Buying & Setting up your Computer for Wireless Internet
written by: Matthew Becker•edited by: Rebecca Scudder•updated: 11/18/2011
Sounds like you've just about had it with all of those cords and wires hanging around your computer and you want to go wireless! We'll take a look at what your computer needs to ensure you can get a wireless connection, what could interfere, which routers you can choose from and security issues.
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Naturally, if you are interested in purchasing a router for the first time, then we assume that you are trying to set up a network in your home or office. A router allows more than one computer to connect to the same internet connection, and in recent years, we have seen an incredible advance in wireless technology which now allows setting up with fewer cables.
A Little History
One of the first wireless connections started with Wireless A or Wireless B (sometimes seen as 802.11a and 802.11b). Unfortunately, both platforms allowed for minimal connectivity and poor signal strength, so when the far more refined Wireless G (802.11g), and now the very recent Wireless N (sometimes seen as Wireless Draft-N or 802.11n) were released, Wireless A and Wireless B pretty much vanished. As a result, what will be discussed in this guide will be centered around Wireless G and Wireless N routers, as they are the most up to date, provide the best performance, and are the easiest to find.
Since wireless routers, as well as routers in general, are designed for a broadband connection, the one requirement in order to get a fully functioning network is to have high-speed internet (cable or DSL). Those with a dial-up connection are unfortunately out of luck. However, very few internet users these days use dial-up, so hopefully this requirement is already met.
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Checking your Device Manager
So, how do you know if your computer is wireless ready? Many if not all new computers nowadays (either a desktop or a laptop) now come prepared with the necessary hardware to connect to any wireless network. But not everybody has a brand new machine. You may have to make an additional purchase in order to connect to a wireless network. However, here is how to check to see if your computer already has a wireless adapter.
The best way to check to see if you have a wireless adapter already installed into your computer is through your Device Manager. The quickest way to access this in Windows Vista and Windows 7 is to type "Device Manager" in your Start Menu. If you're using Windows XP, choose Run and then type the command devmgmt.msc.
In the Device Manager window, scroll down and expand the Network Adapters option. This will show you a list of adapters that will allow you to connect to the internet. There should be at least one option for Ethernet (wired), but if you're not seeing a wireless adapter, then your computer isn't wireless out of the box. But this doesn't mean that you can't connect to the internet wirelessly.
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If you're running on a laptop, you'll need to check to see if you have a slot for a networking card. The network card is an older means of connecting to a router, but is still widely available. They're a little bulkier in size than the more common way of connecting (such as a USB adapter), but they're still a great way of getting connected. They vary heavily in price, from about $20 to up to $90.
If you're working on a desktop, the alternative to a notebook card is a desktop card (sometimes seen as a PCI card). Unfortunately, there's no simple slot for you to insert or remove the card. Since the desktop card is a piece of internal hardware, it will need to be installed into the tower. Essentially, what it looks like when completed is an antenna that sticks out the back of the tower. Some recent computers come with a PCI card already, so check to see if you have an antenna, because there are chances that you may already have one. This is a more expensive route, as desktop cards can cost from $40 up to $150. If you wish to have it installed at a retailer, then that's even more you'll have to spend.
There is of course a far more modern way of connecting to a wireless router, and this is the use of the Wireless USB Adapter. In comparison with the network card, it's smaller, lighter, and more compact. They also cost around the same as a notebook adapter, which is roughly $30 to $90. More importantly, it's easy to install. All you need is a free USB port. Plug it in, and you're connected.
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Other Wireless Technology
This is particularly important to know. Because wireless routers run on a 2.4GHz frequency, you need to make sure that there's nothing else within the vicinity (your home, or office) that could be sharing it. For example, if you have a cordless phone or are considering purchasing one, it's highly recommended that it has a frequency of no less than 5.8GHz. Anything less than that will cause interference with your router and your phone, resulting in frustration.
What does this mean? If you have a cordless phone and a wireless router both using the same signals (2.4GHz), that will affect the signal of both any computer you're using to connect to the router, and especially if you're using the phone. If you're using a traditional corded phone, you'll have nothing to worry about. If you have a 2.4GHz (or less) cordless phone, you should consider upgrading to a phone with a higher frequency and avoid interference completely. Of course, not everybody wants to have to spend more than they have to, so if you have to use the phone while using the internet on the wireless router, you will lose the internet connection with the possibility of your call being dropped as well. For best performance, use a 5.8GHz phone, or go corded.
What about mobile phones? Because cellular phones also function on a high frequency (hey, you're getting your signal from somewhere...but not quite that near), they will not interfere with a wireless router's connectivity.
