What It Takes to Make the Connection
Neat Things You Can Do with a Wireless Connection
Our Test System -- Proxim Skyline PC Card and USB Adapter
Some Pros & Cons -- Wireless vs. Wired
A note about wireless networking technologies
A wireless connection to your desktop computer lets you realize and enjoy the full mobility and convenience of your laptop/notebook computer. That is so because connecting your laptop computer to your desktop computer gives you access to the files and resources of your desktop computer (including a printer, scanner, an Internet connection, and more). Such a connection also gives you access to your notebook computer files and resources from your desktop computer.
When you do connect your laptop to your desktop computer you have, in essence, a very small computer network.
I you are a computer or networking novice, you might want to read Some Basics for Computing & Networking Novices before reading on here. That should help to get you up to speed about networking
All it takes to have a wireless connection between your laptop computer and a desktop computer is a wireless network PCMCIA card for the laptop and a wireless USB network adapter for your desktop computer. These are very easy to install.
There are other ways to have a wireless connection between a laptop computer and a desktop computer. However, our focus here is the wireless PC Card to wireless USB adapter approach.
Note: Please be careful not to confuse a local wireless network with a direct radio connection to an Internet Service Provider (ISP). The sort of local wireless network discussed in this article has a radio range of only a few hundred feet or less and is meant for within-building use.
In the home this usually means you can be connected to your desktop computer and to the Internet whether you have your notebook computer in the den, living room, dinning room, kitchen, bedroom, home office, or just about any place in the home. You can move yourself and your notebook from room to room, chair to chair, chair to couch, desk to desk, or desk to table without ever losing your wireless connection to your desktop computer or to its Internet connection -- and all without ever having to plug in or unplug a network cable.
At the office, in like manner you can have your notebook computer wirelessly connected to your desktop computer. Then you can be connected, wirelessly, to your office desktop computer from anywhere in your own office, a reasonably close office conference-room, a colleague's office or cubicle, and so forth. All the while you never loose the connection between your notebook computer and your desktop computer as you move about -- and you never have to plug in or unplug a network cable.
Such cable-free roaming with your laptop computer makes it easy to collaborate with co-workers, vendors, or customers where it is more convenient or perhaps even necessary to meet with them some place other than at your desk -- and you would like to have access to your desktop computer's files and resources while you are meeting with these people.
Are you a college student? If so, you can do the same sort of thing. Set up a wireless connection between your desktop computer and your laptop computer. Then you can drag your notebook computer around your dorm room with you and still have access to all the files and other resources on your desktop computer -- cable free. Additionally you can take your laptop computer with you when you collaborate on homework with other nearby students in your dormitory and have cable free access to your desktop computer from your notebook computer.
If you already have a hard-wired Ethernet local area network (LAN) at home, at work, or at school you can bridge your wireless network equipped notebook to that hard-wired network. Bridging from your wireless network equipped notebook to a hard-wired network will be covered in Part II of this wireless networking series.
Wireless network devices use low power, line-of-site, radio signals to communicate with each other. The radio signal power diminishes rapidly as the distance between two communicating wireless network devices increases -- even if there is nothing in-between the wireless devices. If you are more-technically oriented, you might recall the inverse square law -- that law governs the reduction of radio-signal strength in the best of radio transmission circumstances.
If there are any walls, ceilings, or other obstructions in-between the wireless devices, they will further degrade the radio-signal strength. Metal or concrete walls and obstructions will degrade the radio-signal strength more than plaster or wood will degrade the signal -- and the thicker the obstruction, the greater the signal-strength reduction.
To do the legwork for this article we installed a Proxim Skyline 802.11b PC Card for Notebooks to a Hewlett Packard OmniBook 6000 notebook computer running Microsoft Windows 2000. Then we installed a Proxim Skyline 802.11b USB Adapter for Desktops to a desktop computer powered by a 300-MHz AMD K6 CPU running Microsoft Windows 98 SE. In effect the result was a two-computer wireless Ethernet network.
It works nicely! No cables to attach to the HP Omnibook 6000. Moreover the Omnibook was fully mobile within the building -- remaining wirelessly connected to the desktop wherever we roamed about. With the wireless PC Card installed, the notebook is 100% mobile when running on battery power.
There are some cautions and drawbacks to wireless computer-connection performance. The IEEE 802.11b specification results in a maximum wireless bandwidth of 11-Mbs (Mega-bits per second). Moreover, actual throughput achieved depends on the quality of the radio connection between the wireless PC Card and the wireless USB adapter connected to the desktop computer.
Note: for more information about networking and using a network to share peripheral devices, please see our article, Computer Connections at Home, Office, & School.
