Choosing Wireless Home Networking Equipment

When you’re building something — in this case, a wireless home ▼ ▼ network — the time comes when you have to decide which building supplies to buy. To set up a wireless home network, you need, at minimum, an access point (AP) and a wireless networking adapter for each computer or other network-enabled device you want to have on the network. Getting this network online means you also need a router, which is typically part of a combined AP/router device (the wireless router). This topic helps you evaluate and choose from among the growing number of APs and wireless networking adapters on the market.

The advice in this topic applies equally to PCs and Macs. You can use any access point for a Mac as long as it has a Web interface (that is, it doesn’t require a Windows program to configure it). Despite that statement, if you have a Mac, you may want to consider using the Apple AirPort Extreme with Gigabit Ethernet system because it’s easier to set up and use. On the network adapter/client side of the link, AirPort Extreme cards are definitely the easier choice for a Mac owner — it’s somewhere between difficult and impossible to get many third-party Wi-Fi cards to work with a Mac.

In this topic, we use the term AP (access point) generically to refer to the base station of your wireless network. In most cases it will be a part of a wireless router, but in some cases it will be a stand-alone AP. When it doesn’t matter whether the AP is stand-alone or part of the router, we use the term AP or access point. When we’re specifically talking about an AP that’s integrated with a router, we use the term wireless router.

Access Point Selection

At the heart of each wireless home network is the access point (AP), also known as a base station. Depending on an AP’s manufacturer and included features, the price of an AP suitable for home use ranges from about $35 to $175. Differences exist from model to model, but even the lowest-price units are surprisingly capable.

With the exception of pricing,we explore the selection of access point products in depth in terms of these requirements throughout the following sections.

In next topic 4, we describe how to plan the installation of a wireless home network, including how to use your AP to determine the best location in your house as well as the number of APs you need. If you can determine a location that gives an adequate signal throughout your entire house, a single AP obviously is adequate. If some areas of your home aren’t covered, you need one or more additional APs or a more powerful AP.Fortunately, most residences can be covered by the signal from a single AP, particularly when that AP uses the further-reaching 802.11n standard.

Certification and Standards Support

At a minimum, you should ensure that your devices are Wi-Fi certified. This certification provides you with the assurance that your wireless LAN equipment has been through the wringer of interoperability and compliance testing and meets all the standards of 802.11b, g, or a, and the draft standard for 802.11n.

In fact, there’s even more to Wi-Fi certification than just meeting the 802.11b, g, a, and n standards. Wi-Fi certification means that a piece of equipment has been thoroughly tested to work with other similar Wi-Fi equipment, regardless of brand. This is the interoperability part of the certification, and it means that you can plug a D-Link adapter into your desktop computer, use a built-in Intel Centrino adapter in your notebook, and install a NETGEAR AP as the hub of your network, and everything will work.

Back in the early days of wireless networking, this interoperability was not assured, and you needed to buy all your equipment from the same vendor — and then you were locked in to that vendor. Wi-Fi certification frees you from this concern.

The Wi-Fi Alliance certifies the following:

General Wi-Fi certification: For 802.11a, b, g, and n equipment (as well as multimode equipment that supports more than one standard at a time — such as 802.11n gear that also supports 802.11a, b, and g), this certification simply lets you know that a given piece of Wi-Fi certified gear will connect to another piece of gear using the same standard.

This certification is the bottom-line "must have" that you should look for when you buy a wireless LAN system. We recommend that you choose products certified 802.11n unless your budget is very tight (in which case you should feel just fine about choosing an older 802.11g system).

Security certification: Equipment that has been certified to work with the WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) and WPA2 security systems.WPA certified equipment can be certified by the Wi-Fi Alliance for any of these types of WPA:

• WPA and WPA2 Personal: This is the minimum you should look for — equipment that has been certified to work with the WPA Personal (or WPA-PSK) system described in next topic.

If you can help it, don’t buy any Wi-Fi gear that isn’t certified for at least WPA2 Personal. We think that this is the minimum level of security you should insist on with a Wi-Fi network.

• WPA/WPA2 Enterprise: This business-oriented variant of WPA provides the ability to use a special 802.1x or RADIUS server to manage users on the network. For the vast majority of wireless home networkers, this capability is overkill, but it doesn’t hurt to have it (any WPA/WPA2 Enterprise certified system also supports WPA/WPA2 Personal).