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Wireless G Routers
Wireless G routers have been a standard method of wireless networking since 2002. They are easy enough to find, and reasonably priced, depending on brand name. The range of the routers can go from about 300 feet indoors, and a stronger 1300 feet outdoors, which gives you a strong signal in most homes. The speeds that Wireless G routers offer is from 54Mbps (Megabytes per second), on certain models and more than 100Mbps on others: which makes it a standard in broadband networking.
While Wireless G is not the newest and fastest method to connecting to the internet, it is still commonly seen throughout retailers. The prices range from about $30 for a standard model, and up to $100 on other models which offer an extended range or extended speed for those who want to get more from a Wireless G network. Since most users with high-speed internet have transfer rates of 54Mbps to 100Mbps, this is possibly the best choice for those at home or with a small office.
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Wireless routers come equipped with at least four slots so that computers may connect to it with the appropriate cable (essentially the way you would connect computers to a regular router). It's a good substitution for those who are using your network who either cannot or do not wish to make a wireless connection to the network.
A Wireless G Network card (laptop or desktop), or a Wireless G USB Adapter is what you need to get the best performance from a Wireless G router (match the letter names: G goes with G!). Users with an older means of connecting (such as a Wireless B, or 802.11b) are compatible with a Wireless G router as well, but will not give you as strong a signal, therefore resulting in a slower internet speed than a Wireless G. Anything less than a Wireless G is difficult to find these days anyway, since Wireless G is pretty much a standard in modern day wireless networking.
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Wireless N Routers
Wireless N routers are a far newer method of connecting. It offers a greater range than Wireless G (up to four times), and from 300Mbps of connectivity to an even greater strength of over 1Gbps (gigabyte per second). This is a solution that is far more suitable for a business, but is also an option for home if you want optimal speed and signal strength. It also is less likely to receive interference from external signals. Because of these features as well as its new technology, Wireless N does cost considerably more than Wireless G. The cost of a Wireless N router starts from around $80, and can cost up to $260 if you want more than a gigabyte per second transfer rate.
Do these features make Wireless N a better choice over Wireless G? Not necessarily. The speed of your current internet connection cannot go outside of what your broadband provider already offers. For example: if you can only transfer up to 500Mbps, that is the most any router will give you, regardless of what its full capabilities are. If you're unsure about the transfer rate of your internet, check with your service provider. There's no sense paying for optimal performance if your connection does not match it! However, if your internet provider does provide speeds from up to 1Gbps, and you want maximum connectivity, then Wireless N is the way to go.
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A Wireless N Network card (laptop or desktop), or a Wireless G USB Adapter is what you need in order to get the best performance out of a Wireless N router (match the letter names: N goes with N!). Wireless N is fully backwards compatible with both Wireless B and Wireless G adapters (network cards and USB adapters), although signal strength and connection speeds will not be as strong as a Wireless N adapter.
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Security & Bandwidth
Concerns that some users may have is whether or not wireless networking is safe. As a matter of fact, all wireless routers come with a lot of special features that keep your router from being hijacked, leaving personal information safe. One of these features is WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) data encryption. For example, if you like to make a lot of purchases online, any information you enter - like credit card information, will be fully secure (so long as you are purchasing from the right website). It also protects those connecting to the router, by using WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access). Essentially, this ensures protection for those connecting to the router, as well as data that is being sent through the router over the Internet, making it extremely difficult (if not impossible) for any private information to be hijacked by a third party.
Even if security is not an issue for you, and you don't mind having an open network, there could still be an issue regarding bandwidth on your Internet service provider. If there's a limit on your bandwidth, it could easily be used up by other people connecting to the router. The more people there are on your router the more data is going to be transferred through your network. If your bandwidth is all used up for the month, depending on your provider, you could end up either:
Having to pay fees for the excess amount of usage with your account, or:
Having your account locked up until the end of your current billing period.
If you're not certain about the limit of your bandwidth, you can contact your Internet service provider for more information. If you don't want to have to go through the hassle, set up a security code on your router, and limit usage of your network to whomever you want using it.
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Let's take a little bit of a detour. We've looked over what wireless networking is, what you need to make sure you can successfully use a wireless network, and what you need to make sure that it is a positive experience. We also took a brief look at the two common types of routers available today, and reviewed their security features to make sure that nobody else has access to personal information that is sent through the router.
Hopefully all of the information provided in this guide will educate you in the world of wireless networking. There is a lot to consider (and perhaps a lot to purchase), but now you can assess whether or not wireless networking is appropriate for either your home or office.