open for a good sale on memory and upgrade the one with 256MB to some point. Although the basic cost of setting up 3 computers and a wireless router can start at under $200 (less if you find a good sale), there are many factors that must first be considered and the cost could rise depending on the distance between computers as well as other wants and needs that you may have. Since you will now be connecting additional computers to the internet, you may need to install additional Antivirus, Firewall and AntiSpyware software on these newly connected computers.

Although most of todays wireless network products work very well straight out of the box in small homes or apartments, it is best to plan ahead to avoid many of the problems that can arise due to interference, distance between all the computers and the router, and lack of signal due to various types of house construction. This is especially true if you live in a larger home, multi-level apartment or condo. In general, even though most all wireless networking products are designed to work together, I highly recommend purchasing all from the same manufacturer. This way, you only have to call one company for technical support.

The heart of a basic wireless network with internet access consists of a Wireless Router that is connected to your current DSL or Cable Modem and one Wireless Adapter for each computer on the network. This router generally manages the communications between all your computers as well as controls the sharing of your internet connection. Each computer on your network needs a way to connect to this router and it can be either with a wire or wirelessly. It is generally recommended to have at least one computer physically wired to the router, but always keep in mind that hard wiring network computers is always more reliable than wireless. So if it is practical to run wires to some of your computers, do so whenever possible. In your case you will probably want to make the computer that is currently wired to your DSL modem as your one wired computer. Each additional computer that you are planning to run wirelessly will need a wireless network adapter. These wireless adapters come in many forms depending on the type of computer they are going into as well as your ability and knowledge when it comes to installing hardware.
Wireless Adapters For Desktop computers - I generally recommend installing a Wireless PCI card adapter inside the computer. If you do not feel comfortable with opening up your computer, you can purchase a wireless adapter that simply plugs into any available USB port. Since so many devices such as printers, scanners, Ipods and external hard drives use USB ports, I prefer to install internal network adapters.
Wireless Adapters For Laptops - Most all modern laptops come with built-in wireless networking but if yours does not have this feature you can also use the USB type adapter, but I recommend using PCMCIA type card adapters that plug into the PCMCIA slot.
Wired Network Adapters - Only computers that are connected to the router with a wire (not wirelessly) require a Network Adapter (NIC). Most modern computers come with this built-in and it looks like a regular telephone jack, but a little larger. If your computer does not have one, you can purchase these network cards for about $10.

Where Do I Start?

Access your Home for possible interference
- Many wireless networks fail due to interference from other wireless and cordless devices commonly found around the average home. In some cases, interference can even come from a close neighbor or attached apartment. The most common culprit is 2.4ghz cordless phones. These phones operate on the same frequency as most wireless networks and can reduce the effective range of your network or even prevent it from working altogether. Even though it is possible to get these two devices to play together, I recommend replacing any cordless phone systems with either the newer 5.8ghz models or the older 900mhz type. There are also many other wireless devices and appliances found around the home that you must take into account: Wireless alarms systems, Microwave Ovens, Wireless Video and Audio systems and baby monitors or intercoms. Typically only the items that use the 2.4ghz band will cause problems, but you should try to avoid placing all electrical devices too close to your router or wireless computers.

Placement of the Wireless Router
I am sure you have heard the expression Location, Location, Location; well, this holds true for wireless networks. Location is everything. The exact location of your Wireless router in relation to the other computers can determine whether or not you have a wireless network that will give you years of trouble-free service or one that you are fighting with on a daily basis. The Wireless Router should be place at the most central location possible in relation to the computers that you want to connect. Avoid placing the router next to large metal objects or other electrical devices. Placing the router in the highest location you can find will generally prove most effective. In other words, a router placed high on a shelf away from any other electrical devices will generally outperform a router sitting on the floor behind your big metal computer wrapped in a maze of wires and cables. Another common reason for wireless problems is the type of construction used in your home. I have run into some older homes that use plaster and wire mesh in the walls and the wireless signal would not even reach the next room. Surveying your home as I suggest below with a laptop can uncover many of these problems.