Other certifications: The Wi-Fi Alliance provides a number of other specialized certifications that not all Wi-Fi certified gear will have earned, like the following:

• WMM: Wi-Fi Multimedia certification can be found on a growing number of audio/video and voice Wi-Fi equipment.WMM certified equipment can provide on your wireless LAN some Quality of Service (QoS), which can give your voice, video, or audio data priority over other data being sent across your network.

• WPS: Wi-Fi Protected Setup certification is increasingly common on new equipment, but still rather new as we write this. WPS, which we discuss in detail in next topic, is a user-friendly front end to WPA2 Personal, and allows you to set up network security simply by pushing buttons (or entering preassigned PIN codes) on your AP/router and network clients.

• EAP: Extensible Authentication Protocol is part of the WPA Enterprise/802.1x system used in business wireless LANs — EAP provides the mechanism for authenticating users (or confirming that they are who they say they are). A number of different EAP types can be used with WPA Enterprise — each type can be certified by the Wi-Fi Alliance. You don’t need to worry about this unless you’re building a WPA Enterprise security system for your network.

The underlying IEEE standard for 802.11n is still in draft format — it won’t be ratified until as late as 2009. Most of the items still up in the air in the final standard relate not to the core networking functionality of the 802.11n standard, but rather to some specialized aspects of 802.11n (such as how it will work in new generations of home entertainment devices). So the manufacturers and the Wi-Fi Alliance itself (which is made up of manufacturers of Wi-Fi gear) have reached a point where they’re confident that 802.11n gear sold today is ready to go and they’ve been certifying equipment since early 2007. What this means to you is that even though it says draft on the certification, you shouldn’t have anxiety about buying this gear. For more details on choosing 802.11n equipment, read the sidebar titled "What to look for in 802.11n gear."

What you might have some anxiety about buying is some of the older "pre-N" gear that some manufacturers are still offering. The time interval between the completion of 802.11g (the last Wi-Fi standard) and the completion of 802.11n has been relatively long (and still counting!). Because of this, a lot of manufacturers launched pre-N gear in 2004 and 2005 to offer customers a taste of what was coming. This gear is still on the market, and it works just fine — providing faster speeds with other gear from the same manufacturer and working as fully compliant 802.11g gear with equipment from other manufacturers. But it won’t ever be 802.11n compliant despite the pre-N in the name. The manufacturers we know tell us they’re still selling this gear because they have stock on hand and because some folks have invested in it and want to expand their networks. If you’re starting a new network, we don’t see any reason to not just step up to 802.11n.

Some of this pre-N gear goes by other names such as MIMO or Super-G or Turbo-G. Whatever the name, it’s souped-up 802.11g, and not 802.11n.

Compatibility and Form Factor

When choosing an AP, make sure that it and its setup program are compatible with your existing components, check its form factor, and determine whether wall-mountability and outdoor use are important to you:

Hardware and software platform: Make sure that the device you’re buying supports the hardware and software platform you have. Certain wireless devices support only Macs or only PCs. And some devices support only certain versions of system software. Luckily, most APs use a Web browser for configuration, so they can work with any PC type and any operating system that supports 802.11 and Web browsing.

Setup program and your operating system: Make sure that the setup program for the AP you plan to buy runs on your computer’s operating system and on the next version of that operating system (if it’s available — meaning if you’re using XP, look for Vista support too, should you ever decide to upgrade). Setup programs run only on the type of computer for which they were written. A setup program designed to run on Windows doesn’t run on the Mac OS, and vice versa. Again, most vendors are moving toward browser-based configuration programs, which are much easier to support than stand-alone configuration utilities.

Form factor: Make sure you are buying the correct form factor (that is, the shape and form of the device, such as whether it’s external or a card). For example, don’t assume that if you have a tower PC, you should install a PCI card. It’s nice to have the more external and portable form factors, such as a Universal Serial Bus (USB) adapter, because you can take it off if you need to borrow it for something or someone else, or if you just want to reposition it for better reception.

What to look for in 802.11n gear

The 802.11n draft standard has a bit more variation in its specifications than previous 802.11 standards such as 802.11g. What this means is that while all 802.11n gear will work at a certain (very high) baseline of performance, some gear may be more capable than others.

