Wireless Hardware Essentials

Updated: June 02, 2007

Of course it's never quite that easy, and the devil, as they say, is in the details. Here's a comprehensive list of all the wireless hardware you'll need - including upgrade items you might want to add to your basic Wifi set-up. Some, like wireless switches, and high-gain antennas, are essential for improving network operations. Others, like wireless print servers, add productivity-enhancing capabilities. And some like wireless multimedia receivers, are just for fun.

In most of the following categories we've singled out one outstanding product, but you'll find equally compelling hardware for sale from competing vendors, so be sure to shop around before you buy.

Gateways: Wireless Broadband Routers with Modems

These routers make a broadband connection with your ISP and put it out over the air so local network wireless users can access it. The Wireless-G Cable Gateway Cable Modem with Built-In Wireless-G Router from Linksys is a good example. It's an all-in-one solution for Internet connectivity - a cable modem, Internet-sharing router, switch, and access point in one box. The built-in wireless-g access point allows up to 32 wireless devices to connect to your network at 54Mbps without running cables through the office. It's also compatible with wireless-b devices, at 11Mbps. And, as is true for most wireless routers, it includes an SPI firewall and wireless security features to protect your PCs, your data, and your identity. Price: $117-$160.

Wireless Routers

These units are very similar to the wireless routers with modems discussed above, but with one critical difference: They don't include a modem. If you buy one of these you'll need to buy a separate broadband modem to connect between your ISP and your router. Buffalo's Wireless-G MIMO240 Broadband Router (WZR-G240) is typical: Its MIMO (Multiple In, Multiple Out) technology claims up to 10X faster throughput than standard 802.11g. Price: $122.

Travel Routers

There may come a time when you're on the road or just across town, and need to share your wireless connection with co-workers or customers. 3Com's OfficeConnect Wireless 54Mbps 11g Travel Router is no bigger than a pack of cards, yet the lightweight, portable device lets you share secure, high-speed Internet access wherever a broadband connection is available. Up to 16 wireless users can connect to the travel router. With its internal antenna, compact form, and convenient carry case, it also transports easily. Price: $48-$83.

Dual-Band Routers

With three different flavors of IEEE's 802.11 wireless standard in general use, how do you decide which one your router should support? Netgear's Double 108 Mbps Wireless Firewall Router solves the problem by serving two simultaneous 108 Mbps networks to ensure the highest speeds and the best quality of service no matter what flavor of client adapter users have in their computers. In addition to a 108 Mbps wireless-b/g network, users can access a wireless-a network as well. The "fast lane" 802.11a network is ideal for applications that demand the highest bandwidth, including high quality video streaming and VoIP applications. In addition, new XR technology allows the Double 108 to deliver greater range and reliability than standard wireless-g. Price: $46.

VoIP Routers

Many companies are turning to VoIP technology to cut phone bills by using the internet to place calls. The only catch is that VoIP requires high-performance, high-bandwidth throughput to avoid voice break-up and other undesirable telephony events. SMC Networks' Barricade g VOICE ADSL Router combines an ADSL wireless router with a Voice Over IP gateway, giving you an integrated voice and data office network in one box. You can share your ADSL Internet connection with local PCs through a built-in four-port Ethernet hub, or make wireless connections via a 54 Mbps access point. Plus you can plug in a telephone and save money by using the fully featured VoIP gateway. Price: $130-$162.

Cordless Internet Telephony Kits

If your office uses Skype, Linksys' Cordless Dual-Mode Internet Telephony Kit (CIT300) is aimed at you. It comes with the handset, charger and a USB Base Station that plugs directly into your computer. Dual-mode capability lets you choose whether to make calls over a standard telephone line or with the Skype application running on your PC. Just select who you want to talk to from your contact list on your handset, press a button, and get ready to talk. Price: $82-$95.

Wifi Phones

Netgear's SPH101 Wifi Phone is the world's first wireless Internet phone that allows you to make free Internet phone calls to anywhere in the world, anytime you have Wifi access - without a PC. You need to be signed up with Skype, but then up to 200 of your contacts will show up right on the phone's color display so you'll know exactly who is online. You can even make calls to ordinary phones using SkypeOut for pennies a minute and no monthly fees. With Netgear's Wifi Phone, mobile wireless Internet telephony has just gotten a lot more like making a phone call. Price: $230-$260.

