Walk on the Wireless Side

May 1st, 2008 Desktop, Tech, Tech Features

The term ‘wireless’ has different connotations. Over the last ten years as we’ve amassed an array of new devices to attach to and communicate with our PC, mobile or both. On the other hand it also means we’ve become entangled in cables. Look behind the desks of most people in the professional world (and to a lesser extent consumers) and you’ll see the same thing — a tangled rainbow of cords.

Apple partly led the way when they attached an ‘i’ to their products in 1998 and blazed back to the forefront of the market. Since then their monitors and desktops have been designed to both run from one power source, which cut at least one fat cable out of the equation. But all the while we’ve been overrun by phone or network cables, iPod cables, phone charger cables, cables to your external hard disk, camera, scanner or multifunction device, projector, between your keyboard and CPU and more — to say nothing of the separate power cables many of those components need.

But more important than the battle to clean up clutter behind our desks and across the floor is the desire to unshackle ourselves from the confines of a cable’s length. In a truly wireless world we could work in the living room, a wireless keyboard on our lap, laser pointer instead of a mouse and the desktop projected onto the home theatre screen, peripherals and accessories hidden away but still in touch.

The other major application of wireless has obviously been that of broadband access and the imperative to free us from not only the wall-based phone or network port, but the bandwidth limitations of systems designed to carry voice communications almost a century ago.

How close are we to a wireless age? Manufacturers have wholeheartedly embraced new standards and given us a head start when it comes to peripherals. What’s more, despite Australia’s shameful record in broadband compared to the rest of the developed world, vendors and network providers are champing at the bit for government and investment action on bringing the country up to speed (pun intended).

The Stock Standard Approach

The first requirement for the local area network (LAN) field was a Babel Fish, a system where devices from different manufacturers could understand each other across our already electromagnetically cluttered airwaves.

Enter the Institute Of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the non-profit body charged with bringing a wireless standard to the world. You might have heard the terms ‘a’, ‘b’, ‘g’ and ‘n’. They refer to successive versions of the 802.11 standard. In non-geek terms that means the IEEE has rolled out versions of a set of rules and conditions for communications in the electromagnetic emission spectrum, the same way TV, radio and human vision works by the lengths and frequencies of waves. If you’re interested, the 802.11 standard operates between 5 and 2.4GHz.

No manufacturer is strictly beholden to use the 802.11 standard, but it’s analogous to the Blu-ray vs HD DVD war. Everyone will use the winning format so their product is compatible with everyone else who uses it — in today’s world mass device connectivity, launching a product that won’t talk to anything else is commercial suicide.

802.11n is the latest standard – mostly ratified by the time you read this — and we’ve already seen products with 802.11n built in. Your old wireless peripherals (modem, multifunction centre etc) shouldn’t stop working, as successive 802.11 standards have a degree of back-compatibility. It might take some firmware or settings tweaks to get different versions talking to each other, and asking before you buy might pay off too.

Keeping the air fair?

Of course, we’ve all heard a lot over the last few years about wireless Internet, not in the local network but delivered to your door over the airwaves. If you have a line coming from a double adapter on your phone port into your computer or router to get online, you might be confused with all the terms, figures and names in the advertising. It can all be a bit daunting, so feel free to skip ahead if you’re already happily surfing wirelessly.

Mobile phone network and handset providers such as 3 and Telstra have been making a lot of noise lately about data networks, including the much-touted third generation network (3G), which can handle a lot of data. You should however keep the term ‘a lot’ in perspective. A casual survey of colleagues tells Desktop the heaviest-duty mobile data signal won’t give you speeds a lot better than garden-variety cable-based ADSL (the 256Kbps-1.5Mbps range).

Wireless Internet cards, of the sort you plug into your laptop’s PCMCIA or Express card slot (more on them later) are a great idea for mobility, but once again you’re restricted to the speed of the network. That means you’re accessing data over the same mobile network most of us make calls on, networks that can be affected by anything from hills and valleys in the local topography to sunspots and the weather.

Even if your signal’s great, 3G (or Next G as it’s sometimes known) is a shared network. If everyone in your street signs up for wireless data over mobile, you’ll share the available bandwidth with all of them. As more users join the new generation networks, speeds will inherently come down.

The more common and relevant wireless Internet set up is that which you deploy at the endpoint of a cabled Internet endpoint such as your home or office ADSL connection. The wireless router then sends the data signals wirelessly between each PC and then between PCs and peripherals if necessary.

As to how well it works, the jury’s still very much out. The latest standard (802.11n) is said to be almost as fast as ADSL 2+. That puts it up as high as 20Mbps — in theory. There are a lot of products on the market only too eager to tell you how easy wireless is, but a lot of things affect a wireless signal in the home or workplace.

The thickness of the walls, the proximity to other devices that emit radiation such as TVs and microwaves all play a part, and not always as expected. When wireless limps half-heartedly through a sparse, thin-walled CBD apartment but charges through the double brick of an older house full of electromagnetically noisy gadgets, there’s often no accounting for its performance. The best approach is to not damage your packaging too much and keep those receipts handy.

Into Thin Air

So you have wireless hooked up, or want to take advantage of it more. Where do you spend your money? A general rule of thumb is that there’s a wireless version of any product that you usually attach by USB or — to a lesser degree — Ethernet cable.

