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Netgear Wireless Network 8/10

The Netgear Wireless kit consists of a Netgear ME102 AP access point, which can plug into your wired network hub and a Netgear MA401 PC Card, which plugs into your laptop. They use the 802.11b wireless interface, better known as Wi-Fi. Consequently you can use other Wi-Fi compatable network gear with them, such as those popping up as standard on most notebooks.

Setting up both devices takes about thirty minutes. You need to connect the access point to your server (or any other one in fact) via a USB cable, to configure it. You then configure the encryption key and other features. There are two types of encryption key. 64 bit encryption requires four 2 digit numbers and 128 bit encryption requires sixteen 2 digit numbers. You have to write down these numbers and keep it secret. You then need to enter them into the configuration of any wireless network devices you wish to connect to your network (like the PC Card). If you don't care about people snooping on your network, you can turn off encryption! Once it is configured you can unplug the USB cable and put the transmitter where you want. The access point is a lot cheaper than most other Wi-Fi access points, since it does not have as many management and roaming features. For a small wireless network, however, such missing features won't be a problem at all. However, people wishing to set up large wireless networking may need to purchase a more expensive access point.

Setting up the PCMICA card is just as easy. Just plug it into your laptop and Windows recognises it. Then configure the network settings and the encryption settings and you are ready to go. A small icon appears in your laptop's taskbar. When it light up green, the connection is very good, when it is red the signal is not as good. There is also a green light on the card itself to indicate a link.

Clicking on the icon opens up a utility which gives more accurate details of the links. There are two bars which indicate link quality (in %) and signal strength (in %). There is also a label which indicates the speed of the link. Even when the link quality is quite weak maybe a few per cent you regularly get an 11 Mbps link. If the connection is very weak, however, this will be reduced to 5.5 Mbps or even 1 Mbps. When setting up the wireless network, you have to find the best position for the access point and the PC Card. By moving a combination of moving about the access point and the PC Card (whilst checking the transmission meter), you can get 11 Mbps signal going through a concrete wall and then a further ten metres (the signal did get reduced to 10% but I still managed to get an 11 Mbps connection)! In some cases simply changing the direction of your PC Card may result in a connection. Strangely I found placing the access point near the ceiling seemed to yield the best results, possibly because near the ceiling there are not many barriers to block the signal. The best way to set it the network is to have one person moving a the access point and another at the PC, communicating by walkie-talkie.

Before I used this kit I was sceptical that it would work through walls, or anywhere very far away. The Wi-Fi protocol uses electromagnetic radio waves to send and receive signals, and a small safety note comes with this kit to point this out. However, it also says that the signals are far weaker than those generated by mobile phones. Also the safety note recommends that you keep your body at least 20 cm away from the antenna on either the PC Card or access point. A PCI wireless card is also available from Netgear, if you want to connect your desktop to a wireless network.

In short this kit makes a good introduction to the world of wireless networking. At 11 Mbps it is quick enough to transfer large files and surf the net. At around £300 it is not as cheap as a faster wired network offering 10/100 or 1000 Mbps, but it does offer you the freedom to roam about your house or office without tripping over wires. It makes a good addition to a wired network.