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As many Linux users have to realize through painful experience, setting up wireless in Linux systems can be one of the most frustrating parts of the installation process. However, with a little research and a little care, it doesn't have to be quite so painful.
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Before You Begin
Your first step is to make sure that the wireless drivers are correctly installed. Without this step, it is impossible to move forward.
Once you've got that done, this next step is comparatively easy: getting the access software installed. Of course, you will need access to a wired Internet connection in order to download the software, just as with installing the wireless drivers.
Most wireless network software is not designed purely for wireless networks, but also to handle wired networks and other types of network connections: so chances are, whatever you end up installing will also be able to multitask.
Fair warning: Not all of these wireless access software options work on every single distro: you might have to do a little research on your own to see if they're compatible. Also, some wireless network managers do not work with every single wireless driver, even if you have them installed correctly.
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NetworkManager is probably the most widely used of the wireless network managers, and for good reason. NetworkManager is simple and easy to use, with an intuitive, user-friendly little applet to modify your network connections, yet it also allows for manual control over your network connections, including command line options for those so inclined. It is opportunistic, automatically connecting to the best connection that you have, be it wired or wireless, managing your connections for you unless you modify them for yourself. NetworkManager is available for all the major desktop environments, including GNOME, KDE and Xfce, and is the default for many distros, including the popular Ubuntu and a KDE version of it, KNetworkManager, for Kubuntu. If you need a network manager, chances are this is your best choice.
For more information on NetworkManager and Ubuntu in particular, check out the Ubuntu Wiki for NetworkManager.
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Wicd, standing for Wireless Interface Connection Daemon, is an alternative to NetworkManager. Like NetworkManager, Wicd can automatically make network connections for you, simplifying and streamlining the process. Unique to Wicd is the ability to create “templates", which can customize the process and connection for users without requiring too much repetitive intervention. Wicd is the default of some distros, including Slackware, Zenwalk Linux, Arch Linux, and Debian. It does not have any environment dependencies, meaning that you can have any environment and still run it equally well, making it ideal for users with atypical or uncommon environments. For more information, check out the Wicd home page.
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This KDE-dependent wireless network manager is specific to wireless networks—it will not connect you to other network connections as many other applications will. It's also somewhat less automated than many other network managers, requiring a little more user interaction. All that being said, it will often work where NetworkManager fails, and might be worth a shot. For more information, check out the KDE-Apps.org page for Wireless Assistant.
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This tool, somewhat lesser known but still powerful, is available for Debian users. It can automatically configure your wireless networks for you, making the whole process quick and easy. For more information, check out the whereami package information at Debian.org For a great installation guide, check out this HowToForge article on installing whereami.
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Wireless Tools For Linux
If you're really hardcore, you can configure all of this via command line using the Wireless Tools for Linux packages, which comes standard in almost every distro. While this won't appeal to every user, especially those who want it all done quickly and easily, understanding how these tools work could definitely prove useful, especially when it comes to troubleshooting or more detailed manual configurations. For more information, check out the Wireless Tools for Linux homepage.
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Other Wireless Tools
Of course, there are numerous other wireless network managers out there, more than it is possible to review. If none of the above work for you, then try just looking through your distro's application manager for the appropriate software. There are numerous choices out there: one of them is bound to be the one that's right for you.