Top 10 Wireless Technologies for the Home

You're probably familiar with 802.11b (aka Wi-Fi), the wireless networking standard that's sweeping the world. Wi-Fi hotspots are popping up everywhere, from coffee shops to airports to restaurants. Wi-Fi networking is now a standard feature on virtually all new notebook computers, and for people with physically isolated PCs, it's also a must-have option on desktop computers. But Wi-Fi and other wireless technologies aren't just about connecting computers. These days, you'll also find Wi-Fi in a host of non-PC devices, including set-top boxes, wireless adapters for video game consoles, Pocket PCs, and more. Let's take a look at the top 10 wireless technologies for the home.

Wireless-G
First, you need to know about 802.11g (aka Wireless-G), which is the latest version of Wi-Fi. Like its 11Mbps 802.11b predecessor, Wireless-G operates in the 2.4GHz band and is therefore backward compatible with 802.11b products. However, because Wireless-G runs at 54Mbps (more like 20Mbps to 25Mbps in the real world) compared with 802.11b's 11Mbps (4Mbps to 5Mbps in the real world), it's about five times faster and has the bandwidth to handle large file transfers and streaming video—two tasks at which 802.11b fails miserably.

Although mixing 802.11b and Wireless-G devices in your network is possible, your Wireless-G network would ratchet back to 11Mbps if any 802.11b devices connect. For this reason, I recommend that you create a separate Wireless-G network and use a router or access point (AP) that lets you exclude 802.11b devices. In such a setup, 802.11b devices connect to a dedicated 11Mbps wireless network and Wireless-G devices connect to a dedicated 54Mbps wireless network. Not all routers and APs support this feature, however, so be sure to shop carefully if you want to implement such a setup. One of my favorite wireless routers, the Microsoft Wireless Base Station MN-700 ($75) does support this feature, and it can work as either a router or an AP, so it's easy to add to an existing network. The Microsoft unit's excellent documentation and simple management tools are also a plus.

Another important feature that Microsoft and other wireless hardware vendors support is Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA), a new wireless security scheme that replaces the inane and ineffective Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) security scheme that most 802.11b devices use. (More accurately, those devices don't use WEP. Because the scheme is so difficult to set up and has become infamous for its security problems, few consumers have bothered to enable WEP security on their 802.11b wireless networks.) WPA is not only simple to set up—it uses a simple password just like your Windows logon, rather than an inane string of characters, as WEP requires—it's genuinely secure. And many 802.11b devices don't (and won't) support WPA, so you have another reason to set up separate Wireless-G and 802.11b networks: Your Wireless-G network will be both faster and more secure. Who says you can't have it all?

Pricing on Wireless-G products is significantly lower than the pricing of equivalent 802.11b products were at this time last year. The aforementioned Microsoft Base Station, for example, costs just $25 more than the company's 802.11b router and a whopping $75 less than the 802.11b router cost last year. Prices on Wireless-G network adapters and other devices are also low. The message here is simple: Wireless networking is no longer available only at a premium, so even if you invested in 802.11b equipment a year ago, newer gear is cheap enough for you to consider another trip to the local consumer-electronics superstore.

Linksys Wireless Digital Media Adapter
Consumers who have a wireless network tend to have a broadband connection of some sort—typically cable modem or DSL—and use that network to share the connection between two or more PCs. But you can do so much more with a wireless connection. If you've taken the time to rip your CD collection to MP3 or WMA format, for example, you can share that music with other PCs or, preferably, with the more capable stereo system you might already have in your den, bedroom, or playroom. In the past, companies such as SonicBlue and Dell offered digital audio receiver products that used phone-wire-based networking technology to move your PC's music to your stereo. Today, an excellent solution is the Linksys WMA11B Wireless Digital Media Adapter ($140), which looks curiously like a wireless AP but, in fact, lets you listen to digital music on your PC through your stereo system. The adapter also lets you view your PC's digital-photo collection (JPG, GIF, TIF, and BMP formats) on your TV.