The biggest variation in the category of 802.11n gear revolves around the frequencies used. All 802.11n gear works within the 2.4 GHz band that was also used by 802.11b and 802.11g. Some — but far from all — 802.11n equipment also works in the 5 GHz frequency range that was previously the sole domain of the 802.11a standard. This higher frequency range is less crowded with other wireless gear (such as cordless phones and Bluetooth devices), so you’re less likely to face interference. Additionally, the 5 GHz band has more channels (the frequency band is divided into a number of channels), making it even easier to find an uncrowded frequency.

Most of this dual-band(2.4 and 5 GHz) 802.11n gear today works in either one or another of the frequency bands at a time. What this means is that if you have any legacy 802.11b or g equipment on your network, the 5 GHz capability of your AP or router will not come into play. A few APs and routers on the market (or soon to be on the market as we write in late 2007) have the capability to operate in both bands simultane-ously.This is a great capability to have in a mixed 802.11g/802.11n network, because your old gear can happily hum along at 802.11g speeds by using the 2.4 GHz radio in your router, while your fancy new 802.11n gear can reach maximum 802.11n speeds in the 5 GHz band.

The final thing to look for when choosing 802.11n systems is the capability of the equipment to perform channel bonding. All Wi-Fi systems use 20 MHz wide channels to transmit and receive data across the network airlink; many 802.11n systems can bond two adjacent channels together to form one bigger 40 MHz channel. (For this reason, channel bonding is sometimes referred to as 40 MHz channel width.) This bigger, bonded channel can carry more data and allow your system to reach the higher (200+ Mbps) speeds promised by 802.11n.

By the way, significantly more channels are available for bonding in the 5 GHz frequency range, which is another reason to choose a dual-band system.

USB comes in two versions: USB 1.1 and USB 2.0. If your computer has a USB 1.1 port, it has a maximum data-transfer speed of 12 Mbps. USB 2.0 ports can transfer data at 480 Mbps, which is 40 times faster than USB 1.1. If you plan to connect an 802.11g or n device to a USB port, it must be USB 2.0.

Many brands of PC Cards include antennas enclosed in a casing that is thicker than the rest of the card. The card still fits in the PC Card slot, but the antenna can block the other slot. For most users, this shouldn’t pose a serious problem; however, several manufacturers offer wireless PC Cards that have antenna casings no thicker than the rest of the card. If you actively use both PC Card slots (perhaps you use one for a FireWire or USB 2.0 card), make sure that the form of the PC Card you’re buying doesn’t impede the use of your other card slot.

Wall-mountability: If you plan to mount the device on the wall or ceiling, make sure that the unit is wall mountable, because many are not.

Outdoor versus indoor use: Finally, some devices are designed for outdoor — not indoor — use. If you’re thinking about installing it outside, look for devices hardened for environmental extremes.

Bundled Functionality: Servers, Gateways, Routers, and Switches

Wireless APs are readily available that perform only the AP function; but for home use, APs that bundle additional features are much more popular, for good reason. In most cases, you should shop for an AP that’s also a network router and a network switch — a wireless home router like the one we define in next topic. To efficiently connect multiple computers and to easily share an Internet connection, you need devices to perform all these functions, and purchasing one multipurpose device is the most economical way to accomplish that.

DHCP servers

To create an easy-to-use home network, your network should have a Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) server. A DHCP server dynamically assigns an IP address to each computer or other device on your network. This function relieves you from having to keep track of all the devices on the network and assign addresses to each one manually.

Network addresses are necessary for the computers and other devices on your network to communicate. Because most networks now use a set of protocols (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol, or TCP/IP) with network addresses (Internet Protocol, or IP, addresses), we refer to network addresses as IP addresses in this topic. In fact, the Internet uses the TCP/IP protocols, and every computer connected to the Internet must be identified by an IP address.

When your computer is connected to the Internet, your Internet service provider (ISP), such as Time Warner Road Runner or Verizon FiOS, assigns your computer an IP address. However, even when your computer isn’t connected to the Internet, it needs an IP address to communicate with other computers on your home network.

