It’s the time of year that a lot of people buy computer equipment, and wireless networking is one of the things people look for. But what things should be on the shopping list?
I was hoping you’d ask that question.Compatibility with what you already have, if possible. Routers are available that speak 802.11a, 802.11b, and 802.11g, or all three. If you already have some wireless equipment, look for something that can speak its language.
Cordless phone interference. 2.4 GHz cordless phones will interfere with 802.11b and 802.11g. 802.11a works at a different frequency, but it might be cheaper to replace your 2.4 GHz phone with a 900 MHz phone.
Speed. 802.11a and 802.11g operate at 54 Mbps, which is considerably nicer than 802.11b’s 11 Mbps, although both are much faster than current U.S. broadband connections, which tend to top out around 3 Mbps. If you move a lot of files around, you’ll appreciate the 54 Mbps speed. If your primary use of wireless is sharing an Internet connection and a printer or two, 802.11b is probably fast enough, and it’s usually cheaper, with the downside of shorter life expectancy.
802.11g is currently the most popular standard, because it gives 54 Mbps speed and offers compatibility with existing 802.11b equipment. Use this information as you will. If you’re of the security by obscurity mindset, 802.11a is a better choice, as a wardriver is more likely to be driving around with an 802.11b or 802.11g card. If you want to make sure your buddies can hook up when they come over, or you can hook up at your buddies’ places, 802.11g is the better choice.
Brand. Match the brands of router and cards, if at all possible. This makes configuration and security much simpler.
WPA. The encryption used by older standards is relatively weak. You want to enable 128-bit WEP (256-bit WEP is better but still not as good as WPA), change the SSID and disable SSID broadcast, and hard-code your MAC addresses so that only your cards can use your router. This protects you from someone driving around your neighborhood with a laptop and using your Internet connection to send out spam or transfer illicit material that can be traced back to you. Do you want the RIAA suing you because someone used your Internet connection to download 400 gigs’ worth of boy-band MP3s off Kazaa? Worse yet, if that happens, word might get out that you like that stuff.
WPA adds another layer of protection on top of these (which are standard issue by now). Rather than the security key being fixed, it’s dynamically generated from trillions of possibilities. Sufficient CPU power to crack WPA and either monitor your transmissions or use your access point might someday exist, but for now it gives the best protection available, so you should get it and use it. This USRobotics whitepaper on security ought to be a must-read.
Built-in firewall with port forwarding. This is a standard feature on all brand-name units and ought to be on the off brands as well, but it doesn’t hurt to double check. Hardware firewalls are far superior to software firewalls–they don’t annoy you with popups and they can’t be disabled by a malicious process. Port forwarding is necessary for a lot of games, and also if you want to run your own mail or web server.
Hackability. By this I don’t mean the ability of an outsider to get in, I mean your ability to add capability to it. The Linksys WRT54G is based on Linux, so it has a big following with an underground community adding capabilities to it all the time. If you want to take advantage of this, look for a WRT54G or another device with a similar following.