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The untethered office

Now that you’ve got a home office, maybe it’s time to get rid of all those cords and wires. Here’s how to set yourself free.

Wireless computing is everywhere. You can’t wait for a plane, get a cup of coffee at Starbucks, or browse for books at Borders without walking through a wireless hot spot that affords your laptop or handheld access to the Internet. But it wasn’t until a few months ago that I realized just how deeply wireless communications had penetrated. I was installing a hundred-dollar Microsoft wireless point in a home on a quiet blue-collar suburban street at the time. The fact that I had the job wasn’t the telling part, though. When I came to the last stage, configuring a laptop and Orinoco card to use the network, I found a choice of four wireless networks to tap into–the one I’d set up, and three in neighbors’ houses. Now that’s penetration.

But time stands still for no technology. When one class of products gets popular enough, things change. And sure enough, in June, the nonprofit Wi-Fi Alliance ratified a newer and faster standard for wireless networking, 802.11g. Though it operates in the same 2.4GHz band as the established wireless networking standard, 802.11b, the new “g” standard is almost five times faster, with a realistic range of 15 to 20Mbps next to the “b” list of 4 to 6. And because they operate in the same frequency band, the latest 802.11g devices can network with the older 802.11b devices. There’s a third standard, 802.11a, that really cranks, but it runs on a different frequency, so it’s not compatible with the other standards.

So if you’re ready to jump into wireless networking, you have two basic choices: Save a few bucks with 802.11b devices or cast an eye to the future with 802.11g-compliant hardware. Laptops equipped with either standard will work at wireless “hot spots” at airports and coffee shops, which operate on the “b” standard; but in networks with 802.11g access points, “g”-compliant laptops will traffic on the network a lot faster.

Wireless broadband router

Lots of people manufacture old-school 802.11b broadband routers–Linksys and Microsoft make two popular solutions in the EtherFast Wireless-B Access Point and Wireless Base Station, both of which retail for less than a hundred bucks. They plug into your broadband modem, and sport four RJ-45 sockets to support a wired network. But 802.11g is the emerging standard, and the Buffalo AirStation G54 wireless broadband router is the one to watch. It will network well with other 802.11b and g devices, with a maximum indoor range of 330 feet (though with wireless networks, the nearer you are to the base station, the faster your network will be). You plug it into your broadband modem, and fill up to four Ethernet jacks on the router to start a wired network. It delivers pretty close to the maximum speeds you’d expect from a wireless network, and has a solid implementation of wired equivalency security. Add to this a generous two-year warranty with exchange options, and you have a compelling router to look out for. The company has a complementary line of PC Card adapters for notebooks.

Wireless PC card adapter

An access point does not a network make. For each access point, you’ll need to purchase several wireless network adapters. Cards abound from Orinoco, Intel, Motorola, and the ever-present Microsoft, but to get the best from a 802.11g access points, you’ll need a “g”-rated card. The D-Link DWL-G650 AirPlus Xtreme G wireless cardbus adapter is just such a beast. It’s a breezy card to install and use, with a sound utility to view connection status and signal strength. The DWL-G650 requires Windows 98 SE or later, and takes up one Type II PC Card slot on your notebook. It comes with a three-year warranty.

Multistandard wireless access point

Even though 802.11g is faster than “b,” it’s still a slug compared to the real high-performance, high-cost standard 802.11a. If you’re serving a mixed environment with some “a”-list wireless notebooks, the three-standard Linksys WRT55AG is the access point to get. It’s pricey–$300, or $170 for a non-router version WAP55AG–but delivers outstanding performance for a, b, and g-protocol wireless networks. Add a $100 WPC55AG A+G wireless PC Card to your laptop, and you have an outstanding network at home and something that works fine at Starbucks, McDonald’s and the airport too.

Wireless handheld (Palm division)

Handheld computers fall into two camps, and their wireless capabilities are not likely to win either side over to the other. So maybe Palm’s Tungsten C won’t convert a diehard Pocket PC fan, but it comes close. The $500 device integrates 802.11 into a slick 400Mhz beauty with a built-in keyboard and 64MB of RAM. It browses the Internet wonderfully, and using Palm VersaMail 2.5, handles e-mail like a champ, even with multiple accounts. It even includes a Virtual Private Networking client program from Mergic to access company LANs using secure, encrypted, and authenticated connections (even in a Starbucks T-Mobile hot spot). Sure, some pages take more than 30 seconds to load, but for a handheld, this is none too shabby.

Wireless handheld (Pocket PC division)

In the PocketPC handheld camp, the iPAQ H5550 is the gold standard for wirelessness. It integrates 802.11b and the cellphone connectivity standard Bluetooth, so it can connect to a wireless network, cellphone, headset, or PC with equal ease. And swapping files between Bluetooth enabled devices is absurdly easy, even when wirelessly connected to the Internet. It’s a hefty piece of work with a hefty price tag–not surprisingly, given its 128MB of RAM and biometric security measures–but for a big-budget technolust list, it’s the tops.

Wireless presentation device

802.11b isn’t just a networking protocol. In Linksys’s hands, it’s also a way to make presentations without dragging ugly cables across a school lab or boardroom. Of their two wireless presentation devices, the WPG12 Wireless Presentation Player is the most flexible. It allows 802.11b-compatible computers with permission to display whatever’s on their screens using any data projector with a VGA connector. In collaborative settings, different PCs can take over the data projector at different times without the typical ugly switching or cable-swapping hassles. And the real flexibility comes from its built-in player and storage, so it can go through slideshows without needing a PCĂ‘using an infrared wireless remote, of course.

Wireless input devices

The earliest cable-free computing devices came way before Wi-Fi, and they are still evolving today. Back in the 1980s and ’90s, the peskiest cables of all were attached to the mouse and keyboard. Radio and radio-frequency wireless input devices have been the rage ever since. Typically, the de facto kings of the input device, Logitech, has developed the most elegant products in the area. The Logitech Cordless MX Duo combines a rechargeable cordless optical mouse, the MX700, with a battery-operated Cordless Elite Keyboard in a single package. Both use Fast RF technology that can cope with the fastest sweeps and most delicate nudges.

Wireless updates

Of course, in an area that moves this fast, no single list of products can ever hope to be current. The site to watch for updates is the Wi-Fi Alliance’s. The organization certifies products that meet its specs (including, naturally, the mighty 802.11g), so browse the About Wi-Fi tab to reveal all currently certified products–including access points, clients, embedded wireless technology, and print servers. And just to be cool about it, make sure you visit the site from your local Starbucks.

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