The Linksys adapter uses 802.11b technology to accomplish this functionality, and it provides a simple interface: You use the included remote control to navigate a TV menu. The unit supports S-Video and composite video, stereo audio, and wired Ethernet if you have structured wiring. However, because it supports Wi-Fi, the Linksys adapter can work in virtually any home.

PRISMIQ MediaPlayer
If you're looking for more functionality than the media adapter provides, consider the amazing PRISMIQ MediaPlayer ($250), an intelligent set-top unit that offers wired and fast Wireless-G wireless networking capabilities. The PRISMIQ media player, which you control through a bundled remote control, supplies a friendly, TV-based interface to all of the music, photos, and videos stored on PCs on your home network. The unit is compatible with the MP3, AC3, WAV, and WMA audio formats (as well as SHOUTcast and WMA Internet radio streams); the JPEG, GIF, and PNG image formats; and the DivX, MPEG-1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4, and WMV video formats. (You can upgrade the unit to support other audio and video formats.)

You can even use the optional MediaPlayer wireless keyboard ($50) to chat with your buddies through AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) by way of the PRISMIQ UI. However, analog TV isn't the best choice for readable text, in my experience.

Xbox Wireless Adapter
What's the point of having a powerful Microsoft Xbox video game system if you can't connect it to the outside world and compete with friends, family, and complete strangers? Microsoft's innovative Xbox Live service lets you do just that. The software giant has included an Ethernet port on every Xbox, but many people don't have a wired Ethernet network anywhere close to their game console. Also, 802.11b wireless networking can often be too slow for the fast-paced games that people play online. With the emergence of Wireless-G, however, Microsoft has an answer: the excellent Xbox Wireless Adapter MN-740 ($100), which delivers 54Mbps speeds and supports the simple Xbox Dashboard UI. The adapter even supports the relatively poky 802.11b standard, if that's all you've got. Of course, you'll also need to join Microsoft's Xbox Live service—about $70 per year—to compete with other players over the Internet.

Linksys 802.11g Wireless Bridge
What about Sony's PlayStation 2 or other devices that don't support Wireless-G networking? Products such as the Linksys Wireless-G Ethernet bridge WEG54G ($150) let you easily add wireless connectivity to any device that has an Ethernet port, without requiring the device to load new drivers or explicitly support the product. The Linksys bridge includes an Ethernet port and cable, which you use to hardwire the bridge to the device in question, and doesn't require a separate power cable, thanks to its support of Power Over Ethernet (POE).

HP iPAQ 4155 and 4355
A year ago, finding a palm-sized device that included both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth wireless connectivity was an expensive proposition. One of the few devices available, the HP iPAQ 5400, cost more than $650 and was relatively bulky. Today, HP offers two Pocket PC devices, the iPAQ 4155 ($450) and the iPAQ 4355 ($500), which not only offer both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth but also include an integrated Secure Digital (SD) slot for expansion—all in incredibly thin form factors that seem to belie their impressive functionality.

Both units feature a speedy 400MHz processor, removable batteries, 64MB of RAM, and 32MB of flash ROM. They also both run Windows Mobile 2003, Microsoft's latest OS for Pocket PCs. Although the iPAQ 4155 is a traditional Pocket PC that features a stylus for input, the iPAQ 4355 offers the first-ever built-in thumb keyboard on a Pocket PC. As a result, the iPAQ 4355 is about an inch taller than the iPAQ 4155. Occasional thumb keyboard users can purchase HP's micro keyboard add-on ($40) for the iPAQ 4155.

Thanks to their wireless support, both units can wirelessly access email, browse the Web, and keep you in touch with your MSN Messenger contacts. You can also use the bundled remote-access client to remotely control your PC, if you're into that kind of thing. And you can add to either system an optional iPAQ Navigation System ($330), which provides the iPAQ with wireless GPS functionality through Bluetooth (United States only).

Apple iTunes
Companies such as Microsoft and RealNetworks have been making software media players for Windows and the Apple Macintosh for years, but leave it to Apple to finally get it right with its free iTunes software. Apple iTunes features simple music management, access to Internet radio, and compatibility with the company's award-winning iTunes Music Store, which lets you purchase legal music online for just 99 cents per song. However, iTunes' most innovative feature is perhaps its most unheralded. The software lets you wirelessly share your iTunes music library with as many as three PCs or Macs in your house. Therefore, you can access, for example, your iMac-based music library from a PC laptop upstairs or an iBook in the playroom, and the music plays back as if it were stored locally on the other machines.

