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Get the best out of your wireless network!

celtxian
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Get the best out of your wireless network!
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Wireless Networks (Wi-Fi or simply WiFi):

Wireless networks (sometimes simply referred to as Wi-Fi or WiFi) can be simple to set up or they can be a real pain! Sometimes its hard to know just why they won't work as you expect them to. Well, if that's your experience, here are some tips to help you get the most out of your wireless network.

First, let's set out the basics:

Introduction - wireless networks are simply networks that operate without wires... just what it says on the tin! Except its a bit more complicated in reality. However, at its basic level, a wireless network needs a transmitter and a receiver. Unlike wired networks (sometimes called LANs - Local Area Network) which need a wire between the transitter and the receiver, wi-fi works by transmitting the signal across the space between the transmitter and the receiver through the air (using radio waves).

Now, usually, in the domestic situation, you will generally have a wireless router (the transmitter part) and one or more computers with a means of receiving the signal from the router (the receiver part). These days most laptops come with a built-in wireless card but if not its easy to add an external one via a USB connection. Desktop computers rarely come with built-in wireless adapters but can easily be added via USB or by using an expansion card in an internal slot.

The router will be connected to the internet via a modem (ADSL or cable - sometimes referred to as DSL). If yu get your internet via the telephone line then your modem will be ADSL, if you have Virgin Media Cable (or similar) then it will be via a cable connection. The difference is important for two reasons - one, your router needs to match your connection, and two, cable, at the moment, generally provides faster broadband connection.

Note:
Just to say that though mobile broadband is becoming more common, its a different situation altogether as the router (or access point) will not be in your home/office but will in effect be the mobile network's cell tower that also provides its 3G mobile phone service. At the moment the quality of this kind of 'wi-fi' is somewhat patchy and should (in my humble opinion) be avoided unless its the only way of getting a broadband service.

So, to recap, to have a wireless network you need several things:
  1. An internet connection already (via the phone line - ADSL or via Cable)
  2. A modem (ADSL or DSL/Cable)
  3. A wireless router (usually described as 802.11 b/g or 802.11 b/g/n in terms of specification but may have also sorts of fancy branding using terms such as MAX or 300Mps)
  4. At least one computer (either laptop or desktop)
  5. A wireless adapter (or internal card)
Now, once you have these, we can begin.

In more depth:

Assuming you have followed the steps in your router manual/instructions and connected your modem to the outside world (phone line or cable connection) and connected your router to your modem, you need to make sure your wireless adapter or internal card is switched on. On many laptops you need to physically move a switch to turn your internal wireless card on. If you are using a USB wireless adapter then your manual/instructions may tell you first to install the software that came with it BEFORE plugging in your adapter. However, if you are using Windows Vista or 7 it may say you have to download the latest drivers automatically, in which case you normally need to connected to the internet already. This may sound counter-intuitive but what it means is that you connect your computer directly to your router using an Ethernet cable FIRST, making sure you have a live connection to the internet, so that when you connect your adpater, Windows will download the driver automatically.

If you are using Linux or a Mac, then be sure to check the manual for the correct sequence. It may require you to download the latest driver from the manufacturer's site.

Once you have the latest drivers/software installed, your computer can then be disconnected from the router by unplugging the ethernet cable from the router and the pc. You are now ready to connect wirelessly. Now the fun really begins! Depending on your operating software (Windows/Mac/Linux) and what version you are using, different things will happen. Lets look at Windows first:

Windows:

Normally, once your adapter is connected, Windows will generate a pop-up (usually bottom right of the screen) and say wireless network(s) has been detected, click here etc. You will then be able to select your own network (you do know its name - SSID don't you? - if not, go back and read the manual for your router and it will tell you what it is). Now, normally, you will have not configured any security yet so you should be able to connect to your network and you will then be able to connect to the internet. If so, you need to go back a step, reconnect the Ethernet cable between your pc and the router and configure the security settings. Assuming you have read the manual/instructions, you will be able to log onto the router's configuration page and set up the security. You normally do this via a browser window by typing in the IP address of the router's configuration page. For example, in Belkin routers its normally something like 192.168.2.1 or 192.168.0.1. - ignore the last full stop - its just a full-stop!

