Buying WLAN Hardware Tips

Setup a wireless network means configuring and using a variety of hardware products.

These come in all shapes and sizes and from several vendors, each of whom offers their own particular promises and assurances that setup is so easy that even an engineer could do it. And while certainly that’s more true today than it was in the early days of wireless LANs, true ease remains elusive.

One of the problems is that companies differentiate their products by adding proprietary technology to them, technology that works with the 802.11 standard contained within the product that often hinders interoperability between similar products from competing vendors.

For the most part, such technology has to do with increasing transfer speeds well beyond the capabilities of common 802.11, an obviously welcome feature, but one that can wreak a bit of havoc with products from other companies.

Although such a product development strategy is certainly understandable—otherwise products based exclusively on standards would all be the same as one another—it does mean you have to watch what you buy.

So here are the first three rules about buying hardware for your WLAN:

  • Unless you have a specific reason to purchase products from multiple vendors, stick with the same vendor for as many components as possible. Wireless products aren’t the same as components for your stereo, after all; they haven’t reached that level of standardization, and there’s a good chance they never will.
  • Even when you’re buying from only one vendor, try to stick with the same product line from that vendor. Several vendors (D-Link and Linksys, for example) have more than one line of wireless products, and they design each product within each line to work flawlessly with all other products in that line.

Other lines might work just fine with your chosen line, but to be completely certain—and assuming you’re starting from scratch—just say no to divergent lines.

  • If you come across a good deal from a different vendor, make sure the store has a return policy, and then buy the product anyway. There’s an excellent chance you’ll be able to make it work no matter how different its technologies may be. 802.11 is, after all, a standard.

We will introduces you to a wide range of wireless networking product categories, including wireless network adapters of three types (PC Card, USB, and PCI), wireless access points, wireless media players, wireless print servers, and more.

Most products are necessary to assembling a working, sophisticated WLAN. Others are nice to have, but not strictly needed. In all cases, we show recently released products, but we also point you to older products that offer similar solutions.

The goal is to construct a WLAN that does what you need it to do, and as with any other construction product, getting the right tools is a crucial part of concluding the job satisfactorily.

Two Typical Scenarios

Before digging into the products themselves, let’s take a look at two fairly typical situations for which a wireless LAN would come in handy.

In the first, a family of four (two adults and two computersavvy children) want to share a single broadband Internet connection to power three PCs, a video game console, and any notebooks the kids’ friends bring over for homework or game-playing purposes.

In the second, a small business sets up shop in a converted house, where stringing Ethernet cables up and down the stairs and along the baseboards simply isn’t a practical idea. All employees need their own PCs, broadband Internet access, and constant access to a laser printer.

The Home Network

Assuming the three PCs are already in place, the next step is to subscribe to an Internet service provider for the broadband Internet connection.

We’ll also assume that this network will take the shape of what has become a standard in home networks, with one desktop PC connected to the network via Ethernet cable and the two notebook PCs through a wireless connection.

To become fully functional as a wireless LAN with a shared Internet connection, this network needs the following:

  • A broadband router/switch device and a wireless access point, or (more popularly) a combination broadband router/access point device.

This unit (or these units, if they’re separate) connects to the Internet service provider (via the broadband modem that service provides), directs traffic to and from the PCs on the network, and provides private Internet addresses to each PC on the network. It is the true hub of the network.

  • An Ethernet adapter inside the desktop PC, which receives data from—and sends data to—the router/switch and the Internet.
  • Wireless network adapters for each notebook PC, or notebook PCs with built-in Wi-Fi networking. These devices receive data from—and send data to—the access point and, from there, to the router/switch and the Internet.
  • A wireless game adapter, which acts as a bridge between the access point and the game console, allowing the game console to access the Internet and the local network.
  • An Ethernet port for the game console, either a separate unit, as in the case of the Sony PlayStation 2, or built-in, as in the case of the Microsoft Xbox. Also needed is networking software for the game consoles and a user account to play online games (free for PlayStation 2, subscription for Xbox).
  • Wireless network adapters for the notebook PCs brought into the house by the kids’ friends, unless of course those notebooks already have adapters.

The Small Business Network

Eight PCs need connectivity to each other and to the Internet in this scenario, and all need access to a networked printer as well. Assume that all of the PCs are to be connected wirelessly, because of the desire to avoid Ethernet cable completely.

Once the company has broadband Internet access in place, this network requires the following in order to fill the company’s needs:

  • A wireless access point that accepts input from the broadband Internet modem. These access points have only one Ethernet port, where the cable from the modem goes.

Because of the continually decreasing cost of broadband router/access points, however, it’s probably a better idea to buy the combined device rather than just the access point (the combined device can also help with testing should the wireless connections fail), but only the access point is strictly necessary.

  • Wireless network adapters for each notebook PC, or notebook PCs with built-in Wi-Fi networking. These devices receive data from—and send data to—the access point and thus the Internet.
  • A wireless print server, which connects to the printer either by printer cable or (more typically) USB cable, and which takes its printing commands from the PCs on the network through the access point.

Most wireless print server products have connections for two printers, so if you need two lasers, or a laser and, for instance, a color inkjet, one server does all. You can place the printer itself wherever the employees will find it convenient.