Do Your Network

Curious about how effective Wi-Fi adapters are? We've got you covered.
Magazine Contributor
4 min read

This story appears in the July 2003 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

By now, you're most likely familiar with what a Wi-Fi network does. You probably have an affordable 802.11b solution running somewhere in your workplace, and you may even have paid a little more money for the extra bandwidth and security of an 802.11a network. But now we're on to the next component of Wi-Fi standards: 802.11g.

The rising popularity of wireless networking-along with the added security of 802.11g and 54Mbps speed-has the new adapters flying off store shelves. Several companies began shipping "g" products at the beginning of the year, even though the final IEEE specification for 802.11g hadn't yet been approved by the beginning of summer. That raises questions as to whether 802.11g nodes from different manufacturers will be compatible with one another and with current 802.11b networks as advertised. Should you take a chance on "g"?

In a word, yes. We tested several different kinds of 802.11b and 802.11g wireless adapters from various vendors. How easy were they to install, and how well do they work with one another?

In general, the answer to that second question is: very well. We had no trouble transferring data among different brands and different kinds of both 802.11b and 802.11g adapters or sharing broadband Internet connections over DSL and cable. (Expect to download "new and improved" firmware sometime in the future.)

Ease of installation is a different story. This isn't necessarily the fault of the Wi-Fi adapters themselves. Computers are complicated beasts, and you're likely to be mixing different-aged PCs running different or even older operating systems with Ethernet adapters and broadband modems of varying quality.

One thing every Wi-Fi vendor could use is a rewrite of their configuration software. These routines are dense, cryptic and often inconsistent-some are even out of step with a hardware update. Also, expect to use different configuration routines for different adapter types-even from the same vendor.

We tested different kinds of adapters from Belkin, Buffalo, D-Link, LinkSys, NETGEAR and SMC, and we got them all to work eventually. But you can expect to learn a whole lot about TCP/IP settings and networking and wind up on a first-name basis with your provider's tech- support staff. Fortunately, all these companies provide free tech support (a PC industry novelty these days), often on a 24/7 basis. The staff we dealt with was courteous, helpful and knowledgeable.

Good thing. Some adapters didn't like a particular Ethernet card, while others did. Some required us to upgrade a computer's OS edition, while others didn't, and we had to get one firmware upgrade. Some configuration software stumbled over our DSL or cable modem settings, while the routine for a different adapter from the same vendor worked fine.

It often took hours to find and resolve technical issues. But all adapters worked, leading us to conclude that there is nothing wrong with 802.11g hardware. Nor did we find a particularly troublesome or trouble-free brand. Once we got them running, all our 802.11g networks were impressive. They excelled at sharing a Net connection and transferring files among desktops and notebooks alike.

We include only the most expensive hardware, access points or access point/router combinations in our chart. Expect PCI adapters or PC cards to cost far less-$50 to $100 apiece, depending on the type, the manufacturer and the channel. Prices are just a little higher than for 802.11b equipment.

Bottom line: If you're looking for a wireless network, 802.11g is definitely ready for prime time (if you don't mind making a new friend at tech support).

Shopping List
As time-consuming as it was to get these adapters to work, take it from us: They're all worth a good look.

54G Wireless DSL/
Cable Gateway Router
(877) 523-5546
802.11g turbo mode, lifetime warranty$189
Airstation G54
Ethernet Switch
(800) 456-9799
Intrusion detector firewall with
VPN support, built-in four-port
Ethernet switch, two-year warranty
Airplus Extreme G
High-Speed 2.4GHZ Router
(800) 326-1688
Advanced firewall security features,three-year warranty$129
Broadband Router WRT54G
Browser-based configuration, one-year warranty$150
WG602 54MBPS Wireless
Supports both 802.11b and G simultaneously, three-year warranty$110
Barricade G Wireless Cable/
DSL Broadband Router
(800) SMC-4YOU
Hacker-attack monitoring, limited lifetime warranty$140

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