Linking PCs with a Network : Choosing Between a Wired or Wireless Network

2/20/2012 5:26:26 PM

Understanding Network Buzzwords

No matter what type of network you use, you're likely to stumble into some very odd terminology when shopping or reading packaging. Here are translations for the most common stumbling blocks:

Network adapter: A gadget that attaches to your PC to send and receive network signals. Wired network adapters transport the signals through cables; wireless network adapters come with a small antenna for sending and receiving network signals.

Router: An intelligent box that links your PCs into a network, letting each PC access both the Internet and your other PCs. Most routers today let you plug in at least four PCs, as well as send and receive wireless network signals to dozens of other PCs.

Routers make great firewalls. Because the router sits between your PCs and the Internet, the bad guys can't get in nearly as easily.

Network cables: Wires that connect your PC's network adapters to your router. The network adapter, router, and cables are the three main parts of any network. If your PCs are too far away for cables to be practical, you can use wireless, described next.

WAP (Wireless Access Point): A device that transmits wireless networking signals between the wireless network adapters on other PCs. Most routers now come with a built‐in wireless access point to send information through the air to distant PCs.

Local Area Network (LAN): A relatively small group of connected computers, modems, and printers.

Internet Connection Sharing (ICS): A way that Windows lets several PCs share one PC's Internet connection. All those piggybacking PCs slow down the original PC, however, so most people prefer buying a router to send the Internet connection among PCs.

Gateway: A connection between any smaller network and a larger one. A router, for example, works as a gateway that lets all the PCs on your home network connect to the biggest network of all: the Internet.

Switch: A box that keeps track of which computer asked for which piece of information and manages the flow of information accordingly. Most routers include a built‐in switch that handles at least four PCs.

Encryption: A coding method for keeping information private. Each computer on an encrypted network uses a password system to scramble and descramble information sent between them. Wireless networks use encryption to keep miscreants from eavesdropping.

WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy), WPA (Wi‐Fi Protected Access): These two different security methods use encryption to keep eavesdroppers out of your wireless network. Although Vista supports both types of encryption, choose WPA — if your equipment allows it — as it's much more secure than WEP.

IP (Internet Protocol) Address: Each computer on a network has an IP address — a unique identifying number. By routing information to and from IP addresses, the network enables everything to communicate.

Choosing Between a Wired or Wireless Network

Today's home network consists of a small box called a router that links your PCs, letting them exchange information. Your biggest decision is how to link the PCs to the router: with wires or wirelessly. The answer is easy: look at the distance between your PCs.

If your PCs sit relatively close together, created a wired network. It's the easiest to set up, most reliable, secure, and best of all, the cheapest way to go.

If your PCs live too far apart to connect them comfortably with wires, choose wireless. Wireless networks cost more and require much more setup time, but they let you hop onto the Internet with your laptop from any room in the house — or even in the yard.

If some PCs are close, but a few are far away, mix the two: The most versatile networks combine both wired and wireless, letting your closest PCs connect with wires and saving the wireless for the laptop or the game console near your TV.

The hardest part of setting up a network comes when looking at the dizzying number of wired and wireless equipment available, so the next two sections explain your options.

Understanding wireless (Wi‐Fi) home networks

Wireless is all the rage today. People don't want to string wires across the hallways and under the carpet anymore. They just want their computers to start talking to each other. But because wireless networks come in three main flavors, which wireless network is best? The next few sections look at the major players, but keep these things in mind before coming home with a bag full of wireless gear:

  • Wireless networks work best in open spaces, such as outdoors or inside a big room. Wireless signals lose speed and strength as they travel through walls, ceilings, and floors. Consider the location of each computer before choosing between a wireless or wired network. The best solution often lets some PCs connect with wires and others wirelessly.

  • Wi‐Fi devices communicate at a range of several hundred feet, depending on how many barriers the signal must pass through. Many airports and restaurants offer them for visitors who compute while having coffee. To cater to the laptop crowd, small adapters like the Linksys Wireless USB network adapter, shown in Figure 1 , stash easily into a laptop bag.

    Figure 1: By plugging into a USB port, the Linksys Wireless USB network adapter allows a computer to connect to a Wi‐Fi network.

Wireless comes in three basic flavors, shown in Table 1 , all with a variation on the number 802.11. From slowest to fastest, they're known as 802.11b, 802.11g, and 802.11n, each described below. Because all three are compatible, your wallet's width usually determines the one you take home: The cheapest of the three wireless types is the slowest, and the fastest costs the most.

Table 1: The Three Types of Wireless Networks at a Glance
802.11bSlowest100 feetLowest
802.11gMedium100 feetMedium
802.11n (Due in early 2008)Fastest150 feetHighest


Although it's the slowest wireless network speed today, 802.11b provides enough oomph for moderate networking and Internet needs. The 802.11b standard sends and receives signals at 11 Mbps. (The lower the Mbps number, the slower the connection.)

Compatibility: 802.11b devices can also talk with the faster 802.11g and 802.11n speeds described next. But those faster devices must slow their chatter to 802.11b speed when communicating.

An extension to the 802.11 wireless standard, 802.11b allows up to 11 Mbps communication in the 2.4 GHz band with fallback rates to 5.5, 2, and 1 Mbps during signal drops.


