Wireless by design

If you read Windows Middle East's recent 'Wi-Fly with Windows' group test, you may have had your appetite for wireless whetted, so we continue the theme by explaining how to set-up a cable-free wireless local area network (WLAN) for convenient computing at work or home.

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By  Matthew Wade Published  June 28, 2004

|~||~||~|The advantages of local area networking have been well documented in Windows Middle East and include the ability to share and move files between PCs, get more from an internet connection, share devices such as printers and play network games - all of which can help office users and tech-savvy families alike to work and play more effectively. As more wireless products enter the market, such as Wi-Fi enabled notebooks and peripherals (see the HP MFD reviewed on page 52 of our August issue), the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of networking with the added convenience of cable free connections is, for many, an opportunity just too appealing to miss. A wireless network not only means there are no cables to install, trip over or for the dog to gnaw on, but at home your seamless interior design will stay that way without Ethernet leads strewn around the place. At home and in the home office it also becomes easier to get some peace; if your colleague’s rowdy sales calls or the sound of Beyonce's bootylicious beats emanating from your offspring’s bedroom are driving you to distraction, simply pick up your notebook and relocate elsewhere. Unless you work in a huge office space or inhabit a mansion, the 100-150 foot coverage made possible by ‘b’ and ‘g’ standard wireless products should easily meet your needs. If you're still unconvinced, consider an often overlooked selling point of going wireless. If you rent your home or office space, install a traditional LAN and then decide to move, if that LAN is properly installed it may be difficult to take its cabling with you. Your landlord may also demand that you either leave this cabling in or else take the time to restore the property to its original condition. When setting up a wireless LAN (or WLAN) there are several points to consider, from making sure your computers are configured for wireless connectivity (by checking their specifications and if necessary adding wireless components), to considering which wireless access point (WAP) to buy and where to position this for the best signal coverage. If you already operate a LAN but want to add a wireless version to run alongside it, this is simple to do. Setting the standard You might have heard different wireless standards referred to in this magazine or elsewhere and it helps to understand these, particularly when buying an access point. Firstly, 802.11 refers to the family of wireless specifications that the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) developed for WLAN technology. 802.11 denotes that an over-the-air interface between a wireless client (such as a wireless enabled PC or peripheral notebook) and a base station (in our case an access point) or alternatively between two wireless clients is possible. Within this specification are three wireless standards - 802.11a, 802.11b and 802.11g. 802.11b has been the most widely adopted standard to date, but the recently introduced 'g' standard is expected to poach market share over over the coming months. Both standards operate at a frequency of 2.4GHz (the same frequency used by cordless phones, microwave ovens and the like) however the 'b' standard only offers a top data transfer speed of 11Mbps compared to the 'g' standard's niftier 54Mbps. As for 802.11a, this standard operates on a 5GHs band rather than 2.4GHz, which means 802.11a products avoid conflicts with 2.4GHz devices. They also have a top speed of 54Mbps, but in the Middle East this standard is not widely used because it works on the same frequency as many military applications. Most wireless home and small office products available in the region tend to use either the 'b' or 'g' standard, such as Linksys’ Wireless G product for example, reviewed in July issue of Windows. STEP 1 Obvious stuff first. The computers you plan to connect must include a wireless component. In the case of Centrino notebooks, part of their Centrino package is Intel's Intel PRO/Wireless network connection, which obviously meets this need. If in doubt, head into the System section of Control Panel on your PC and check Device Manager/Network Devices. If your notebook or PC doesn't have a wireless component, this is easily solved by buying either a wireless PC card (for a notebook) or a wireless PCI card (to enable a desktop PC). Expect to pay roughly $50-$70 for each card. After your wireless card is installed, you then have two options. It is possible to connect wireless devices in a peer-to-peer (P2P) fashion rather than using an AP as the centre of your LAN (in what's called a star topology). If you have two wireless notebooks at home for instance, you can connect these simply by heading to Control Panel/Network Connections and clicking Create a New Connection before choosing to set-up an Advanced Connection. When configuring your P2P wireless network parameters, be sure to change from 'infrastructure mode' (a setting designed for use with WAPs or routers) to 'ad hoc mode'. However, if you go the wireless access point route as we will in the remainder of this workshop, this has the advantage of potentially providing better security (some high-end WAPs with built-in broadband routers now include a firewall function such as the US Robotics and Linksys models recently reviewed in Windows), extending a wireless network's range, and making the process of adding additional wireless devices a simple one (i.e. just turn them on and they should recognise your WAP). An interesting point to note here is that when Intel launches its Grantsdale motherboard chipset (the desktop version of which should hit this region in the next few weeks), this chipset should enable Grantsdale-based PCs to function as