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Setting Up a Wireless Connection, or How to Check Your Email in a Coffee Shop

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Let's face it: wires create clutter and nobody wants to stay tethered to the wall. Cordless phones were just the beginning. Find out how to set up a wireless internet connection for your Windows XP laptop in this chapter.
This chapter is from the book

The proliferation of wireless networks means that access to the Internet is easier than ever. From many coffee shops, for example, you can open up a laptop or PDA and check your email. You can do so merely by configuring your laptop's wireless connection, which is what this chapter is all about.

One of the areas where XP's latest Service Pack has had the most noticeable impact is with the configuration and management of wireless connections. So in many ways, this chapter is not only about wireless technologies, but also more generally about Service Pack 2.

Wireless means different things to different people, so we'll start with an overview of today's wireless choices, as well as a quick glance at what's down the proverbial Road Ahead. Then, I'll show you how to quickly set up and secure a wireless connection, and what options need to be configured to ensure the most trouble-free wireless connection possible.

The chapter concludes with a brief section on infrared connectivity, which can be very convenient, but which today, with the ubiquity of wireless, is less and less prevalent.

Keep in the back of your mind that this chapter is also an extension of the topics introduced in the previous chapter. Wired or no, we're still talking about computer networking.

Types of Wireless Access

Wireless access comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. Options range from global voice and data networks—the kind usually associated with big telecommunications providers such as Sprint and T-Mobile—to infrared connections, which is essentially the same technology you use in TV remote controls. However, the most common wireless access today comes in the form of IEEE 802.11 technologies. This kind of wireless access uses radio frequency technology and is meant for short-range connections (no more than about 300 feet or so without signal amplifiers) between wireless clients using 802.11 network cards and a wireless access point (WAP). Wireless access points are then connected to hard-wired methods of Internet access like cable modems, or to existing private LANs, such as might exist in any office building.

This common configuration of wireless connectivity is also known as a wireless LAN, or WLAN. The placement of WLAN components is depicted in Figure 10-1.


Figure 10-1 Common wireless LAN infrastructure.

Because of their widespread availability (chain coffee shops and bookstores notwithstanding), this chapter focuses on 802.11 network connections. This standard for wireless LANs was first approved by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) in 1997. The protocol known as 802.11b is currently the most common standard, transferring data at a maximum rate of 11 Mbps. However, you'd be hard pressed to find an 802.11b device on store shelves today. The prevailing standard now is 802.11g, which allows for data transfer at 54 Mbps using the 2.4 GHz frequency band. (In my experience, the 802.11g wireless cards also seem to have a greater range and more reliable connectivity than 802.11b devices.) It's only a matter of time before 802.11g overtakes 802.11b in terms of implementation; it's possible that the day will have come by the time you pick up this book.

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