Since the Wireless router needs to be connected to your DSL or Cable modem with a wire, this will generally limit your choices for router placement. With Cable Modems, you normally can not move the modem to any other location in the home other than the one where the cable company originally installed it without some cable wiring changes, so this means that you are pretty much limited to where you can place the wireless router. But with DSL, you can generally move the modem to any other phone jack in the home that uses the same phone line.

Survey the Area with a Wireless Laptop
If you have or can borrow a wireless laptop, this can be used as a tool to evaluate your entire home before you even start setting up your network. Most all wireless laptops have a wireless utility that will show you the signal strength of all nearby networks. Without installing or even connecting your router to your modem, simply plug the router into any outlet. It will start transmitting within a few minutes and you can walk around the house with your laptop to evaluate the signal strength in various locations throughout the house. Try moving the router to different locations and test again. Once you find the ideal location, you can then run the wires and install the modem. Your laptop may find other networks in the area, so be careful to make sure you are checking your router and not the signal strength of someone elses network.

What type of Wireless Router and Adapters should you buy?
There are many manufacturers and models of wireless routers to choose from and in a very small home or apartment, pretty much any model will usually do just fine for simple internet sharing. If you are new to setting up and installing these types of devices, I would suggest sticking with the better known brands such as Linksys or Netgear because you will normally be able to find more online help with these brands, should you need it. However, if you have any special needs other than just internet sharing, you may need to look into some of the higher end systems. Reasons you may need one of the higher end systems:
1. A large home or Multiple Floors or Walls to pass through
2. The distance between the router and any of the computers is greater than 30 feet.
3. You need extra speed for file sharing or streaming video or audio.
4. You have a large number of Wireless Computers Connected at once.
At the time of this writing, I have found that I am getting the best performance and range using the Belkin Pre-N Router and Adapter. However, I am starting to see an alarming rate of router failures after about a year of operation. It is still too early to tell if this is going to be a common problem. However, I must add that I have found that many retail routers and modems fail after a year or two.

What is 802.11A, B, G, N all about?
These are the different Wireless specifications that are currently available. I will try to explain the differences without getting into all the specific details. If you want to learn more there are plenty of places to look such as or

802.11B 2.4ghz Band - 11mbs - Older, slower technology - Fine for simple internet sharing if you can still find any.
802.11G 2.4ghz Band 54mbs Most Common Faster than 802.11b backwards compatible with b
802.11A 5.8ghz 54mbs Not compatible with b or g Used in heavy 2.4ghz interference areas, typically offices.
802.11A+G 2.4&5.8ghz- Compatible with a, b and g systems not very common and expensive.
802.11 super G 2.4ghz 108mbs (must be used with same brand adapters to achieve this speed) compatible with b and g
802.11N 2.4ghz 108mbs - Not actually approved yet, but in use This is the fastest and longest range of them all. Also known as Pre-N or MIMO.- Most expensive.

What does all this mean?
If you are simply interested in sharing your internet connection and some light file and print sharing and you have a small house or apartment then I would go with the standard 802.11g router and adapters. However, if your needs require moving large quantities of data between computers, I would suggest going with one of the super G or Pre-N models. To give you an idea of the speed difference, I ran a few tests last year. The speed difference may not look like much but if you are moving a lot of data or have several computers running wirelessly, it could make a big difference. For example: I have all my computers in the house performing a full backing up to my server in the basement each night and an incremental backup during the day. This is moving a tremendous amount of data over the network. At the same time, I have 3 Replay TV recorders (like TiVo), often streaming video across the network. Keep in mind that all the wireless computers in the house will be sharing the wireless bandwidth and if someone in the house is a heavy network user such as playing online games, this will reduce the performance for everyone.

I ran the tests by transferring a 28MB folder (about 10 medium quality digital photographs) from one computer to my server with an excellent signal and the router only 10 feet away. Individual results will vary depending on router settings, the distance to the wireless router and the number of wireless computers using the network. The speed of your connection drops as the distance between the router and the computer increases. With a poor wireless connection, these times could increase by a factor of 10.

Wireless 802.11B took 70 seconds to transfer the folder
Wireless 802.11G took 36 seconds
Wireless Pre-N took 12 seconds
Hard Wired 10/100 (100) took 4 seconds

By the way, downloading a 9.15MB file from the Internet was the same with all the above tests.

