We take a closer look at more
Much is made
over wireless network security, and the possibility of an outsider
tapping into your wireless network. Given our problems getting
adequate connections within the same building, we’re not so sure.
Still, it’s better to be safe than not- and radio waves behave by
rules of their own. Just because we can’t maintain a connection down
our own hallway doesn’t mean a neighbor can’t tune in loud and
The usual advice calls for enabling WEP security, an encryption
routine that relies on private keys (a fancier version of a
password) to encode and decode transmissions. In theory, anyone
without the key must either guess it or be locked out of your
Unless you’re a hacker target though (in which case WEP really won’t
be adequate), we’d recommend foregoing encryption in favor of
filtering network access through specific MAC addresses.
Conceptually, a MAC address is similar to a serial number associated
with a specific network device. With MAC filtering, only those
machines whose MAC numbers are on the router’s list of approved
network clients can connect.
This strikes us as more than adequate for most installations,
without the overhead of WEP procedures, resulting in improved
performance. And when it comes to wireless, you need all the
performance you can get.
Of course, if you’re prone to fits of paranoia, you probably ought
not consider wireless anyway. If you insist, it will be much more
secure to enable both WEP encryption and MAC filtering, providing
two layers of protection against unauthorized access.
Wireless Networks Tempting,
But Beware the Hype...
Being old enough to remember
early remote control fiascoes involving TV sets and garage door
openers, we viewed the arrival of consumer-class wireless network
equipment (and all its attendant hype) with no small degree of
Almost exactly as we’d envisioned...
and dropped signals are as old as radio technology, and
ubiquitous as the waves upon which it rides. In a word (or
a few, as the case may be), we didn’t have a lot of confidence
in these relatively low-cost devices transmitting network data
through the air- at least not reliably enough across sufficient
distances to make it useful.
Being not immune to
the allure of gadgetry however, we waited for the inevitable
collapse in pricing before we got involved, picking up a D-Link
wireless router and matching wireless NIC at the ridiculous
price (Summer, 2003) of $60 for the pair.
Jumping ahead of ourselves for purposes of this report, we’re
pleased to announce that we were wise to have waited. It’s with
some mixed emotions that we report our conclusion: the setup,
after no small amount of tinkering, performs almost exactly as
Given that our envisionment wasn’t all that great, the above is
scant praise indeed. It may be tempting to dismiss it as a case
of getting what you pay for, but it’s really not that simple.
The equipment we acquired, though priced in the sub-cellar of
the bargain basement for such things, could hardly be classified
as junk. In fact, the exact same items were selling elsewhere at
twice the price and more- we just happened into a good
D-Link is a well-known name in mass-market networking gear, and
has been, in our experience, at least as good as other entries
in the field (such as LinkSys, SohoWare, NetGear, and others).
It may not be Cisco or 3-Com, but it’s typical of what the
average small office or home office operator is likely to buy in
pursuit of something both economical and useful.
From what we found, there’s some question as to whether a
wireless network setup will, despite all the hype, be either. As
with most things related to computers, the outcome depends on a
lot of variables. The equipment itself is just a part of the
Both the router and the NIC (network interface card- in this
case a PC card model for a laptop) slipped into place as easily
as could be expected. Having set up several wired systems on a
variety of 95, 98, ME, 2000, and XP computers, we’re no longer
qualified to judge just how easy something like this is for a
beginner, but the process presented nothing that should stymie
anyone prepared to read a quick start card.
In particular, the configuration screens of the D-Link router
were more informative and user-friendly than we’ve grown
accustomed to, and the wireless NIC practically installed itself
on our XP Home laptop.
With XP equipped systems, the idea of “zero configuration”
appears to have reached some degree of fruition. We were
connected, within minutes of opening the boxes, both to our own
LAN and to the WAN-at-large known as the Internet, wirelessly
transmitting and receiving data through the air with convincing
amounts of speed and reliability.
For a brief and shining moment, we were impressed.
We couldn’t believe, in fact, how smoothly it was going- a
disbelief that, as the hours wore on, wound up fully justified.
So far, we’d been working with our laptop in the same room as
the router, separated by only a few feet of relatively empty
space. As measured by the software-based gauge on the laptop
(part of the NIC installation), signal strength was “excellent”
and our network connection hummed along at 22 megabits per
second- double the standard rate for 802.11b connections.
In theory, at least, our D-Link “Air Plus” equipment utilizes
proprietary techniques to boost connection speed with its own
compatible equipment. When you’re accustomed to 100 megabit
wired networks, though, two times too slow is still too slow,
and, if there was any perceptible gain in performance at the
reported connection speed, it was below our threshold of
Nonetheless, it was working, and the main problem with slow
network connections is in transferring large quantities of data-
something we’d no intention of attempting, anyway. That’s what
wires are for.
For Internet connections, one to two megabits per second is the
range of what you get with cable or a very good DSL hookup, so
even a standard 11-megabit wireless transmission is far more
than what’s required for adequate performance. Transmitting a
few test files from the LAN (word processing, spreadsheets,
bitmaps) was more than quick enough, and all seemed to be peachy
Until we picked the laptop up, and took it for a stroll down the
Fifteen feet down the hallway, the nominal connection speed
still read 22 Mbps, and signal strength claimed to be “very
good”, but the slowdown in throughput- the actual transfer of
usable data- was perceptible. File transfers took longer to
complete, and (despite our very good broadband connection) web
pages seemed to be arriving through a 56K dial-up modem.