This newer, faster wireless standard tweaks the Wi‐Fi (802.11b) standard to add five times the speed and a slightly wider range. The speed drops dramatically the further it travels.

Compatibility: Fortunately, 802.11g devices work fine with Wi‐Fi (802.11b) devices on your network. They simply lower their speed to match the slower Wi‐Fi speeds.

Yet another extension to the 802.11g standard provides speeds up to 54 Mbps in the 2.4 GHz band with fallback rates of 48, 36, 24, 18, 12, 9, and 6 Mbps.


The standards for the even faster 802.11n wireless standard are still being hammered out, but that hasn't stopped manufacturers from releasing Pre‐N wireless equipment that guesses at the final standard. If you buy Pre‐N equipment — network adapters and wireless transmitters — buy it all from the same manufacturer to ensure it all works well together.

Compatibility: The 802.11n wireless networks will remain compatible with the two earlier wireless networks by simply slowing down when talking with them.

The fastest wireless standard yet, 802.11n will provide speeds up to 540 Mbps in the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands with fallback rates to remain compatible with earlier standards.

Unplugging cables with Bluetooth

Unlike wireless networks, which link groups of PCs, Bluetooth works to replace a different type of wiring: the single cable that traditionally connects two devices. Bluetooth's short‐range, low‐speed technology lets a cell phone pair up securely with a headset, for example, or lets a mouse talk wirelessly with a PC.

Bluetooth devices also communicate in pairs, not groups. A digital camera with Bluetooth connects to a single computer with Bluetooth, for instance, to dump its photos onto the computer.

Stuck with a Bluetooth gadget and a PC or laptop that doesn't support Bluetooth? Pick up a Bluetooth USB adapter — a little stick that plugs into an unused USB port. They usually cost less than 30 bucks.

Bluetooth works at short ranges — less than 30 feet — and it's not compatible with Wi‐Fi or other networks. Don't expect your Bluetooth camera to dump photos into your Wi‐Fi enabled‐PC down the hallway.

Understanding wired home networks

The fastest networks use cables. And because cabled systems have been around long enough to work out most bugs, wired networks are relatively inexpensive, fast, reliable, and compatible with each other.

Ethernet, a relatively old, wired networking standard, shuffles information through cables and connectors resembling phone lines, but with larger connectors.

Although the term Ethernet refers to several types of networks, only two are widely used in today's home networks: Fast Ethernet and its older and slower cousin, which I refer to as simply Ethernet.

The newer Fast Ethernet standard shuffles information ten times more quickly than the older Ethernet standard. Fast Ethernet is heavily favored by people who move around large files: sound, video, or graphics.

Both types of Ethernet work in a spider‐like layout, as shown in Figure 2 : A box called a router sits at the center, moving information to other computers through their individual cables, arranged like legs on a spider.

Figure 2: A network resembles a spider, with each computer's cable connecting to a wireless router in the center.

The biggest compatibility problem between Ethernet (10Base‐T) and Fast Ethernet (100Base‐T) comes with their cables. Although the cables look identical, Fast Ethernet won't run reliably over Ethernet cable. Always buy Fast Ethernet cables to stay as compatible as possible. (The words Category 5 or CAT‐5 are usually printed on Fast Ethernet cable.)

You can mix Ethernet and Fast Ethernet equipment because they contain auto‐sensing equipment that translates the speed differences. The auto‐sensing router at the center sends information to each computer at its appropriate speed level.

These terms might help you decipher the code words on the packages of networking equipment at the store:

  • Based on the IEEE 802.3 standard, 10Base‐T moves data at 10 Mbps through Category 3 (CAT‐3) cables with RJ‐45 connectors and a length of no more than 994 feet.

  • Officially based on the IEEE 802.3u standard, Fast Ethernet moves data at the rapid rate of 100 Mbps through Category 5 (CAT‐5) 100Base‐T cables with RJ‐45 connectors and a length of no more than 325 feet. It's also called UTP (Unshielded Twisted Pair) wiring. CAT‐5 cables also work with Ethernet 10Base‐T, so CAT‐5 is the logical cabling choice these days.

  • Some networking equipment offers a newer, faster type of Ethernet, 1000BASE‐T. It moves data at 1000 Mbps through Category 5 (CAT‐5e) cable, but Category 6 (CAT‐6) cables are more reliable. It's used mostly in offices for PCs that constantly move large amounts of information. It's overkill for most home networks.

Turning electric outlets into network ports

Very few rooms come with a network port in the wall, but every room comes with a power outlet, a fact exploited by the HomePlug network system. Plugging a HomePlug adapter into a power outlet turns the outlet into a network jack. Buy a HomePlug adapter for each PC, and all your computers can talk to each other.

The HomePlug standard encrypts the data as it moves between devices; that keeps neighbors from plugging into your porch light's outlet to swipe your MP3 files.

HomePlug still has several problems, though: It's relatively high‐priced, slower than Ethernet, hard to find in stores, and you still need a router to inject the Internet into your outlets so your PCs can Web surf. But for some people, it lets them finally add a network port to an out‐of‐the‐way place: The basement, for example, the wine cellar, or other places that wired and wireless systems can't reach well.

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