The DHCP server can be a stand-alone device, but it’s typically a service provided by either a computer on the network or a network router. The DHCP server maintains a database of all the current DHCP clients — the computers and other devices to which it has assigned IP addresses — issuing new addresses as each device’s software requests an address.

NAT and broadband routers

A wireless router is a wireless AP that enables multiple computers to share the same IP address on the Internet. This fact would seem to be a contradiction because every computer on the Internet needs its own IP address. The magic that makes an Internet gateway possible is Network Address Translation (NAT). Most access points you buy now are wireless gateways.

Vendors sometimes call these wireless routers wireless broadband routers or perhaps wireless cable/DSL routers. What you’re looking for is the word router somewhere in the name or description of the device itself. Stand-alone access points (without the router functionality) usually are called just an access point, so sometimes it’s easier to look for something not called that!

In addition to providing NAT services, the wireless routers used in home networks also provide the DHCP service. The router communicates with each computer or other device on your home network via private IP addresses — the IP addresses assigned by the DHCP server. (See the section "DHCP servers," earlier in this topic.) However, the router uses a single IP address — the one assigned by your ISP’s DHCP server — in packets of data intended for the Internet.

In addition to providing a method for sharing an Internet connection, the NAT service provided by a broadband router also adds a measure of security because the computers on your network aren’t directly exposed to the Internet. The only computer visible to the Internet is the broadband router. This protection can also be a disadvantage for certain types of Internet gaming and computer-to-computer file transfer applications. If you find that you need to use one of these applications, look for a router with DMZ (for demilitarized zone) and port forwarding features, which expose just enough of your system to the Internet to play Internet games and transfer files.

A wireless Internet gateway is an AP that’s bundled with a cable, fiber-optic, or DSL modem or router. By hooking this single device to a cable connection or DSL line (or to the termination of your fiber-optic connection), you can share an Internet connection with all the computers connected to the network, wirelessly. By definition, all wireless Internet gateway devices also include one (and typically, several) wired Ethernet port that enables you to add wired devices to your network as well as wireless devices.

When your wireless network needs some order

Your home network is comprised of many parts. If you’re smart, you’ve consolidated them as much as possible, because having fewer devices means easier installation and troubleshooting. But suppose that you have a cable modem, a router, a switch, and an access point — not an unusual situation if you grew your network over time. Now suppose that the power goes out. Each of these devices resets at different rates. The switch will probably come back fairly quickly because it’s a simple device. The cable modem will probably take the longest to resync with the network, and the AP and router will come back up probably somewhere in-between.

The problem that you, as a client of the DHCP server (which is likely in the router in this instance), have is that not all the elements are in place for a clean IP assignment to flow back to your system. For example, the router needs to know the WAN IP address for you to have a good connection to the Internet. If the cable modem hasn’t renegotiated its connection, it cannot provide that to the router. If the AP comes back online before the router, it cannot get its DHCP from the router to provide connectivity to the client. Different devices react differently when something isn’t as it should be on startup.

Our advice: If you have a problem with your connectivity that you didn’t have before the electricity went out and came back on, follow these simple steps. Turn everything off, start at the farthest point from the client (usually this is your broadband modem), and work back toward the client, to let each device get its full start-up cycle complete before moving to the next device in line — ending with rebooting your PC or other wirelessly enabled device.


Wireless routers, available from nearly any manufacturer, include from one to eight Ethernet ports with which you can connect computers or other devices via Ethernet cables. These routers are not only wireless APs but are also wired switches that efficiently enable all the computers on your network to communicate either wirelessly or over Ethernet cables.

Make sure that the switch ports support at least 100BaseT Ethernet — this is the 100 Mbps variant of Ethernet. You should also ensure that the switch supports the full-duplex variant of 100BaseT — meaning that it supports 100 Mbps of data in both directions at the same time. If you’re looking for the ultimate in performance, you should strongly consider paying a bit more for a router that supports Gigabit Ethernet (1000BaseT).

Even though you may intend to create a wireless home network, sometimes you may want to attach a device to the network through a more traditional network cable. For example, we highly recommend that when you configure a router for the first time, you attach the router to your computer by a network cable (rather than via a wireless connection).