Another terrific aspect of iTunes is how seamlessly its lets you share music. Select the appropriate option box in iTunes on any PC or Mac system, and that library will automatically show up in other iTunes installations around your house. The software even works well over slow 802.11b-based networks. Say what you will about the market power of Microsoft and its otherwise excellent Windows Media Player (WMP) 9, but this is one instance in which a competitor is running rings around the software giant and making it look silly. If you haven't yet given iTunes a chance, now is the time to do so.

ViewSonic airpanel V110p
When ViewSonic shipped its first airpanel Smart Displays in early 2003, the product's expensive pricing and seemingly lackluster feature set left users cold. But the idea was sound, and maybe now is the time to take a second look: ViewSonic's aim was to create a product that provides wireless remote access to your desktop PC, letting you access most of the programs on that system while sitting in other rooms in your house—hopefully in a simpler design and at a price cheaper than that of a full laptop. The reality was somewhat less inspiring, and the Smart Displays' high prices turned off consumers.

Now, in late 2003, Viewsonic's airpanel V110p Smart Display ($800) competes against low-cost laptops. It's still expensive for a device that utilizes a 10.4" 800 x 600 touchscreen, with an underlying system that might remind you more of a typical Pocket PC device (a 400MHz processor with 64MB of RAM and 128MB of SDRAM) than a notebook. But the airpanel weighs just 2.64 pounds and travels easily around your home, offering a much nicer screen than any Pocket PC. And compared to a laptop or Tablet PC, the airpanel boasts immediate boot-up capability and is far less complicated.

Granted, the airpanel isn't for everyone. But naysayers should take another look and remember that, for the price, they're getting a true display monitor and a bundled copy of Windows XP Professional.

Wallflower Plus Digital Picture Frame
For years, I've been searching for a decent digital picture frame. Wallflower Systems has recently released a new generation of 14.1" devices that are really quite impressive. The Wallflower Plus Digital Picture Frame ($699 to $899) sports all the features you'd expect in a digital picture frame—1024 x 768 resolution with 16.7 million colors, 30GB of local storage, Wi-Fi and Ethernet networking, and real wood, metal, or glass frames—but these devices' extras are what set the frames apart from the competition.

Chief among these extras is Wallflower's cool "pollinate" technology, which lets you email photos to a Wallflower Picture Frame. With this feature, you can, for example, present your parents with a picture frame that cycles through photos of their grandkids; you can then automatically update the picture frame remotely with new photos whenever you want. When a family event such as a birthday party occurs, you simply email the pictures to update the picture frame automatically, even if your parents live thousands of miles away.

Wallflower Plus Digital Picture Frames are available in Value, Standard, and Multimedia Editions. They ship with your choice of black cherry, cherry blossom, and white plumeria frame types. The company also sells accessories, including an integrated stand ($20) and an extension power cable ($15).

Wireless Internet Video Camera
Finishing off this list is a cool new wireless security product, the Linksys Wireless Internet Video Camera WVC11B ($200). This camera provides a great way for parents to keep tabs on the house if they're away from home, or if they have small or sick children. Ethernet-based video cameras have been around for a while, but they've been geared toward businesses and have traditionally been expensive. The Wireless Internet Video Camera uses the 802.11b-based home network you probably already have, and it's priced attractively for the consumer.

What separates this camera from a traditional Web camera? First, the Linksys camera includes a bundled Web server, so it can operate in standalone mode, without a physical connection to a PC or notebook. You can place it anywhere you want, including a child's bedroom. The Wireless Internet Video Camera also includes a motion-detection system, which can alert you through email when it senses motion, and a security mode that prevents people outside your house from receiving the video feed. Featuring high-quality 320 x 240 MPEG-4 video, the Linksys camera is a unique, inexpensive solution for home security or just simple peace of mind.

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