Nobody likes a dead spot--that place where you can't get a decent Wi-Fi connection. You're forced to trade range for speed on your network, and everything from walls to cordless phones can take their toll. Some new Wi-Fi technologies that anticipate the 802.11n protocol have come to market (see "Digital Edge"). But don't toss those 11b and 11g adapters--you can still get a little extra from your old equipment. Antennas and repeaters are the two most popular ways to stretch your signal on the cheap.
Directional and omnidirectional are two terms you'll hear a lot. D-Link offers the $40 (all prices street) 2.4GHz Directional DWL-M60AT and the 2.4GHz Omni-Directional ANT24-0400, which has an average price of $35. The omni-directional antenna boosts the signal for 360 degrees, while the directional antenna focuses the extended signal in one direction. SMC Networks offers both varieties as well. With an average price of $25, its EZ Connect 2.4GHz Omni Directional SMCHMANT-4 comes with two universal antenna converter adapters to work with any wireless device.
Antennas can be cost-effective: Take the U.S. Robotics (USR) 5dBi Swivel Antenna. It has a fast setup to any wireless product with an SMA connector and can boost your range up to 20 percent for $20. Marry it to one of USR's $60 MAXg adapters, and expect to get strong signals in hard-to-reach places.
On the other end of the equation, 3Com offers the 802.11a/b/g Wireless PC Card with XJack Antenna for your laptop--the $95 device keeps the wireless connection strong. Belkin also has a $25 Desktop Antenna that attaches to a desktop wireless network card and telescopes up to 5 feet for a better signal.
When selecting range-extending hardware, check with your hardware's manufacturer to avoid compatibility snags. Users of Proxim's Orinoco wireless networking hardware can find a variety of compatible antennas on the Proxim website. Which is best depends on the hardware you have and the type of range challenge you're addressing.
Could You Repeat That?
Repeaters are usually pricier. For example, the $99 Linksys Wireless-G Range Expander WRE54G repeater acts as a relay station to pick up your wireless signal and bounce it along into those hard-to-reach corners and dead spots. Buffalo has a slightly cheaper solution, a $70 WLA2-G54C 54Mbps Wireless Compact Repeater Bridge that features automatic security setup when used with compatible Buffalo hardware. Up to three can be daisy-chained for maximum coverage. Keep in mind that repeaters effectively cut bandwidth while expanding range, so use them sparingly.
Netgear has taken an interesting approach by using powerline technology. The $130 WGXB102 wireless range extender kit includes an Ethernet bridge and wall-plugged extender. Setup is straightforward, but have a wall outlet open, since it advises against plugging into extension cords or power strips. Extra extenders can be added on to cover hard-to-reach locations.
What we've covered is just a sampling of what's available. If you have a heavy-duty wireless setup, look to the manufacturer for range-extending options. Cisco Systems, for example, has a host of antennas and antenna cables that can plug into their wireless LANs and enterprise access points.
In a pinch, you could always resort to using a Pringles can. But these solutions are so cheap, you won't have to.