Print servers

A few multifunction wireless routers have a feature that enables you to add a printer to the network: a print server. Next to sharing an Internet connection, printer sharing is one of the most convenient (and cost-effective) reasons to network home computers because everyone in the house can share one printer. Wireless print servers have become much more economical in the past few years. However, when the print server is included with the wireless router, it’s suddenly very cost effective.

The disadvantage of using the print server bundled with the AP, however, is apparent if you locate your AP in a room or location other than where you would like to place your printer. Consider a stand-alone print server device if you want to have your printer wirelessly enabled but not near your AP.

When you choose an AP with a print server, make sure that you have the right interface to your printer — most printers these days use USB connections, but a few still use the parallel port connection. We recommend that you choose an AP print server that supports USB 2.0 for faster printing of big, graphically intensive files.

Operational Features

Most APs share a common list of features, and most of them don’t vary from one device to the next. Here are some unique, onboard features that we look for when buying wireless devices — and you should, too:

Wired Ethernet port: Okay, this one seems basic, but having a port like this saves you time. We tell you time and again to first install your AP on your wired network (as opposed to trying to configure the AP via a wireless client card connection) and then add the wireless layer (like the aforementioned client card). You can save yourself lots of grief if you can get your AP configured on a direct connection to your PC because you reduce the things that can go wrong when you add the wireless clients.

Auto channel select: Some access points, typically more expensive models designed for office use, offer an automatic channel-selection feature.

Power over Ethernet (PoE): Because every AP is powered by electricity (where’s Mr. Obvious when you need him?), you should also consider whether the location you choose for an AP is located near an electrical outlet. High-end access points, intended for use in large enterprises and institutions, offer a feature known as Power over Ethernet (PoE). PoE enables electrical power to be sent to the AP over an Ethernet networking cable so that the AP doesn’t have to be plugged into an electrical outlet. Modern residential electrical codes in most cities, however, require outlets every eight feet along walls, so unless you live in an older home, power outlets shouldn’t be an issue. But, if you’re putting the access point on the ceiling or in the attic, running one cable sure is easier than running two!

There’s an IEEE standard for POE; it’s IEEE 802.3af.

Detachable antennas: In most cases, the antenna or antennas that come installed on an AP are adequate for good signal coverage throughout your house. However, your house may be large enough or may be configured in such a way that signal coverage of a particular AP could be significantly improved by replacing a stock antenna with an upgraded version. Also, if your AP has an internal antenna and you decide that the signal strength and coverage in your house are inadequate, an external antenna jack allows you to add one or two external antennas. Several manufacturers sell optional antennas that extend the range of the standard antennae; they attach to the AP to supplement or replace the existing antennae.

The FCC requires that antennas and radios be certified as a system. Adding a third-party, non-FCC-certified antenna to your AP violates FCC regulations and runs the risk of causing interference with other radio devices, such as certain portable telephones.

Detachable antennas are a potentially big benefit for 802.11g (and earlier 802.11a and b) systems, but not so much for 802.11n. Because of the very tight integration between hardware and antenna in a MIMO 802.11n system, most 802.11n routers don’t offer detachable antennas and wouldn’t benefit from them if they did. We expect that eventually this will be an option, but as we write (during the early days of 802.11n), detachable antennas aren’t really an option.

Uplink port: APs equipped with internal three- and four-port hub and switch devices are also coming with a built-in, extra uplink port. The uplink port — also called the crossover port — adds even more wired ports to your network by uplinking the AP with another hub or switch. This special port is normally an extra connection next to the last available wired port on the device, but it can look like a regular Ethernet jack (with a little toggle switch next to it). You want an uplink port — especially if you have an integral router or DSL or cable modem — so that you can add more ports to your network while it grows. (And it will grow.)


Unless you work for the government or handle sensitive data on your computer, you probably aren’t overly concerned about the privacy of the information stored on your home network. Usually it’s not an issue anyway because someone would have to break into your house to access your network. But if you have a wireless network, the radio signals transmitted by your network don’t automatically stop at the outside walls of your house. In fact, a neighbor or even someone driving by on the street in front of your house can use a computer and a wireless networking adapter to grab information right off your computer, including deleting your files, inserting viruses, and using your computer to send spam — unless you take steps to protect your network.

