Over the past few weeks, I've received email messages from readers commenting about odd behavior in Windows XP that they've noticed when using wireless networking. XP's support for wireless networks is unparalleled in comparison with other versions of Windows (and most other OSs, for that matter) but nevertheless displays a few odd quirks. Let's take a look at three of the problems I've heard about most often.
The first problem shows itself after XP's Service Pack 1 (SP1) has been installed. Many users have noticed that, after SP1 installation, the wireless connection icon that formerly displayed in the system tray disappears when their notebook powers up from standby mode, although the network service is still running. This problem is a notification bug in SP1. If you need the icon, open Network Connections, right-click the wireless network connection, then disable it. Right-click the wireless network connection again and enable it. The icon will return to the notification area in the system tray.
The second quirk affects networking and booting in Safe Mode. A wireless network connection that uses the Zero Configuration Utility or the 802.1x authentication mechanisms built into XP won't be available when you boot XP in Safe Mode because the services related to the utility and the authentication mechanisms don't start in Safe Mode. Some wireless devices might work despite this quirk, but reliable networking in Safe Mode requires a wired network connection.
The last problem is the one I hear the most about. One of the much-touted features of XP's support for wireless networking is the ability to configure wireless networking with the Wireless Networks tab. XP adds this tab to the Wireless Network Connection Properties dialog box when the OS detects that the connection is wireless. I've received a lot of messages that say "I added a wireless networking NIC and it works, but I don't get the Wireless Networks tab, and my computer doesn't identify the new wireless device as a wireless network connection." This problem occurs because not all wireless networking devices fully support the services that XP offers—in particular, the Wireless Zero Configuration service, which alerts the OS to the presence of wireless devices and enables wireless networking support. Some wireless drivers will work fine with the Wireless Zero Configuration service; however, when you use devices with these drivers, you won't see the Wireless Networks tab or the wireless connection system tray icon.
In my experience, XP doesn't identify the vast majority of wireless PC Cards and PCI NICs as wireless network devices. The samples I've used have never failed to function, but the Wireless Networks tab and system tray icon don't appear. Conversely, XP has identified every one of the half dozen USB wireless network adapters I've used as a wireless network. These devices display correctly in the Network Connections window, the Wireless Networks tab is available in the network connection's properties dialog box, and the system tray icon to access the wireless connection status and properties is launched.
You might run across other problems with wireless networking in XP. Keep in mind that although XP supports wireless networking for Infrared Data Association (IrDA) devices, you'll find the configuration information and properties for these devices in the Control Panel Wireless Links applet.