Mac Daniel's Advice

Extreme Networking: Why 802.11g Is for You

Dan Knight - 2004.09.20

By any name - and manufacturers have come up with a host of them - 802.11g wireless networking has become the de facto standard. Not only is 802.11g nearly five times as fast as 802.11b, it brings new technology to the mix that allows larger networks and more robust connections.

AirPort, Apple's name for 802.11b hardware, used a simple model. You had a wireless hub that allowed Macs with AirPort cards (or PCs with 802.11b cards) to network without wires at roughly half the speed of 10Base-T ethernet. The hub itself could be a dedicated piece of hardware, or it could be a computer with an 802.11b card set up to share it's network connection. (Both Macs and Windows PCs can do that.)

The 802.11g protocol was designed to offer superior throughput (faster), reduce interference due to signal reflection (more robust connections), and allow the use of repeaters to carry a connection further than a single hub could.

The Pieces of an 802.11g Network

You're going to run into a lot of terms when you put together a wireless network, and there are several ways to create a wireless network. We'll start with the most common terms and hardware.

Wireless Router

A router (sometimes called a gateway) lets you create a network connected to another network. A router acts as a bridge or gateway between the Internet and your network, and in most setups it will automatically assign IP addresses to your machines.

Most wireless routers have one WAN (wide area network) port for connecting your cable or DSL modem and several ethernet ports for a wired network in addition to supporting wireless networking.

A router is an intelligent device that may handle several different protocols. Most important is TCP/IP, the language of the Internet, but if you use older Apple hardware or older networked printers, you will want to be sure your router support AppleTalk. Apple, Asante, and Belkin are three brands that provide that support (there are others as well). USRobotics is one of many brands that doesn't support AppleTalk (most don't), as I learned after buying one.

A computer, either Mac or PC, with a wireless adapter or access point can also act as a router. If that's the case, you'll want to choose a computer that's always on - or at least one that's going to be on when you want to use other devices on your wireless network.

Wireless Adapter

Most computers will connect to an 802.11g network using a PC Card. Apple's newer hardware has a dedicated slot for their own AirPort Extreme cards, and PCI cards exist for connecting desktop computers to a wireless network.

Access Point

The third class of wireless networking hardware is the access point, which can be one of several things - and many access points support more than one of these functions:

  • repeater or range extender that creates a bigger network
  • ethernet-to-wireless adapter that lets you use wireless devices on an existing network that already has a router
  • wireless-to-ethernet or wireless-to-USB adapter that lets you connect a computer, printer, Playstation 2, or other device to your wireless network
  • a bridge between two networks

Some routers can act as access points. Be sure you know how you intend to use your router and/or access point before you buy so you'll be sure to get hardware that supports your needs.

With the right access point, I'll be able to connect my ancient Macs (the ones that have ethernet ports but no PCI or USB) to the Internet without running cable. That's cool.

Getting Better All the Time

There was a 2 Mbps wireless protocol in use before the 11 Mbps 802.11b protocol became popular, and 54 Mbps 802.11g has pretty much superseded 802.11b for reasons mentioned earlier.

Now we have a host of companies selling "high speed" or "turbo" 802.11g hardware that claims significant performance improvements, some using numbers that would lead you to believe they are twice as fast as "regular" 802.11g. But are they?

Various real world throughput tests measure 802.11g show an improvement of 25-35% for these accelerated protocols, and accelerated 802.11g hardware from one vendor may not offer accelerated performance with another brand. If you do want to use turbo or high speed hardware, play it safe and stick with the same brand for all of your hardware unless you're happy with plain old 802.11g speed.

If you are happy with 802.11g performance, bear in mind that it interoperates wonderfully with the accelerated brands, so don't avoid a good deal just because you don't currently have a turbo card for your computer. That said, because the accelerated hardware is more marketable, you can often find great deals on plain 802.11g hardware.

Choosing a Router

My preference is to use a wireless router on my network, one that supports both ethernet and wireless networking. Most routers today include three or four 10/100 switched ports, which means you can have 3 or 4 computers connected using ethernet in addition to your wireless machines.

Some routers let you connect a printer so you can share it over your network. Some have a serial port so you can connect a modem that will take over if your DSL or cable connection goes down. Most do neither.

I've used several brands of hardware over the years, and I'm very pleased with Belkin's support for AppleTalk, since I use a lot of older Macs on my network. (We take the "low end" in our name seriously. I'm writing this on a 400 MHz TiBook, and we have several older, slower computers on our network.)

Performance and Value

At this point, the only Mac with 802.11g hardware is my son's 12" PowerBook G4, and it's with him at college, so the only wireless computers on our network at present use 802.11b. For what we do over wireless, which is mostly using the Internet, that's plenty fast. Our Comcast connection is about 1.5 Mbps, so 802.11b is more than we need.

But for moving files over the network - especially if you do network backup - the extra speed of 802.11g makes a big difference. I'm sure my next PowerBook will support it. And I know that I'd rather invest in a wireless card than ever run ethernet cabling from our network closet to some other part of the house.

Best of all, because the hardware is becoming so affordable (I just ordered a Belkin 802.11g wireless router for $50 before a $20 mail-in rebate!), it's easy to have one wireless router at home, one at the apartment, one in the dorm room, one at work, one to take on trips, one to give to the folks or in-laws so you can connect when you visit.

You get the idea. At today's prices, there's almost no reason not to go wireless. LEM

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