Wireless Access Points

You can expect to get an effective 100-foot radius of indoor service from a single wireless router, and 300 feet outdoors, where there are fewer obstacles to interfere with the radio waves. If you want to expand the service area of your wireless network beyond that, you need to deploy additional wireless access points. Usually these repeaters are connected with your main router by standard Ethernet cables, but sometimes they use wireless connections. 3Com's Wireless 7760 Dual-Radio 11a/b/g PoE Access Point (3CRWE776075) is a cost-effective dual-band, Power over Ethernet (PoE) solution. Providing ultra-fast speeds, this access point supports a total of up to 128 wireless users. Price: $195-$210.

Client Adapters

In order to get on the wireless network, every client computer needs an adapter. You'll find a huge variety on the market, in four different flavors of IEEE's 802.11 wireless standard. Some client adapters, designed for desktop computers, may require an expansion board or a free USB connector. Others, designed for laptops, usually slide into the PCMCIA slot. Some work on one single band, others work on dual bands. The good news is that client adapters are not particularly expensive - $50 should do it - and many new laptops come with a client adapter already built-in. We won't attempt to single out an example since there are so many variables.

Wireless Print Servers

Need to make a network printer available, but don't want to bothered running cables or associating it with one particular computer? A wireless print server like SMC's EZ Connect Wireless Print Server (SMCWPS-G) offers a simple way to network your printer via its USB port. It supports both Ad-Hoc mode (point-to-point wireless networking) and Infrastructure mode (using your existing wireless access point) which makes it an ideal network printing solution for home offices, classrooms and other businesses. Configuration is a breeze with an easy-to-use Web-based interface and a variety of remote management utilities. Price: $94.

Range Expanders (antenna stands, high-gain antennas, outdoor antennas, antenna cables, etc)

Wireless networking is based on the same radio-frequency (RF) technology that used to keep you jiggling your rabbit-ears TV antenna to get a better picture. That means if you want maximum range and enhanced performance from your wireless network, you need to deploy the best antennas you can, and place them as carefully as possible. Almost every wireless vendor sells a variety of high-gain antennas designed to optimize 802.11 connectivity in a range of environments. Options include special outdoor antennas, bi-directional and omni-directional antennas, panel antennas, antenna stands, high-performance antenna cables, and so on. This might seem like flim-flummery, but the fact is your network is only as good as your antenna system.

Wireless Bridges

Bridges allow you to connect two or more separate networks into one. Wireless LAN bridges link wired and wireless networks together and save you money by eliminating cable installation expenses and monthly T1/EI line costs. Products range from inexpensive indoor workgroup bridges to high-priced outdoor building-to-building bridges. For instance, 3Com's 11a 54 Mbps Wireless LAN Outdoor Building-to-Building Bridge and 11b/g Access Point (3CRWEASYA73) is a rugged, high-speed outdoor bridge with an integrated antenna that transmits data at 108 Mbps over secure wireless links. Power-over-Ethernet (PoE) support provides installation flexibility. Price: $1,488 - $1,613.

Bluetooth Adapters

In order to connect to Bluetooth-enabled wireless LANs, printers, PDAs and cell phones, you'll need a Bluetooth adapter. Most, like Meritline's USB Bluetooth V2.0 + EDR Adapter , are extremely inexpensive (usually under $20) and are just the thing for uploading ringtones to your Bluetooth phone, or downloading images and videos via the wireless network. They are also handy if you want to use a Bluetooth earpiece for VoIP phone calls.

12-Volt Power Over Ethernet (PoE) Adapter Kits

Once upon a time, wireless hardware (routers, access points) needed to be plugged into a power outlet via a 12-volt adapter. This could make deployment problematic. Now, thanks to PoE, many wireless access points get their electrical power over the same Ethernet cable that provides the data. For instance, Linksys' 12-Volt Power Over Ethernet (PoE) Adapter Kit (WAPPOE12) lets you put your access point almost anywhere, removing the need for a nearby power outlet. The Adapter Kit is a two-piece set. An "injector" sends power and data over one cable to your access point, where a tiny "splitter" separates the network data and DC power back into two cables and delivers them to the access point. Price: $54.