Wireless Cards;

Mobile wireless cards are easy to use. In the case of Bigpond’s 7.2 Mobile card, you simply install the software and plug it in. The connection is made through the little program that lives on your desktop by simply clicking ‘connect’ or ‘disconnect’ at will. Rather than plug into your Express Card slot, the Bigpond card plugs into a spare USB slot, and while it can be unwieldy as it hangs quite loosely out of the slot, it works fine and the packaging promises you’ll be able to get speeds of 7.2Mbps download and 1.9Mbps upload. The Bigpond Wireless broadband plans start at $34.95 a month and go up to $114.95 after a purchase price of $349 for the unit itself.

The 3 NetConnect card is a similar beast except that it connects through your Express Card slot. The fit is much more snug than a USB card, which tends to feel like it’ll fall out at any second, but you can get 3.6Mbps download and the plans cost $29, $49 and $69 per month for 2, 4 or 6Gb of data.

Wireless Modem/Routers;

Some router/hub/switch/router combo models take advantage of both cabled and wireless connectivity. One is the Netcomm NBP6Plus4W. Yes, it could have had a funkier name, but this ADSL 2+ modem has just about everything. There are four ports for cable Internet, but it has 802.11b and 802.11g wireless built in to let you add as many wireless devices as you like. Like some broadband access tools, it has a software-based firewall built in and can handle all the protocols that can allow you to set up VOIP. RRP: $158.40.

D-Link is another big player in local area networking, and a model that shows great promise is the Xtreme N Gaming Router. What does gaming have to do with a design studio? It’s not like designers all stop work at 5pm on Friday to play World of Warcraft or anything… the D-Link Xtreme N has a feature called GameFuel which ensures there’s no lag on the network, a big plus if you do anything like VoIP calls or videoconferencing. It connects via USB or Ethernet cable and has four Ethernet ports as well as being wireless and the casing sports a display so you can check network stats and usage. RRP is $429.

Ethernet Over Power;

Some products allow you to connect a power pack into a standard electrical socket and deliver both electricity and data to your device. It’s a fantastic idea because it cuts down the need for at least one cable, but is tricky to get right depending on several factors including the age of the wiring in your house.

A product like NetComm’s NP200AAV is great to get an Ethernet network up and running around the house with no need to drill new holes, put network ports in every room, or install a hit and miss wireless network system. It’s easy to plug in and set up, requires no special software and as long as your individual environment stacks up, the $299 RRP price tag will be worth the savings in cables and holes in the walls.

Printers;

To make your desk even more cable-free, many of the most used peripherals are coming with wireless capability now, such as the Lexmark X4550 Wireless multifunction centre. It has all the usual functions of a good up-to-the-minute multifunction centre and is a fairly attractive beast although it had a small, old-style black LCD screen which is fiddly after you’re used to the big, colourful LED displays of most multifunction devices. At $199 RRP it’s a good investment to unwire your work area but keep in mind wireless peripheral networking can be as dicey as LAN networking so an in-store test might be in order.

Another is the HP470b mobile printer. At $499 it’s not cheap, but the 2.2kg device can run off a battery as well as an AC power cord and which gets a page per minute rate comparable to it’s fuller-sized peers.

Projectors;

Presenting a PowerPoint slide or the rough of a video file for a client in an unfamiliar hall, office, boardroom or pub wall can be an impromptu opportunity to impress, and the last thing you need is for a lack of cable to let you down. The advantage with wireless projectors is that your source (a PC) is likely to be pretty close to the projector and in clear sight of it, resulting in a minimum of signal interference. The Epson EMP-1815 is a rugged and fully specced device, costing $3999 (RRP) and giving you a very professional profile either cabled or wirelessly.

Skype Phones;

Skype used to be a piece of software you’d have to run with a headset attached to your computer. Crash, and your call was lost. Shut down your computer and you couldn’t make calls. With increasing popularity behind it, Skype has burst free of the PC barrier, and Philips is in on the act with the VOIP841 Internet/DECT phone. It’s attractive and modular, no different than a cordless copper network phone, but you don’t need to be near your PC — or even have it running — to make Skype calls. It retails for $299.95.

Headphones;

Whether you’re playing games when you shouldn’t be, surfing Youtube or just listening to music while you relax, headphones are sometimes your best friend. WA based Force Technology distribute a great range of Bluetooth products and one of their proprietary brands, Sudio, has a great bluetooth headphones model called the Alto. Simply two headphone pads that hook over your ears, they’re joined by a single slender cable and are not only extremely comfortable and light but very easy to set up and use. The sound quality is great at only $69.80 (RRP).

Mouse and keyboard;

The Logitech Cordless MX 5500 Laser is the descendent of the best wireless keyboard/mouse combo Desktop has ever seen, the MX 3200. Even without the lack of wires (it connects via Bluetooth or USB), the keyboard and mouse are packed with so many shortcuts, features and one-touch magic tricks it would be worth the money even if it were plugged in. It retails for $269.95 and is worth every cent.

Dongles;

There are so many accessories around nowadays that use wireless but what if you’re stuck with a daggy old computer that’s absolutely ancient (like 3 years) and doesn’t have wireless built in? The answer is Belkin’s $149.95 N1 MIMO Wireless USB Adapter. Just install the software on your system, plug it in and you can enjoy (as the packaging promises) up to 300Mbps of data transfer rate at a range of up to 200 metres.


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