By Chris Guld
The equipment you use to connect to a Wi-Fi hotspot is VERY important.
Believe it or not, your equipment – computer, adapter, operating system, drivers – is just as important as the hotspot’s equipment in making an Internet connection work. It’s like a two-way radio. The hotspot’s Access Points, antennas and amplifiers are one side of the equation. Your computer, Wi-Fi adapter, antenna and controlling software are the other side.
Let me use an analogy to the cell phone world. When I was first researching cell phone service providers, I would ask everyone I knew, “How do you like your service from ‘XYZ’ company?”
I was very surprised when one woman answered, “My service is lousy. Lots of places, even at home, I have no signal at all, and where I do have signal I’m constantly getting dropped. However, my son shares the same service and loves it. His signal is always strong and he never gets dropped. The only difference is that he has a different phone!”
I can now attest to this woman’s comments from my personal experience. Jim and I share the same phone service. He sits on one side of our motorhome and I’m on the other. My phone has 1 bar of signal and his has 4. I can’t make calls without plugging into the external antenna – he can. Our phones are even from the same manufacturer, but his is a newer model.
It’s the same thing with Wi-Fi and your computer, except that it’s more complicated. Cell phones are built to do one thing – make calls. Connecting to a Wi-Fi hotspot is only one of hundreds of functions built into computers. The more you know about this stuff, the more amazed you are when it DOES work! Let’s take a look at each part of your equipment what is involved a Wi-Fi Internet connection.
802.11b/g Wireless Adapter and antenna: This is the single most critical element of your system for connecting to a Wi-Fi hotspot. There are several types of adapters: 1) built in to the computer, 2) PC card adapter, 3) USB adapter, 4) Ethernet bridge adapter.
Your antenna may be part of the adapter itself, or you may have a separate antenna. Built-in adapters rarely have enough power or positioning capability to connect to a hotspot unless it’s within 100 feet. PC card adapters may be more powerful, but it can be so important to orient them toward the hotspot’s access point, and the only way to do that is to move your whole computer.
USB adapters are the recommended solution. They are usually rated for a distance of 300 to 400 feet and, since they’re on a wire, you can orient them for the best signal, even stick them out a window. Remember rabbit ear antennas on TVs? Same thing – orientation is critical.
The Ethernet bridge adapters with an external antenna are the most powerful, but they cost more, and you need more technical expertise to set them up. We have been successful with this type of adapter in connecting to an Access Point that is more than 700 feet away.
Computer: The newer the better. Wi-Fi has been in existence only since about 2001, and started to increase in popularity in 2004. Computer manufacturers are now paying attention to Wi-Fi capabilities. Odds are, if your computer was built after January 2004 it should be prepared for Wi-Fi. After January 2005 is even better. If it was built in 2001 it’s not going to work very well, if at all. We have seen 5-year-old computers connect successfully to a Wi-Fi hotspot – but I wouldn’t want to use it because it was so slow.
USB Port: If you use a USB adapter, you should know that the USB ports changed in late 2003. The older 1.1 version should only be used with 1.1 USB adapters. The 2.0 adapters claim to be downward compatible with USB 1.1 ports, but don’t believe it. We have seen a USB 2.0 adapter plugged into a USB 1.1 port and be able to connect to a Wi-Fi hotspot, but it was deadly slow and kept dropping the signal. Plug a 1.1 adapter into the 1.1 port and it worked fine. And the 2.0 adapter worked great when plugged into a 2.0 port.
Operating System: Windows 7, Windows XP, and Macintosh OS X understand Wi-Fi and have built-in facilities for managing wireless networks and adapters. Anything other than these operating systems and you will have less-than-optimum performance. Windows 98 is usually OK, as long as it is Second Edition. Windows 98 (not Second Edition) was not meant to support USB ports. And Windows ME just doesn’t do anything very well!
Device Drivers: These are the little software programs that control or “drive” your hardware components. Device drivers are made by the same company that makes the device. So, if you have a Linksys USB adapter, you will need to install the Linksys device driver. If the driver that came with your device (on the CD in the box) is more than 6 months old, you may want to go to the manufacturer’s Web site and see if there is a newer one you can download. I’ve been very surprised to see the difference in performance after upgrading the drivers.
Viruses and Spyware: Although this isn’t a piece of equipment, it does refer to the condition of your equipment. Having viruses and spyware on your system is like having sugar in your gas tank. Nothing works well. Make sure to keep your system clean and up to date.