The original security technology for Wi-Fi equipment was Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP). Perhaps the most well-publicized aspect of Wi-Fi wireless networking is the fact that the WEP security feature of Wi-Fi networks can be hacked (broken into electronically). Hackers have successfully retrieved secret WEP keys used to encrypt data on Wi-Fi networks. With these keys, the hacker can decrypt the packets of data transmitted over a wireless network. Since 2003, the Wi-Fi Alliance has been certifying and promoting a replacement security technology for WEP: Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA and the newer but closely related WPA2). WPA/WPA2 is based on an IEEE standard effort known as 802.11i (so many 802.11s huh?). This technology, which makes cracking a network’s encryption key much more difficult, is standard in most Wi-Fi access points and network adapters available now. As discussed earlier in this topic, in the section "Certification and Standards Support," look for Wi-Fi Alliance certifications for WPA equipment.

Any Wi-Fi gear that you buy should support the latest security certification — WPA2. Don’t accept any less and don’t forget to turn on your network’s security.

  • Other useful security features to look for when buying an AP include
  • Network Address Translation (NAT), which we discuss earlier in this topic
  • Virtual Private Network (VPN) pass-through that allows wireless network users secure access to corporate networks
  • Monitoring software that logs and alerts you to computers from the Internet attempting to access your network
  • Logging and blocking utilities that enable you to log content transmitted over the network as well as to block access to given Web sites
  • We talk much more about security in next topic. We encourage you to read that topic so that you can be well prepared when you’re ready to install your equipment.

Range and Coverage Issues

An AP’s functional range (the maximum distance from the access point at which a device on the wireless network can receive a useable signal) and coverage (the breadth of areas in your home where you have an adequate radio signal) are important criteria when selecting an AP. Wi-Fi equipment is designed to have a range of hundreds of meters when used outdoors without any obstructions between the two radios. Coverage depends on the type of antenna used.

Just like it’s hard to know how good a topic is until you read it, it’s hard to know how good an AP is until you install it. Do your research before buying an AP, and then hope that you make the right choice. Buying ten APs and returning the nine you don’t want is simply impractical. (Well, maybe not impractical, but rather rude.) The key range and coverage issues, such as power output, antenna gain, or receive sensitivity aren’t well labeled on retail boxes. Nor are these issues truly comparable among devices because of the same lack of consistent information. Because many of these devices are manufactured using the same chipsets, performance usually doesn’t vary extensively from one AP to another. However, that is a broad generalization and some APs do perform badly. Our advice: Read the reviews and be forewarned! Most reviews of APs and wireless routers do extensive range and throughput (speed) testing — look at sites such as CNET ( or ZDNet (

In next topic 2, we talk about the differences between the 2.4 and 5 GHz frequency bands that different Wi-Fi systems use (802.11b and g use 2.4 GHz, 802.11a uses 5 GHz, and 802.11n can use either). In that topic we also talk about the fact that higher frequencies (that is, 5 GHz compared to 2.4 GHz) tend to have shorter ranges than lower frequencies (all things equal — which they’re not in the case of 802.11n, more on that in a moment). In general, 2.4 GHz systems have a longer reach, but they also operate in a more crowded set of frequencies and are therefore more prone to interference from other systems (other Wi-Fi networks and other devices such as phones and microwaves). In an urban environment, you may very well find that a 5 GHz system has a better range simply due to this lack of interference.

The 802.11n systems on the market use multiple antennas and special techniques to boost, or focus, the antenna power and greatly increase the range of the AP versus a standard 802.11g model. Even when operating in the 5 GHz frequency range, you should find that an 802.11n system has a range several times greater than that of an 802.11g system.


When it comes to installing, setting up, and maintaining your wireless network, you rely a great deal on your device’s user interface, so check reviews for this aspect of the product. In this section, we discuss the many different ways to control and manage your devices.

Web-based configuration

APs, wireless clients, and other wireless devices from all vendors ship with several utility software programs that help you set up and configure the device. An important selling feature of any wireless device is its setup process. The ideal setup procedure can be accomplished quickly and efficiently. Most available APs and devices can be configured through either the wired Ethernet port or a USB port.

The best setup programs enable you to configure the device by connecting through the Ethernet port and accessing an embedded set of Web (HTML) pages. Look for an AP with one of these. This type of setup program — often described as Web-based — can be run from any computer that is connected to the device’s Ethernet port and has a Web browser. Whether you’re using Windows, the Mac OS, or Linux, you can access any device that uses a Web-based configuration program.