If you use a 100-Mbs, hard-wired, Ethernet connection to link the notebook computer to the desktop computer you will have a much faster 100-Mbs connection -- compared to 11-Mbs under best radio-signal conditions for an 802.11b wireless Ethernet device. Additionally, as the radio signal strength and radio link qualities of the wireless connection degrade, actual throughput will decrease. That means the actual data transfer rate goes down from the maximum 11-Mbs rate for the 802.11b wireless connection as the radio connection gets poorer.
Wireless networking equipment usually is more expensive than comparable hard-wired Ethernet equipment. But you do not have the mobility and freedom to roam about with a hard-wired network that you have with a wireless connection.
As is the case with any wireless device, someone with sophisticated computer skills could sniff the radio signals from your wireless network and snoop on what you are doing. We plan to cover wireless networking security in a future article.
A note about wireless networking technologies: only wireless network devices that conform to the same standard can communicate with each other. Some wireless network equipment vendors use their own proprietary designs. If you choose such proprietary-design wireless network equipment you will be locked-into only that vendor's products if you later expand your wireless network to include more computers.
The Proxim Skyline products used doing the legwork for this article comply with the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) 802.11b specification. It is an open specification. That means that anyone can manufacture wireless network devices that conform to the IEEE 802.11b open specification. And that means that as you expand your wireless computer network, you can mix and match wireless devices from different vendors if you use IEEE 802.11b compliant devices for your wireless networking.
Proxim and other wireless network device manufacturers have implemented products complying with the IEEE 802.11b specification before implementing production of IEEE 802.11a devices. The 11b specification calls for a maximum data transfer of 11-Mbs. The faster 11a specification calls for a maximum data transfer rate of 54-Mbs. IEEE 802.11a compliant devices are not compatible with 802.11b devices.
At publication time of this article, there is a greater variety of available 11b-compliant devices than 11a-compliant devices. That's why 11b-compliant wireless devices were used in doing the legwork for this article. As we got to press, so to speak, Proxim is in the process of rolling out its line of 11a-compliant devices.
For most networking-related tasks the 11-Mbs of the wireless connections verses the 100-Mbs of the wired Ethernet connections is hardly, if at all, noticeable when both the laptop and desktop computers are within about twenty feet or less of each other. For us, speed started to drop off noticeably after that and at 150 feet the connection was either barely usable or not usable at all. That is consistent with what the Proxim people say their equipment, the Skyline PC Card and USB adapter, will do.
The Proxim products worked very well for us within the rated radio-range distances. Proxim provides toll-free tech support, which we tried and found to be very good. If you have a laptop or notebook computer and a desktop computer that meet the requirements for the two-computer wireless network described here, get the Skyline PC card and USB adapter and give it a try.
Incidentally, you could apply the same techniques discussed here to connect two laptops by using a wireless network PC Card in each laptop. Likewise, you could connect two desktop computers by using a wireless network USB adapter with each desktop computer.
Proxim provides Microsoft Windows 98, 98 SE, 98 ME, and 2000 drivers for the Skyline 802.11b PC Card for Notebooks and Skyline 802.11b USB Adapter for Desktops. Unfortunately, it does not support these devices for the Linux operating system. There is some Macintosh support.
Proxim's suggested retail price for the Skyline 802.11b PC Card for Notebooks is $149. The suggest retail price for the Skyline 802.11b USB Adapter for Desktops is $149, also .
In Part II, coming soon, we will use a bridge to connect today's two-computer wireless Ethernet to an existing hard-wired Ethernet network.
Proxim White Paper (PDF): Professor Proxim's Guide to Wireless LAN Connectivity
Here are some books to help you with networking. They cover different user levels, take different approaches, and discuss different networking features. Pick the book or books that suit your needs best.
For Wireless Networking:
Chapters 14-16 in Upgrading and Repairing Networks 3rd Edition, Que Books, ISBN 0-7897-2557-6. $60.
Chapters 13-15 in How Wireless Works, Que Books, ISBN 0-7897-2487-6. $30.
For Networking in General:
Complete Idiot's Guide to Networking Your Home, Que Books, ISBN 0-7897-1963-0. $17
Networking by Example, Que Books, 0-7897-2356-5. $38
Networking For Dummies, IDG Books, 0-7645-0772-9. $22.
Peter Norton's Complete Guide To Networking, Sams, ISBN 0-672-31593-9. $30
Samba Primer Plus, Sams, ISBN 0-672-21932-2. $35. (Use Samba to share Windows and Linux files on the same network.)
Sams Teach Yourself Windows Networking in 24 Hours, Sams, ISBN: 0-672-31475-4. $20
This Wired Home: The Microsoft Guide to Home Networking, 2nd Ed, Microsoft Press, ISBN 0-7356-1158-0. $30
Understanding the Network, A Practical Guide to Internetworking, New Riders, ISBN 0735709777. $40
Upgrading & Fixing Networks for Dummies, IDG Books, 0-7645-0347-2. $30.
The graphic above the article index is adapted from artwork on Proxim Skyline Web pages cited in the Resources section of this article
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