Wireless Game Adapters

Cutting-edge game boxes are designed to take advantage of the Internet in various ways, including multi-player gaming. Until recently you had to cable the game console into the network. Now wireless game adapters like Linksys' 54 MBPS Wireless Game Adapter (WGA54G) are basically wireless Ethernet bridges. The WGA54G attaches to a game console's Ethernet port, allowing two or more units to be used to link game consoles even without a wireless router. An external switch allows users to easily select between Internet and Ad-Hoc modes. Price: $107.

Wireless IP Cameras

Need to keep an eye on things without the hassle of spinning a web of Ethernet cables? The latest addition to D-Link's family of SECURICAM wireless IP cameras is the DDCS-6620G Wireless G 10x Optical Zoom Internet Camera. Featuring 802.11g wireless connectivity, motorized pan and tilt, and a 10x optical zoom lens that delivers the level of detail necessary to identify people, license plate numbers, and other important details, it provides an excellent remote monitoring solution for your security needs. Price: $644 - $870.

Wireless Audio Receivers

Increasingly, users are demanding the ability to play music from their computers' hard disks, or streaming off the internet, through wireless devices distributed across the network. This can be particularly desirable in a commercial Wifi installation such as a coffee shop or internet café. SMC Networks' EZ Stream 802.11g Wireless Audio Adapter is just one of a variety of hardware devices that do the job. The EZ-Stream features a large, flip-up display and an infrared remote control for selecting the audio tracks or Internet music station you want. In addition, support for RHAPSODY Digital Music Server (US Only) gives you access to an ever-growing collection of album and song tracks. Price: $104 - $171.

Wireless Multimedia Receivers

If listening to audio over the wireless network isn't enough for you, Linksys' Wireless-B Media Adapter allows you to display your digital photographs on a TV screen and play digital music and audio streams - all without running cables through the shop. A remote control interfaces with user-friendly menus on your TV to let you browse through the digital pictures on your computer by folder, file name, or thumbnail. The Media Adapter supports JPG, GIF, TIF and BMP formats. Price: $72-$77.

Ethernet Amplifiers and Power Injectors

These handy units, like SMC's 2.4GHz 1-Watt Power Over Ethernet Amplifier , increase signal strength and operating distance over your entire suite of access points, bridges, and high gain antennas, and support all long-range applications. These amplifiers make it easier to extend your wireless coverage without sacrificing throughput or bandwidth. Price: $722.

Lightning Protectors

Most wireless networks still use some cabling, and the more cables you string, especially outside, the greater your vulnerability to a potentially catastrophic lightning strike. Lightning protectors, like EliteConnect's Wireless High Gain Antenna Accessory Lightning Protector , protect you from losing the entire network in a single high-voltage accident. EliteConnect's device employs gas discharge tube technology featuring wide-band operation at up to 2.4GHz. This unit is ideal for IEEE 802.11b/g LAN applications, and can be used with or without amplification to maximize your systems performance at greater distance. Price: $57.

Wireless LAN Switches and Controllers

A network switch bridges multiple network segments. Unlike a hub, which also bridges network segments, a switch isolates different ports. Each incoming packet is sent out only to the port on which its target may be found. (Of course, this assumes that the proper port can be found; if it is not, then the switch will send the packet to all ports except the one from which the request originated.) Since the switch intelligently sends packets where they need to go, the performance of the network can be greatly increased compared to using a hub.

The larger and more complicated your wireless network grows, the likelier you are to need one or more wireless switches to keep traffic flowing productively. Large companies like Cisco and 3Com can provide the hardware you need. For instance, 3Com's Wireless LAN Mobility System provides all the components IT managers need to deploy a manageable, scalable, seamlessly secure wireless network that equals a wired network. 3Com's Wireless LAN Controller WX2200 is a scalable, secure, controller for use with a layer 2 switch for large deployments. It comes configured to support 24 Managed Access Points (MAPs) and is expandable in increments of 24 MAPS to support up to a total of 120 MAPs. Price: $7,520.

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