wireless access points. STEP 2 If you are planning to route an internet connection around your wireless network, first remove the Ethernet network cable from your PC and connect this to the LAN port of your access point. It may be the case that your modem connects to your PC via a USB connection, in which case there's more to do. Keep this USB cable connected from modem to PC and next connect the PC to your wireless access point (WAP) via an Ethernet cable. You then need to enable Internet Sharing on your wireless network card. To do this, click your DSL or dial-up internet icon in Control Panel, choose Properties and under the Sharing tab select the wireless network card in your PC. Turn on your modem and connect the WAP's power supply. Wait until its alert LED has stopped flashing. Note: Windows advises you to check with your telephone service provider before sharing an internet connection as some providers have a policy against sharing single a connection amongst different devices. STEP 3 When your WAP is turned on, any wireless enabled kit within close proximity should prompt you that there is now a wireless network available. Click the pop-up window that tells you this and from there choose the wireless network you want to join. This will usually be named after the type of access point you're using, for instance in our office set-up our wireless network was identified as USR8024 after the US Robotics 8024 WAP we used in our test. If this doesn't occur, don’t worry - just head for Control Panel/Network Connections and click Create New Connection to enter the Windows Network Set-up Wizard to search for the wireless network connection manually. The majority of this Set-up Wizard is self-explanatory, though some of the options require a little more attention. We recommend that that you check the 'Ignore disconnected network hardware' box to help avoid unnecessary conflicts, then it's simply a case of naming your computer for use on the network and choosing whether or not an internet connection will be run over your WLAN. If you are using Windows XP, your final choice before the Wizard starts searching for an available wireless network (i.e. looking for your turned on access point) is whether or not to create a network set-up disk. Why might you want to do this? Well you need to run the network set-up wizard on each PC you wish to connect to your WLAN. If most of your machines are running Windows XP and one computer an earlier version (Windows 98 say) then you'll need to use either the Windows CD or such a network set-up disk to get it up and running smoothly. Once you have either bypassed that option or created a disk, click OK and Windows will track down available wireless networks. From the results given just click on the network you would like to join. STEP 4 Turn on the rest of your wireless enabled PCs and notebooks. Much of the time, as with the first computer connected, these will automatically detect that a wireless network is present and a pop-up prompt will tell you as much. In this case, click the pop-up and again choose the correct WLAN name to get connected. If this doesn't occur, simply click through the Network Set-up Wizard in Control Panel or in the case of a non-Windows XP OS, use the Windows XP CD or the network set-up disk you created. You can, at any time, check that your WLAN is operational, how long it has been connected, what speed it is running at and how strong the wireless signal is. To do this, double-click the wireless network logo in your PC's taskbar or in Control Panel/Network Connections. In Network Connection's Properties tab you can jump between any different WLANs you may have set-up. STEP 5 Your WLAN should now be operational and your PCs able to see each other over it (to check this, open up Explorer and under My Network Places/Entire Network/Microsoft Windows Network check that you can see the other devices you've added to the network). As far as sharing information between devices is concerned, first you must choose which folders you want to share. Say for instance you are browsing your work files in explorer. Having spied the file you want to make public, simply right-click the file icon, choose the Sharing and Security option and finally click 'Share this folder on a network'. A second check box allows you to determine whether or not other users are able to change the folder's contents. To check the folder you want shared is viewable, use another PC on your network, go to My Network Places and click on the host PC. Its shared file should be shown (along with Windows' standard Shared Documents folders, which include Music, Pictures and Video). STEP 6 Should any of your devices suffer from problems with reduced signal strength, try moving the WAP around your office or home. Because 802.11 'b' and 'g' standard access points use the 2.4GHz band, devices such as cordless phones and microwaves (which use the same band) may interfere with the WAP's signal, so try to locate the WAP as far away from other devices as possible and similarly away from metal, as this can affect a signal too. Consider that a WAP's signal will radiate from the device as though in expanding concentric circles, therefore the WAP's signal won't be transmitted effectively if, for instance, it is positioned in a corner against two walls. WHAT WAP? When buying a wireless access point, consider the following: Signal strength Measured in miliwatts (mW) - the more miliwatts, the stronger the signal. Wireless standard Try to go for a new, potentially faster 802.11g standard WAP if possible. Data transfer speed (Mbps) Take note of the data transfer test results in Windows’ WAP reviews. Router If you are looking to share an internet connection amongst the devices on your WLAN, a built-in router might prove useful. Ethernet ports Some WAPs also function as a LAN switch, in which case they need a means of connecting devices using cables. This usually comes in the form of ethernet ports. Four ports should keep most families connected. ||**||

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