Your side of a Wi-Fi hotspot

The equipment you use to connect to a WiFi hotspot is VERY important.

Believe it or not, your equipment – computer / adapter / operating system / drivers – is just as important as the hotspot’s equipment in making the Internet connection work. It’s a two-way radio. The hotspot’s Access Points, antennas, and amplifiers are one side of the equation. Your computer, WiFi adapter, antenna, and controlling software is the other side.

Let me use an analogy to the cell phone world. I remember when I was first researching cell phone service providers, I would ask everyone I knew, “How do you like your service from XYZ company?” I was very surprised when one woman answered me, “My service is lousy – lots of places, even at home, I have no signal at all and, where I do have signal I’m constantly getting dropped. However my son shares the same service and loves it. His signal is always strong and he never gets dropped. The only difference is that he has a different phone!” I can now attest to this from personal experience. Jim and I share the same phone service. He sits on one side of our motorhome and I’m on the other. My phone has 1 bar of signal and his has 4. I can’t make calls without plugging into the external antenna – he can. Our phones are even from the same manufacturer, but his is a newer model.

It’s the same thing with WiFi and your computer except that it’s more complicated. Cell phones are built to do one thing – make calls. Connecting to a WiFi hotspot is only one of hundreds of functions built into computers. The more you know about this stuff, the more amazed you are when it DOES work! Let’s take a look at each part of your equipment that is involved.

802.11b/g Wireless Adapter and antenna: This is the single most critical element of your system for connecting to a WiFi hotspot. There are several types of adapters: 1) built-in to the computer, 2) PC Card adapter, 3) USB adapter, 4) Ethernet bridge adapter. Your antenna may be part of the adapter itself, or you may have a separate antenna. Built in adapters rarely have enough power or positioning capablility to connect to a hotspot unless it’s within 100 ft. Cards may be more powerful, but it can be so important to orient them towards the hotspot’s access point, and the only way to do that is to move your whole computer. USB adapters are the recommended solution. They are usually rated for a distance of 3-400 feet and, since they’re on a wire, you can orient them for the best signal, even stick them out a window. Remember ‘rabbit ear’ antennas on TVs? Same thing – orientation is critical. The ethernet bridge adapters with an external antenna are the most powerful, but they cost more, and you need more technical expertise to set them up. We have been successful with this type of adapter in connecting to an Access Point over 700 feet away.

Computer: The newer the better. WiFi has only been in existence since about 2001, and it has only become popular in the last year (2004) or so. Computer manufacturers are now paying attention to WiFi capabilities. A year ago they weren’t. So, odds are, if your computer was built after January 2004 it should be pretty good. After January 2005 is even better. If it was built in 2001 it’s not going to work very well, if at all. We have seen 5 year old computers connect successfully to a WiFi hotspot – but I wouldn’t want to use it because it was so slow.

USB Port: If you use a USB adapter, you should know that the USB ports changed in late 2003. The older 1.1 version should only be used with 1.1 USB adapters. The 2.0 adapters claim to be downward compatible with USB 1.1 ports, but don’t believe it. We have seen a USB 2.0 adapter plugged into a USB 1.1 port and be able to connect to a WiFi hotspot, but it was deadly slow and kept dropping the signal. Plug a 1.1 adapter into the 1.1 port and it worked fine. And the 2.0 adapter worked great when plugged into a 2.0 port.

Operating System: Windows XP and Macintosh OS X understand WiFi and have built-in facilities for managing wireless networks and adapters. Anything other than those 2 operating systems and you will have less than optimum performance. Windows 98 is usually OK, as long as it is Second Edition. Windows 98 (not Second Edition) was not meant to support USB ports. And Windows ME just doesn’t do anything very well!

Device Drivers: These are the little software programs that control or ‘drive’ your hardware components. Device drivers are made by the same company that makes the device. So, if you have a Linksys USB adapter, you will need to install the Linksys device driver. If the driver that came with your device (on the CD in the box) is more than 6 months old, you may want to go to the manufacturer’s website and see if there is a newer one you can download. I’ve been very surprised to see the difference in performance after upgrading the drivers.

Viruses and Spyware: Although this isn’t a piece of equipment, it does refer to the condition of your equipment. Having viruses and spyware on your system is like having sugar in your gas tank. Nothing works well. Make sure to keep your system clean and up to date.

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