Now, in the security settings you will see some important settings. Let's look at the most crucial ones:
  1. SSID - this is the name of your network and I suggest changing it from the default (often something like Belkin or D-Link) to something more bland and unidentifiable to outsiders. Do NOT call it something that gies away who the network belongs to (house number, family name etc.) as this is a dead giveaway to hackers! Choose something like default1 or home1, the more boring and meaningless the better.
  2. Encryption - such as WEP/WPA/WPA2/WPA Personal etc. DO NOT use WEP as its easily cracked. WPA2 or WPA Personal is better and more secure.
  3. Choose a secure password - mix it up with symbols such as !@£*$ etc. DO NOT use short ones in just letters such as mypetdog. It needs to be at least 8 and preferably 12 or 18 characters long and a total mixture (gibberish really). problem is, you won't remember it and if its secure you won't be able to guess it either. You can write it down but I prefer to use some password utility that generates strong passwords and stores them securely for you. You then just need to remember a master password to unlock the password manager. Firefox has plugins that will do this for you. I use a Mac mainly and 1Password is a great utility for storing and managing not jsut passwords but credit card details, bank account logons etc. There are similar ones for Windows and Linux - Google or use www.download.com to find one.
  4. Channel - this is where it gets a little complicated. For now, leave it on the default, but if you experience poor performance we will need to come back to this and change it. More on that later.
  5. Wireless Mode - If you are using a router that is N rated (802.11n) then you need a wireless card/adapter that is also. Otherwise use 'Mixed Mode' e.g. 802.11b/g/n.
  6. WPA - Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS) is the industry standard method to simplify the security setup and management of the Wi-Fi networks. You now can easily setup and connect to a WPA-enabled 802.11 network with WPS-certificated devices using either Personal Information Number (PIN) or Push Button Configuration (PBC) method. Legacy devices without WPS can be added to the network using the traditional manual configuration method. Most folk can ignore this, at least for now, until you understand how your network works and are sure its working ok. You can come back to this later and change it from disabled and follow the instructions in the browser page or manual.
Once you have set up security etc., you can then disconnect the ethernet cable and away you go, connecting wirelessly. Now, you may find that things don't go smoothly as you had hoped.

Here are some of the reasons why this may be:
1. Microwave ovens, cordless phones, baby alarms AV senders and wireless security cameras all cause interference so minimise this by making sure they are not in 'line of sight' of router and Wi-Fire. Brick walls are an obstacle too, as is any source of electromagnetic radiation as they all leak across a broad spectrum and don't just stick to their own! If you live in a Victorian property it may be the builder used chicken wire in the walls to strengthen and hold together the plaster - this KILLS wi-fi stone dead in most instances and apart from ripping out the walls you can't do anything about, except go wired (using ethernet cabling throughout the house, or those new HomePlug adapters that plug into the mains, in which case you need at least two).

2. If you experience poor signal it may be due to interference for a neighbour's Wi-Fi. In UK there are 13 channels (1-13). However, as they overlap, generally there is only 3 that are far enough apart to minimise interference from neighbouring networks operating on one of the other two. So, if you are on channel 1, try 6 or 13 and vice versa. You need to login to your routers configuration page to change the channel it uses. Check your manufacturer's documentation or website if not sure how to do this. Generally its best to connect directly via Ethernet when doing this.

3. Make sure you uninstall existing Wireless utilities (from previous adapters or which came with your laptop for use with the internal wireless card) before installing the Wi-Fire. If using Windows, make sure your network settings are configured properly so that Windows configures your wireless network and not some proprietary utility. Also, delete any superfluous network connections.

So, hopefully, you will finally get up and running and if so, take my advice.... if isn't broke, don't fix it!

Now for Mac and Linux users:
In some ways life is easier for Mac users, as Apple has done (IMHO) a better job of the whole wi-fi thing with Airport. If you follow the basic steps outlined above, once you switch Airport on, things will generally work. All you will need to do is the same as Windows users - configure your router properly adn enter the correct securoty logon and away you go. If you experience problems, follow the tips above where they apply. MY only other tip is, if you open Safari and it can't connect to the internet, or your network, if offers you the option of opening up the system's network configuration trouble-shooter. This will sort out most issues by just following the on-screen steps.

As for Linux users, the principles are the same basically. However, I am not a Linux expert and I would seek help if you need in in dedicated Linux forums. Just Google your problem, make sure to include 'Linux' in the search terms and away you go. I have often used forums to sort problems that had taken me days to fail to solve and have folk thousands of miles way sort my problem out in just a few hours or even minutes!

Finally, if you have anything to add to this article or spot a mistake please let me know and I will add or amend things as needed.

Steven Dale
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