Setting this all up
Once you have selected a router and wireless adapters for each computer and have a plan as to where you are going to set this up, you are ready to start. All the Wireless Routers and Adapters now come with an installation CD that will walk you through a fairly easy installation process. I dont have room here to get into the all the details of setting up each and every type of network, but basically, the rough steps are as follows:
1. Insert the Setup CD for the router into your computer that is currently connected to the internet.
2. Follow the CD instructions to connect your computer to your new Wireless Router and to your current Broadband Modem.
a. For DSL setups you will need your original DSL username and password. If you dont remember it, you will have to call your internet provider to reset your password.
3. The Router CD will walk you through the basic router setup.
4. Next, insert the setup CD that came with your Wireless Adapters into one of the computers that you plan to run wirelessly and follow the instructions.
5. Do the same for all other wireless computers.
6. Once you have all the computers connected and have verified Internet access on all, you can start setting up Print and File sharing and adding some extra security.
7. Now that all your computers are connected to the Internet, you will need to make sure that each and every computer has some form of antivirus software running and updated. The computers that were never connected to the Internet, probably came with some antivirus software but would need to be updated, activated or re-subscribed. You should also plan on installing spyware and firewall protection on each.

Change the Default SSID
The SSID is the network name that is sent out by your router and identifies whos network you are on. For Example: The default name for all LinkSys routers is linksys. If you leave the default name and someone else in the neighborhood has a linksys router, you will not be able to tell which is yours. You can use any name you want but I recommend not using anything that identifies to outsiders that it belongs to you. So dont use your own name or address.

Turn on Security Wireless Security is turned off by default on most all routers. You should at the very least use WEP security to prevent the casual neighbor from accessing your network. If you have sensitive data, I would recommend paying attention to all the optional security settings available on your router. There are too many ways to secure your Wireless network to discuss here, but make sure you have some protection.

Your basic wireless network should be up and running with Internet access on all computers. Now if you want to share files or a printer you may need to check or change some basic settings.

For Print and File Sharing
1. Set Firewall to allow print and file sharing

a. If you have a separate firewall program such as ZoneAlarm, Black Ice, Norton or McAfee, you will need to change the firewall setting to allow print and file sharing.
b. If you are using the Windows Firewall go to START > CONTROL PANEL > WINDOWS FIREWALL > CLICK on EXCEPTIONS tab > make sure the FILE and PRINT SHARING box is checked.
2. Make sure all computers are on the same Workgroup

a. RIGHT CLICK on MY COMPUTER > Select PROPERTIES > Select COMPUTER NAME Tab > Verify WORKGROUP is the same for all computers. Click on CHANGE if you need to change the Workgroup.
3. Each computer must have a different Name

a. RIGHT CLICK on MY COMPUTER > Select PROPERTIES > Select COMPUTER NAME Tab > Verify FULL COMPUTER NAME is different for all computers. Click on CHANGE if you need to change the name.
4. Share a folder or file

a. RIGHT CLICK the name of the file or folder that you want to share > Click on Sharing and Security > Use the sharing wizard if available to share a file, if no wizard simply click on share this folder on the network > Check box if you want users to be able to change or edit this file > Click APPLY > Click OK.
5. Share a printer

a. From the computer with the printer attached to it, click on START > CONTROL PANEL > PRINTERS AND FAXES > RIGHT Click the printer you want to share > Select Sharing > Check the box SHARE THIS PRINTER > Enter any name you want to use or accept the default name > Click APPLY > Click OK. A hand should appear under that printer
6. Install the shared printer onto another computer

a. From any of the wireless computers, click on START > CONTROL PANEL > PRINTERS AND FAXES > Select FILE > ADD PRINTER > NEXT > Check NETWORK PRINTER > Click on BROWSE > Select the printer you want to install > Follow remaining instructions.

Ok, if everything went as expected, you should be all set now with a working wireless network. However things dont always go as planned and there are a million and one reasons that you are very likely to run into some problems. If you need additional assistance I suggest you log onto the manufacturers website for the router that you have and check out their troubleshooting or FAQ section. There are also some good websites that have a lot of information such as:

Good Luck and Happy Networking!

Submitted by: Dana H. of Wayland, Massachusetts

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