Ten feet more, with two intervening walls, and signal strength
dropped to “good” while the connection speed remained 22 Mbps.
These reports, encouraging though they may have been, belied the
reality: file transfers aborted midway through, and we were as
likely as not to get DNS errors attempting to access the web.
When we did connect, performance was what you might expect from
an antique 14.4 Kbps modem. Local hard drives mapped to the LAN
flickered in and out of existence- sometimes accessible, and
Twenty-five feet from the wireless router, with two intervening
interior walls (wood-frame and sheetrock construction), and our
wireless network had become unusable. So much for the notion of
reading email and uploading web site pages from the patio.
Picking up the laptop again, we went back down the hallway, and
set up in a room directly across the hall, with no walls between
the laptop and the router. Signal strength returned to
“excellent” and everything worked well.
The problems were, by this time, fairly obvious. As long as we
had a clear path for the signal, things worked well enough.
Throw a few obstructions into the mix, and the signal degraded
sharply, rapidly achieving a state of uselessness. “Strength”
and “speed” were not enough to overcome transmission errors and
resultant resends. Although far superior to “line of sight”
infrared connections, the wireless network failed to achieve
even our modest expectations.
We’re emphatically not criticizing D-Link’s equipment here:
we’re convinced it’s as good as any, better than some, and an
excellent value in terms of what it is. Our quarrel is with the
state of the technology in general, and the way it’s marketed
and hyped as being a solution when, in fact, it’s more like a
different set of problems.
Proper installation = setup ease negation
It should, of course, be pointed out that our installation was
(and remains) far from optimal. The router should be mounted
high, ours is almost on the floor. It should be away from all
sources of RF interference, ours is maybe three feet from a 19”
monitor. It should be clear of shielding materials, ours is next
to a metal file cabinet.
We’re certain we’ll get improved results with a proper
installation, but therein lies the rub. The primary appeal of
wireless is supposed to be ease of installation: no wires to
run, no holes to drill, no unsightly mess, and so on. The
reality is somewhat different, though. To install our wireless
router for optimal performance, we would have to literally
rearrange our whole computer setup, reroute existing network
cables, and generally make a project of it- with no guarantee
the improvement would be adequate to overcome the problems.
That more or less defeats the whole idea of going wireless, as
far as we’re concerned, and it’s not just us. Seems there’s a
whole industry in aftermarket wireless network accessories, from
more powerful antennas to network bridges and repeaters, all
designed to overcome problems with connectivity in real world
Signal boosting and/or relay equipment is easily more expensive
than the basic wireless setup, and each added piece is another
link in a Rube Goldbergian chain of events that can (and very
likely will) go wrong.
In what strikes us as a classic “break the bad news slowly”
marketing technique, our local outlets don’t display these
likely to be needed items- doing so might reveal too much of
what may really be required, and interfere with sales of
equipment for the basic wireless setup.
In fact, by the time you get a wireless installation working
flawlessly in any but the most favorable environments, you could
probably have installed (or have someone else install)
high-speed, ultra reliable, ultra secure cable runs instead,
capable of transferring gigabytes of data quickly and reliably.
Not so great expectations
Wireless may work in your environment, and it may suit your
specific needs, but before you get involved with it you need to
be aware: it just as well may not, and you may wind up spending
far more in terms of effort and expense than you’d bargained
As far as we can see, wireless networking is best suited, not as
an alternative to wired, but as a convenient way to connect
portable equipment in the same room as the wireless access
point. A coiled CAT-5 cable will accomplish the same result, at
a fraction of the price, and with far greater speed and
Based on our experience, and what we’ve seen in other
installations, we continue to recommend a wired network if at
all possible. If you must go wireless, go ahead. The basic
setup’s cheap and easy. Just don’t expect a lot, and you won’t
environments in which a wireless network will be adequate,
straight from the box and with nothing else to buy. It ought to
work okay, for example, in a large one-room office with three to
five desks- provided there are no cordless phones installed
(these interfere with wireless network signals, along with
microwave ovens and your neighbor’s higher-powered setup).
All things considered, though, we recommend a wired network if
there’s any way at all of doing it. The influx of wireless
routers and network cards into the markerplace has driven the
cost of their wired counterparts to near-giveaway status. At the
big chain stores, you could easily spend more on CAT 5 cables
than the hardware itself, but you can get around this by
Wireless network technology will likely someday achieve
cost-effective status, enabling small office and home users to
forego wired connections with no performance penalty, but that
day remains (Summer, 2003) in some as yet undefined version of
the future. For now, with wireless networks, we wish you the
best of luck.
Our wireless network uses the well-established 802.11b Ethernet
standard, the equipment for which is being rapidly displaced on
dealer shelves by the newer 802.11g. Although considerably
faster, with a theoretical limit of up to 54 Mbps, it utilizes
the same 2.2 GHz radio frequency as the 11b standard, making it
subject to the same limitations with regard to connectivity. For
favorable (unobstructed) environments, it should certainly be
better, especially for local network traffic. For multi-room
applications, though, we’d expect to encounter the same set of
problems as above.
D-Link Wireless Router /
4 port 10-100 Ethernet Switch DI-614+
D-Link Wireless Network Interface Card (PC Card model) DWL-650+
Toshiba Laptop Celeron 1.1 GHz 256 MB RAM XP Home
Comcast Broadband Internet
Existing three station wired LAN
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