Software programming

When shopping for an AP, look for one with an automated setup process. Several AP manufacturers provide setup software that walks you step by step through the entire process of setting up the AP and connecting to your network. Windows automated setup programs are typically called wizards. If you’re new to wireless technology, a setup wizard or other variety of automated setup program can help you get up and running with minimum effort.

Versions of Windows starting with Windows XP and versions of the Mac OS starting with Mac OS 9 are more wireless-aware than earlier versions of these operating systems. Automated setup programs are typically quick and easy to use when written to run on either Windows XP or Mac OS 9 or later.

Even if an AP comes with a setup wizard, it also ships with configuration software that permits you to manually configure all the available AP settings. For maximum flexibility, this configuration software should be Web based (refer to the preceding section).

Upgradeable firmware

Wireless networking technology is constantly evolving. As a result, many features of Wi-Fi access points are implemented in updateable software programs known as firmware. Before you decide which AP to buy, determine whether you can get feature updates and fixes from the vendor and whether you can perform the updates by upgrading the firmware (see the nearby sidebar, "Performing firmware updates," for some pointers). Check also for updated management software to match up with the new or improved features included in the updated firmware.

You may feel that frequent firmware updates are evidence of faulty product design. However, acknowledging that wireless technology will continue to be improved, buying a product that can be upgraded to keep pace with these changes without the need to purchase new equipment can save you money in the long run.


Although we can’t say much directly about price (except that the least expensive item is rarely the one you want), we should mention other things that can add to the price of an item. Check out which cables are provided. (Yes, wireless devices need cables, too!) In an effort to trim costs, some companies don’t provide the Ethernet cable for your AP that you need for initial setup.

Also, before you buy, check out some of the online price comparison sites, such as CNET (, Retrevo (, and Yahoo! Shopping ( Internet specials pop up all the time.

Performing firmware updates

Most firmware updates come in the form of a downloadable program you run on a computer connected to the AP (or other device) by a cable (usually Ethernet, but sometimes USB). Make sure that you carefully read and follow the instructions that accompany the downloadable file. Updating the firmware incorrectly can lead to real headaches. Here are a few tips:

Make sure that you make a backup of your current firmware before performing the update.

Never turn off the computer or the AP while the firmware update is in progress.

If something goes wrong, look through the AP documentation for instructions on how to reset the modem to its factory settings.


There’s nothing worse than a device that dies one day after the warranty expires. The good news is that because most of these devices are solid state, they work for a long time unless you abuse them by dropping them on the floor or something drastic. In our experience, if your device is going to fail because of some manufacturing defect, it does so within the first 30 days or so.

You encounter a rather large variance of warranty schedules among vendors. Some vendors offer a one-year warranty; others offer a lifetime warranty. Most are limited in some fashion, such as covering parts and labor but not shipping.

When purchasing from a store, be sure to ask about its return policy for the first month or so. Many stores give you 14 days to return items, and after that, purchases have to be returned to the manufacturer directly, which is a huge pain in the hind end.If you only have 14 days, get the device installed quickly so that you can find any problems right away.

Extended service warranties are also often available through computer retailers. (We never buy these because by the time the period of the extended warranty expires, they’re simply not worth their price given the plummeting cost of the items.) If you purchase one of these warranties, however, make sure that you have a clear understanding of the types of problems covered as well as how and when you can contact the service provider if problems arise. As we mention earlier in this topic, if you don’t purchase a warranty, you probably need to contact the product manufacturer for support and warranty service rather than the store or online outlet where you purchased the product.

Customer and Technical Support

Good technical support is one of those things you don’t appreciate until you can’t get it. For support, check whether the manufacturer has toll-free or direct-dial numbers for support as well as its hours of availability. Ticklish technical problems seem to occur at the most inopportune times — nights, weekends, holidays. If you’re like us, you usually install this stuff late at night and on weekends. (We refuse to buy anything from anyone with only 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday-Friday hours for technical support.) Traditionally, only high-end (that is to say, expensive) hardware products came with 24/7 technical support. However, an increasing number of consumer-priced computer products, including wireless home networking products, offer toll-free, around-the-clock, technical phone support.

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