Before you can unplug and play with a WiFi network, you have to set up your wireless gear. And, despite recent improvements, it's not quite a simple and safe path yet on the PC, as we found while testing new WiFi access points from D-Link, Linksys, Netgear and Microsoft.
All four devices sell for less than $140; two are under $100. They include firewalls to stop online break-in attempts and double as Ethernet routers, which means that any PCs in the same room as an access point can share an ultra-fast wired connection while the access point broadcasts a WiFi signal to elsewhere in the house.
Their biggest improvement, however, consists of replacing cumbersome network-setup screens with only slightly confusing installation wizards that configure an access point in minutes. (Apple's pricier AirPort, by contrast, has offered a simple setup for years.)
But although these four WiFi devices all did fine with the core job of distributing an Internet connection throughout a house, they left plenty of ways for things to go awry.
D-Link's Enhanced 2.4-GHz Router DI-614+, $99, doesn't even need an installation CD-ROM. Plug the boxy device into your PC's Ethernet point, open a Web browser and type in the access point's Internet protocol address to run its embedded installer routine, which copies the necessary network settings over for you. The access point can be managed with Macs and Linux machines as well as those running Windows.
The only confusing installation moment came when the manual indicated we'd have to enter some configuration information that the access point had already found on its own.
If all of the PCs in your house use the right model of D-Link hardware, the access point supports the company's faster "AirPlus" modification of WiFi. We saw transfer speeds maybe a third faster than normal WiFi using this proprietary technology, which alone may make D-Link an appealing choice among techies -- if, that is, their machines don't already include WiFi receivers from other vendors.
Microsoft's Wireless Base Station MN-500 ($139, Win 98 or newer) was almost as simple to set up. Its CD installation software detected our setup quickly and correctly. But it needs a live broadband connection to do this. Otherwise, you have to puzzle through things "by hand" in Microsoft's Base Station Management Tool software. Microsoft provides a full, printed manual rather than an electronic copy, plus the option of saving your new wireless network's settings to a floppy disk to save time later on -- but only floppy, not USB key chain, e-mail, CD-R or any other medium. So if your laptop lacks a floppy drive this will be of limited use.
The Linksys EtherFast Wireless AP + Cable/DSL Router (Win 95 or newer, $130) can be set up in two ways. If your broadband connection is up, a CD-based install wizard will sniff out its settings for you. Otherwise, the setup guide shows where you need to click in Windows 95 through Millennium Edition, 2000 and XP. It's not pretty, but it's well explained and it won't leave you hanging.
Netgear's Cable/DSL Wireless Router MR814, $70, allows the same no-software setup as D-Link, but an install assistant supplements it, and a helpful printed guide to Internet service providers comes in the box. Netgear's setup tools are comprehensive but busy, trying to explain too many things at once. But the overall friendliness of this setup makes it the best pick for a beginner.
Once you have a WiFi network up, you should also guard it against snooping. But many WiFi kits neglect to turn on WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) encryption, which, although flawed and sometimes a drain on performance, is better than nothing. Of the four we tried, only Microsoft starts with WEP enabled.
Microsoft is right and the other vendors are wrong; there's no excuse for companies to ship their WiFi equipment with WEP inactive. D-Link gets some credit for offering a stronger, 256-bit level of WEP encryption -- but you have to turn it on yourself, a step that most people (to judge from the immense number of open access points we routinely see around town) won't do on their own.
Setting up an access point at the center of a wireless network is, unfortunately, only half the point. You still need to get other machines on the network and then get them sharing files and access to your printer. And that's where WiFi gear for Windows lets the user down.
The problem isn't adding a WiFi receiver to each PC -- you just stick a PC Card into a laptop or plug an adapter into a desktop's USB port. Nor is sharing Internet access difficult; most WiFi receivers will log on without a problem.
But file and printer sharing under Windows remains a maze of mysterious settings buried in different parts of the system, all of which must be set just so. Microsoft hasn't made a network as simple to set up as, say, a printer, and none of the manuals, Microsoft's included, contain a first-rate guide to configuring your first network. That's a shame, because for most home users, a WiFi system will be their first network.