Built-in wireless networking calls for first, second thoughts

Thinking once, then twice, about built-in wireless route

May 06, 2004|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

The ink was hardly dry on last week's column about laptop computers when I got a call from a reader who was upset because my list of portable microprocessors didn't mention the one in the laptop he and his wife had just bought.

Why, he asked, hadn't I talked about Intel's Centrino chip?

Well, there's a good reason - the Centrino isn't a microprocessor, although the folks at Intel don't mind if people think that way. In fact, Centrino isn't a "thing" at all but a marketing term Intel created for laptops that combine the company's new Pentium M processor, its supporting chips and particularly Intel's brand of wireless networking circuitry.

In reality, Intel's brand of wireless networking is no different from anyone else's, but because wireless technology is so hot, it doesn't hurt to make people think yours is something special. And that's important to know if you're interested in computing on the go - and in hooking up to a network without cables.

Virtually all wireless networking equipment is built around a set of industry standards known as 802.11x. Manufacturers have a catchier name for it - WiFi. It's a collection of agreed-on frequencies and communications protocols that enable radio-based network adapters and routers from different manufacturers to work together. (A router is a gadget that allows multiple computers to share an Internet connection.)

Similar standards, adopted long ago, ensure that wired networking equipment and dial-up modems are all compatible, too.

Typically, this process takes a while. When a new technology emerges, manufacturers like to duke it out with incompatible equipment for a few years, creating confusion in the marketplace and making life miserable for all. But when cheap, wireless networking became feasible in the mid-1990s, the engineers and marketers decided there was money to be made by all, and they agreed on the 802.11x standard with little fuss.

It was a particularly good standard because it allowed for improvements as better technology became available. That's where the "x" comes in - it's meant to be replaced by other letters as engineers devise ways to improve the speed and security of the original.

This standardization, which means everybody's wireless equipment theoretically works together, is one of the prime reasons for the growth and popularity of public "hotspots," wireless access points in hotels, restaurants, airports, ball parks and other venues that give mobile computer users access to the Internet. And that's why you don't have to buy a "Centrino" to get a good laptop computer. Many portable PC makers use perfectly good wireless networking hardware from other companies and different processors from Intel, AMD and a handful of smaller firms.

In fact, you might not want a laptop with built-in wireless networking at all. Most of today's wireless networks - and by far the majority of public hotspots - conform to the 802.11b standard, which was adopted in 1999. It theoretically moves information at 11 megabits per second, although real-world speeds are more like 4 to 6 Mbps.

This is plenty of muscle for Web browsing and e-mail - in fact, the Internet rarely delivers throughput that comes anywhere near 6 Mbps, even with a broadband connection. But it's not really fast enough to stream video over home networks - and even audio might get choppy at that speed.

The latest generation of wireless equipment employs a standard called 802.11g, which has a maximum speed of 54 megabits per second and a real-world speed of about 24 Mbps - a significant improvement. Better yet, the new equipment is generally backward-compatible with 802.11b networks, albeit at a slower speed.

Many consumers buy laptops with the idea of adding a second computer to the household. That's why wireless networking is becoming popular in the home. It's the easiest and most flexible way for two or more PCs in different rooms to share a cable or DSL Internet connection.

If you're starting a wireless network from scratch, it makes sense to buy 802.11g equipment, which costs only a few dollars more than the older "b" technology and offers far greater speed.

But it's just as easy to buy a laptop with no built-in wireless networking and add a wireless 802.11g adapter that slips into a slot on the side of the computer. It will perform just as well as a built-in model and leave you with an upgrade path.

There's another reason to think twice about built-in wireless networking. Though all wireless adapters and routers built to the 802.11b/g standard are theoretically compatible, they're all designed, tested and built by human beings. Some products just don't work together as well as they should.

That's why networking gurus suggest you choose the same manufacturer for your wireless adapters and router.

Does this mean built-in wireless networking is a bad idea? Of course not, particularly if you find it in a laptop that otherwise suits you fine. Most wireless equipment works nicely right out of the box, and you might never have a problem. Just remember that it shouldn't be a deal maker or breaker when it comes to buying a laptop PC.

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