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The Beginner's Guide to Making a Laptop Wireless

written by: M.S. Smith•edited by: Bill Fulks•updated: 5/18/2011

Older laptops often don't have local wireless adapters, and very few laptops have an adapter of 3G/4G/WiMAX wide-area Internet. This guide will help you decide how to best provide wireless capability to a laptop that didn't ship with it.

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    The Beginner’s Guide to Making a Laptop Wireless

    Wireless is the ideal way to connect a laptop to the Internet. Laptops are mobile devices, so restricting their movement with an Ethernet wire rather defeats the point. There are now services that go beyond traditional WiFi and provide wireless Internet across entire cities.

    To use wireless Internet, however, you’ll need the correct equipment. Most laptops come with adapters that can connect to local wireless routers, but older laptops may be missing this feature. Very few laptops have built-in hardware that lets you connect to a wireless 3G/4G Internet service.

    Let’s take a look at what you’ll need to make a laptop wireless.

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    Making a Laptop Wireless – Connecting to Wireless 802.11g/n Routers

    Modern local wireless Internet continues to conform to 802.11 standards, with the most popular variants of that standard now being G and N. If you want to connect to a wireless Internet router you must have a wireless adapter.

    Computers that don’t have a wireless adapter built in will need to have one installed externally, and there are essentially two types of adapters.

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    USB Adapters

    How Do I Make a Laptop Wireless? These adapters make your laptop wireless by plugging into any USB port on your laptop. They’re typically very easy to use because they’re plug-and-play; most will come with drivers, but if you purchase from a major brand Windows may not even require that you install them. USB adapters are also very small and easy to store, so you can remove the adapter when it isn’t being used and store it in a backpack or bag.

    However, USB adapters of course take up a USB port. This can be an issue if your laptop happens to only have two or three USB ports available – if you ever need to plug in devices like a USB wireless mouse or external hard drive you might quickly run out of ports. USB adapters can also be cumbersome when in use. While they’re small, the entire adapter sticks out of the side of your laptop while it is being used. It’s easy to catch the adapter with a stray elbow.

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    PCMCIA Adapters

    Wireless PCI Adapter An increasingly uncommon type of hardware, PCMCIA adapters plug into slots located on the side of a laptop. While the adapter itself is much larger than a USB adapter in general, a significant portion of the adapter inserts into the body of the laptop. This makes them less cumbersome while being used. PCMCIA adapters are a bit of a more permanent way to make a laptop wireless – they’re meant to be installed and then left alone, although they can be removed if needed. This can make a PCMCIA adapter preferable if you just want to install an adapter once and forget about it.

    Laptops capable of accepting PCMCIA adapters are becoming increasingly rare, however. Most consumer laptops no longer provide a slot for them – they’re only common on business laptops. This method of connecting peripherals was more popular a few years back, however, so it is likely that an older laptop lacking a built-in wireless adapter will support PCMCIA .

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    Best Choice?

    So, which adapter is the best way to make your laptop wireless? Well, if you’re looking to connect to a local wireless router you choice between USB and PCMCIA will probably just come down to your laptop. You may have PCMCIA, but not many USB ports – or vice versa. Both will get the job done.

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    Making a Laptop Wireless - Connecting to 3G/4G/WiMAX

    Clear Wireless Recently a number of companies have sprung up across the world that offer a wireless broadband Internet. These services promise to replicate the performance of DSL, but data is simply broadcasted among the airwaves rather than sent through telephone, cable or fiber-optic lines. These services typically charge a standard monthly fee, but a select few cities offer this as a free service.

    There are a few laptops that come with adapters for these services, but the vast majority of laptops don’t, including brand new ones being sold today. If you want to use these wide-area wireless Internet services you’ll need to purchase an adapter.

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    Do You Have a Choice?

    Sprint 3G/4G Adapter Depending on how service works in your area you may not have much of a choice about the adapter that you purchase. Usually the service that you purchase wireless broadband Internet from will give you a choice of a few different adapters when you sign up. These adapters are, naturally, a bit more expensive than they really should be – but what can you do? You want the service, so you have to purchase the adapter.

    Third-party adapters are very hard to find, anyway, particularly for 3G/4G Internet service. Virtually every single adapter currently on the market for 3G/4G is associated with a particular service provider and is only available if you purchase their service.

    There are some WiMAX adapters available that are not part of any specific service, but WiMAX is also the rarest form of wide-area Internet currently available. You’d only need to buy one of these adapters if you live in a city that has deployed WiMAX.

    Finally, all of the adapters I’ve come across have been USB only. Those of you with PCMCIA slots are out of luck.

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    Conclusion

    Making a laptop wireless is a fairly simple affair. Buy the adapter, plug it in, and tada! You’ll have the Internet. There are some indications that built-in adapters offer a stronger signal, but don’t fret. An external adapter should work fine.