Installing a Wireless Network Adapter – Introduction

More and more people are setting up wireless networks in their homes and in order to make use of this all of your PCs and laptops will need to have a wireless network adapter fitted.

Connecting to the proliferation of public hotspots also requires that your laptop has a wireless network adapter but if your laptop is an older model you will need to add this function yourself.

Many desktop PCs will not come with wireless adapters fitted as standard although most these days will have an ‘on-board’ Ethernet LAN adapter fitted.

Adding wireless network capabilities to a desktop PC or laptop is extremely easy to do although if you want to add this function internally to a desktop PC with a PCI card it will take just a little more time and effort.

Installing a Wireless Network Adapter – Wireless Standards

Generally the faster the better here, common standards for wireless networks today are as follows:

• 802.11a – 54Mbits/second at 5GHz operating frequency

• 802.11b – 11Mbits/second at 2.4GHz operating frequency

• 802.11g – 54Mbits/second at 2.4GHz operating frequency

• 802.11n – Up to 300Mbits/second at 2.4GHz operation

If you are starting your network from new you should only concern yourself with the 802.11g and 802.11n standards really.

All of the above standards are generally compatible with each other with the exception of 802.11a which runs at a different frequency to the others and cannot communicate with them (note that there are variants of the 802.11n that run at both 2.4GHz and 5GHz so look very closely at the manufacturers specifications when selecting your router and adapters – if possible stick with the same manufacturer).

If you have devices with wireless adaptors that use the old 802.11b standard then 802.11g routers and some 802.11n routers are generally backwards compatible with these older 802.11b models.

The 802.11n routers are theoretically capable of up to 300 Mbits/second data transfer rates but in practice you will be lucky to reach anywhere near this transfer rate!

Typical maximums will be up to say 150 Mbits/s.

For all standards the achievable data transfer speed will typically be up to one half the manufacturers stated speed at best.

For across network transfer rates, your slowest device will dictate the transfer speed so, if for instance you have a laptop with an 802.11b adapter fitted which only operates at 11Mbits/s maximum then this is all you will achieve even if your router is capable of working much faster.

As we said earlier, distances, barriers such as floors and walls, interference from cordless phones and microwave ovens etc will all act to slow down your wireless network speed – and note that a wireless network will throttle back the transfer speed as your wireless signal strength decreases! 

Installing a Wireless Network Adapter – Choosing an Interface

A general recommendation when adding wireless network adapters to your PC or laptop is to try and buy your adapters from the same manufacturer as your home wireless router – that way you will be assured of compatibility and probably achieve a little better performance.

So what’s on offer here?

Wireless adapters fall into one of three categories for interfaces. You will be selecting from PCMCIA (also referred to as CardBus), USB and PCI types.

Of these three, PCI is for desktop PCs only as the PCI card needs to be installed internally to your PC case in one of the motherboard PCI slots which is not an option for laptop users.

So, laptop users will choose from either the CardBus or USB options and desktop users can choose any of the three available options.

Let’s explore the pros and cons of the alternative offerings here.

Opting for a USB wireless network adapter type is probably the easiest to install as they just plug in to a spare USB port and pretty much away you go but you will need to ensure that your laptop has the correct spec USB ports for your adapter. 

Prior to 2001 USB ports on laptops were to the USB 1.1 standard and this only supports transfer speeds of up to 12 MBits/s. You should check to see that your laptop or desktop PC supports the latest USB 2.0 standard.

Note that a USB 2.0 PCI card can easily be added to your desktop PC if you wish to add this function to your PC.

The CardBus or PCMCIA type adapter is solely for laptop use and fits into the laptop 32-bit PC Card slot on the side of your laptop. Make sure that this is the 32-bit standard and not the older (pre 1996) 16-bit standard. 

For laptops, the CardBus adapter has to be the best choice as it fits neatly and securely into the case with just a small portion protruding from the edge of your laptop which contains the aerial part of the device. 

A PCI type wireless network adapter, as discussed earlier is designed to fit into one of your spare PCI card slots in your desktop PC.

The beauty of this choice for a desktop PC over the USB type is that you have the option to use either the supplied antenna or you can purchase an antenna with an extension cable so that you can place the antenna on your desktop or remotely at an elevated position thereby improving reception and extending your wireless signal range. 

Installing a Wireless Network Adapter – Software

From a software point of view all of the above options are quick and very easy to install.

Windows XP, Vista and Windows 7 all have built in support for wireless networks and setup and configuration should be a snap!

Check that you have Service Pack 2 and preferably Service Pack 3 installed if you are a Windows XP user.

‘How to obtain the latest Windows XP Service Packs’

For Vista users check that you have Service Pack 1 installed.

‘How to obtain the latest Windows Vista Service Pack’

Windows Service Packs contain important security updates which make Windows Networking easier and more secure.