Editor's Note: Connected Home EXPRESS goes weekly starting this issue! In Getting Connected, contributing editors Paul Thurrott and David Chernicoff will bring you news and insights about making technology work in your home.
I think most PC users are now comfortable with the concept of wireless networking; modern wireless hardware and a state-of-the-art OS such as Windows XP or Mac OS X are an unbeatable combination. When you're connecting a home network, however, wireless isn't always the best choice. I prefer to connect desktop PCs in my home office by using 100Mbps Ethernet, a wired solution that is less expensive and much faster than wireless. For laptops in a home or office, however, wireless access is crucial because of the mobility it offers. I like being able to check email out on the deck on a nice day, or look up important statistics online during my family's regular Sunday afternoon football get-togethers.
But beyond the obvious, wireless access can be a boon in other areas as well. Let's look at a few of the often-overlooked ways this technology can make your life easier, especially when you're away from home.
Most business travelers are probably experts at booking hotels with fast Ethernet connections, but many people aren't, and many hotels still don't offer fast Internet connections. If you're on the road, you'll often get stuck with a slow 56Kbps-modem connection, which is certainly better than nothing. On a recent business trip to Fall COMDEX in Las Vegas, I shared a room with a coworker and faced a classic dilemma. Both of us are laptop users and need to be online frequently for work, so plugging and unplugging phone lines and re-establishing connections could have been a nightmare. It could have been expensive, too: Many hotels still charge a per-connection fee for local calls.
The solution was wireless access. Just 6 months ago, the thought of taking a wireless-connection point on a business trip would have been laughable because most of those devices were huge hunks of plastic, such as the now-classic blue Linksys models. But recently, several extremely small and inexpensive wireless-access points have arrived on the scene. My coworker and I brought along a Belkin Wireless Network Access Point, which is particularly portable, thanks to its svelte design and tiny size. Similar travel-friendly wireless products are available from D-Link (the D-LinkAir Wireless Access Point), Compaq (iPAQ Connection Point), and other companies.
Using a Windows XP-based laptop with a Belkin Wireless Network Notebook Card (although any 802.11b-based PC card would work), my coworker established a dial-up connection in the hotel room and shared it with me by using XP's Internet Connection Sharing (ICS) feature. Then we plugged in the Belkin connection point and, without configuring anything, I was able to get online with my Apple iBook, which features an Airport wireless-networking card (also 802.11b-based). If we had been concerned about security, we could have changed the network's name, added a Service Set Identifier (SSID) password, and turned on encryption, but we didn't share any resources beyond the slow Internet connection. We were both able to work online, simultaneously—with almost no configuration on our part.
Interestingly, by the time you read this, we'll be testing this same configuration at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, although I'll also be using an XP PC this time. Another difference will be the addition of two wireless-connected Pocket PC devices, which we plan to bring to the show floor rather than laptops. Carting a heavy laptop bag around a trade show is tiring, so this time the laptops will stay in our room, and we'll bring along lightweight Compaq iPAQ Pocket PCs instead. My shoulders are already thanking me.
To make the iPAQs more useful, we upgraded the devices with Targus Stowaway keyboards for notetaking during meetings and Compaq PC card sleeves, which let us add PC-card-based wireless connectivity. Although doing so isn't optimal, we'll be able to check email and browse the Web during the day and generally stay connected during our hours on the show floor.
Computer trade shows, of course, are only one place where wireless networks are starting to crop up. Coffeehouses and airports across the country are beginning to offer this crucial service, and it's only a matter of time before pervasive wireless access—regardless of where you are—will be expected, rather than a welcome surprise.
I'm interested in any unique stories you might have about wireless access. Please drop me a line if you've used wireless in an unusual scenario.