The Labs team cuts through the jargon and tests next gen wireless products.
Wireless networking is no longer a new technology, but its underlying structure is constantly seeing new changes and advancements. As far as standards go, wireless technology offers a lot of variety: the original 802.11 and the 802.11b standard have been around for some time now, 802.11a is still fairly new, and 802.11g is about to land. Expect the release of 802.11e and 802.11f later in the year.
These new and competing network standards can lead to confusion, so we've rounded up some of the latest hardware to give you a guide on what's what, and which hardware you should invest in if you're looking to wireless your home or office.
Wireless vendors are claiming increased sales worldwide and it looks like this could be a huge year for wireless uptakes. However, with each introduction of new wireless standards there are a few confusing pitfalls awaiting the unwary would-be wireless networker.
Anything but standard
802.11 was the first standard ratified by the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics) working group, and provided for one or two Mb/s in the 2.4GHz band. Here's a quick run down of the modifications to the 802.11 standard and what the technologies offer:
802.11a This standard ups the maximum data bandwidth to 54Mb/s and operates in the higher frequency 5GHz band.
802.11b Employs a 'Spread Spectrum' technique, where data is transmitted over a band of frequencies, helping reduce RF interference. Like 802.11, this operates in the 2.4GHz range.
802.11e Rolled out as the unifying standard, it was designed to bridge the gap between home and business wireless networks and is fully backwards-compatible with both 802.11a and 802.11b standards.
802.11f Designed to give greater roaming capabilities between multiple wireless access points. 802.11f works with different distribution systems such as wired backbones that interconnect access points.
802.11g 802.11g equipment offers speeds of 54Mb/s, sticking with the existing 2.4GHz frequency range and improving on existing 802.11a technology.
We received a wide variety of wireless equipment for this Labs, including USB/ Ethernet access points, PCMCIA cards, PCI adaptors and USB dongles, in 802.11a, 802.11b and dual-band 802.11a/802.11b specifications.
Unfortunately, the choice of standards isn't the only source of confusion. You'd think setting up a small wireless network would be easy, even though the underlying technology is complicated, but many manufacturers haven't made it so.
A lot of the equipment we received would not work straight out of its shrink-wrapped box, had poor documentation or software integration, or most telling, was not cross compatible with other manufacturers' hardware even though it should be.
We attempted to test much more hardware than is reviewed in the following pages, but any PCMCIA card and access point that took more than three hours of fiddling to set-up and configure was put aside. Frankly, that's ridiculous.
Those that did make the final cut were easy to set up and configure (by varying degrees), but showed what wireless networking should be: painless, simple, and quick.
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