A number of vendors market WiFi hardware including WiFi routers, access points, and wireless network adapters. I certainly don't want to alienate any companies that make wireless networking devices, but I would have to say that in terms of availability (and probably marketing) the big three in terms of WiFi home and small office products are Linksys, Netgear, and D-Link (in no order related to the significance of the company or their products).
WiFi router A device that provides a connection for a home network to a high-speed Internet connection (which is, in turn, provided by a device such as a cable modem). The WiFi router also provides an access point through which WiFi-enabled computers can connect to the network. Computers with traditional wired network adapters can also be connected to the WiFi router through to the network switch built in to most WiFi routers. The WiFi router is an intelligent device in that it can be configured to make decisions about the type of access that can be made to the high-speed Internet connection and what type of data traffic can be allowed through the router onto the local area network.
Network adapter A device that allows a computer to participate in the network. The network adapter takes the data from the computer and prepares it for transmission over a network medium such as network cabling or WiFi radio signals.
Because the wireless devices made by these companies embrace the same 802.11 standards, in theory all the devices should be compatible even if you have devices on your wireless network from different vendors. I use WiFi products from different vendors on my wireless network, and I have not experienced any problems in terms of compatibility.
If you are starting from scratch in terms of purchasing your WiFi hardware, you might want to purchase a wireless router and WiFi network adapters from the same manufacturer. The only reason I say this (and I don't totally believe the complaints) is because you can find some chatter on the Web related to incompatibility problems when using devices from different WiFi vendors. Just do a search on the Web for "WiFi hardware incompatibility" and make your own judgment about the posted complaints.
When you purchase your WiFi hardware, cost might or might not be an issue. However, we all certainly like to get a bargain, so you should take advantage of sales (jump on those back-to-school specials) or "package" discounts. It's not uncommon for a manufacturer to package a wireless router and at least one WiFi network adapter together and discount the price so that it is lower than the cost of buying the items separately. Whether you like to shop on the Web or like to read the hardware box, you will find that there are a huge number of web stores and brick-and-mortar stores in your town that stock consumer electronic products such as WiFi devices.
In terms of sorting out the best WiFi devices for your wireless network, you need to do a little research. Each of the WiFi vendors has put its own spin on the 802.11 standards.
For example, Netgear has developed MIMO, a wireless strategy that makes use of multiple antennas. MIMO devices are completely compatible with the WiFi standards 802.11g and 802.11b but are advertised as providing greater coverage, range, and speed than standard WiFi (meaning 802.11g). The cost for a MIMO wireless router is more than that of a standard 802.11g wireless router (from 60 to 80 dollars more). So, you must decide whether the cost differential is worth the advertised performance boost. Remember that MIMO is still an implementation of 802.11g; it's the multiple antennas (the MIMO) that provide better connectivity between WiFi computers and the router.
Linksys has 802.11g compatible devices that take advantage of Linksys's proprietary SpeedBooster technology. SpeedBooster provides increased network performance. Again, as with Netgear MIMO devices, Linksys SpeedBooster-enabled routers are more expensive than vanilla-flavored 802.11g WiFi wireless routers (which are also sold by Linksys). We are talking about a $20 differential (at most retail stores) between a regular Linksys 802.11g router and a SpeedBooster 802.11g router, so you must determine whether the potential speed boost is worth the price differential.
Start at these sites to do your own research before you purchase WiFi products. Also search for WiFi product reviews and see what the WiFi gurus have to say about the various products.
The bottom line is that there are a lot of different WiFi products on the market. You will have to do a little reading, a little comparison shopping, and then some decision-making to assemble your WiFi network. Let's take a look at the WiFi devices and other items you will need to create your home or small office WLAN.
I am assuming that you are creating a WLAN that will share a high-speed Internet connection and have both wireless and wired computers participating on the network. You only need a single device, a wireless router, to realize all these different types of connections.
The wireless router typically contains the following features and functionality:
As I have said before, a number of manufacturers sell wireless routers. Read the specifications for the available routers, and also take into account additional features provided by the router. This should help you select the correct router for your home network (and there is certainly more than one that will work, so take price into account).
The Linksys WRT54G Wireless-G Broadband Router is one example of a wireless router (photo courtesy of Linksys).
Although 802.11b wireless routers and WiFi adapters are dirt cheap right now, I suggest that you go with 802.11g devices for your network. You will appreciate the additional bandwidth provided by these upgraded devices.
WiFi Network Adapters
You will also need WiFi network adapters for the computers that will take advantage of a wireless connection to the network. Most new notebook computers come outfitted with a WiFi adapter (in almost all cases a 802.11g adapter) that also provides a port for a wired LAN connection.
If you need to upgrade existing computers to WiFi, you have two options: You can install a WiFi adapter in an expansion slot on the computer (both desktop and notebook computers have expansion slots, although they differ greatly) or you can buy a WiFi USB adapter and plug it into an open USB port on the computer (either a desktop or notebook computer).
It has been my experience that the performance provided by a WiFi (802.11g) USB adapter is equal to the performance provided by a WiFi adapter installed in a computer's expansion slot. However, don't take my word for it; it's your network. You can search and find any number of articles on the Web that provide product information and comparisons.
If you are purchasing a WiFi adapter for installation in an expansion slot on a desktop computer, make sure that you have an open PCI slot in your computer and then purchase a PCI Wireless G adapter.
To upgrade a notebook computer for WiFi, you need an open PC card type II slot (or you can replace an existing wired LAN card if necessary). PC card adapters are very easy to install because it's really just a matter of sliding them into the open slot on the notebook computer.
You will also need some network cables so that you can attach your broadband Internet device to the wireless router and connect any wired computers to the wireless router's LAN ports. Ethernet network cables are UTP (Unshielded Twisted Pair) Category 5 (CAT 5) cables with four pairs of twisted wires inside the plastic cable covering. These cables are terminated by RJ-45 plugs. You might hear these types of cables referred to as Ethernet cables or as CAT 5 cables.
Although CAT 5 cables might look like regular telephone wire, they certainly aren't the same thing; just compare the RJ-45 plug on a CAT 5 cable with the RJ-11 plug on a telephone cable. The RJ-45 is bigger.
You can upgrade a desktop computer for WiFi by installing a PCI adapter such as the Netgear WG311 54 Mbps PCI adapter (photo courtesy of Netgear).
You will need a CAT 5 cable to connect your wireless router to your broadband device. This cable is often included with the wireless router. You will also need CAT 5 cables to connect any "wired" PCs to the router's LAN ports.
A "newer" Ethernet cable type called CAT 6 is used on high-speed corporate networks such as Gigabit Ethernet (which requires expensive network cards and network devices such as switches). You don't need CAT 6 cables for your WiFi network. CAT 5 cables will work just fine.
Any store or website that sells WiFi hardware will also typically sell CAT 5 cables. Make sure that you buy the correct lengths for your wiring needs. Pace off or measure the distance between the computer and the router so that you buy a cable that is a correct length. In some cases, you might only be able to find longer cables than you need, but there isn't any down-side to using a 50-foot cable when a 10-foot cable would have sufficed (other than the excess wire laying around). The limit for CAT 5 cable (because of impedance on the wire) is 328 feet.