If you want to network your Windows 9x PCs or notebooks, but don't want to string network cables through your walls, wireless networks offer a tidy alternative. Though less expandable and slower than cables, they work within a radius of about 150 feet through walls, ceilings, and floors, so you can sit on the deck with your notebook and get files from your desktop, or send files to a printer in your home office. Add Internet-sharing software, and you can even surf the Internet.
To install a wireless network, you'll need an ISA or, better, a PCI wireless network card for each desktop, and a PC Card for each notebook. You can buy the necessary components separately or in kits, which usually handle two PCs or one PC and one notebook. Wireless networks are a bit more expensive than wired networks; prepare to pay US$100 to $150 per PC.
Most wireless networks operate at the leisurely speed of 1 to 2 mbps. Although that's much slower than the 10M- or 100M-bps speeds of wired networks, it's still good for casual use and for going online.
The steps involved in installing a wireless network vary by manufacturer, but here's an overview of the process for both desktops and notebooks.
Plan network device placement. Consider the range limits of your wireless network connections as you decide where to place each desktop PC. Specifically, make sure that the PCs with resources that you want to share, such as a printer or an Internet connection, are within range of the desktop PCs that need to access those resources.
If you include a notebook in your wireless network, make sure that the notebook will always be within range of one of its network peers whenever you want to use the network.
Buy the right network adapters. You'll need one add-in card for each desktop PC and one PC Card for each notebook. For the desktops, use PCI cards if they're available and your PC has a free PCI slot. PCI cards offer the easiest and most reliable Plug and Play setup.
Unlike wired networks, which let you mix and match add-in cards and PC Cards from different manufacturers, wireless networks need matched cards from the same manufacturer.
Install the wireless add-in card. Turn off your PC and unplug it from the wall.
I recommend you wear an anti-static wrist strap (available from electronics stores such as Radio Shack) to prevent static damage to your PC. Locate a free PCI or ISA slot (depending upon which type of card you purchased), and remove the metal cover at the rear of the slot.
Carefully insert the wireless card, seating it securely in the slot, and fasten it with a screw. Depending on how the slots are oriented in your computer, you may want to turn its chassis on its side so you can push down while inserting the card.
If your wireless network card uses an external antenna (like the Proxim Symphony card shown here), connect the antenna to the rear of the card, and place the antenna on a nonmetallic surface as high as possible for maximum range.
Install the wireless PC Card. Procedures for installing a wireless PC Card in a notebook vary by manufacturer, but in general you simply power down your notebook, insert the card into a free PC Card slot, and attach a small antenna.
Read your own card's or kit's setup manual.
Install the driver. Plug your PC back in and turn it on. With both desktop and notebook PCs, Windows 9x should automatically detect the network card and ask you to locate the software for it. Read the on-screen directions carefully, since the exact procedure depends on which version of Windows you're running.
Your wireless network cards should come with drivers on a floppy disk or CD-ROM. At some point, you'll be asked to insert your original Windows 9x CD-ROM.
Depending on the brand of wireless network add-in cards or PC Cards you're using, you may be asked to enter other information, including a unique network name for the PC or notebook. Some setups enter this information for you automatically.
You'll need to restart your PC when prompted (sometimes more than once).
Install additional software. Beyond the basic driver installation, you may need to tweak the Windows networking settings and install any additional software (such as Internet-sharing software) that comes with your wireless network.
Check to see that file and printer sharing is enabled (select Start*Settings*Control Panel*Network, and click the File and Print Sharing button). If your setup software didn't help you select the drives or folders to share with other network users, double-click My Computer, right-click the drive or folder to share, select Sharing, click the Sharing tab, and fill in the correct blanks.
If a PC on your wireless network will use a printer elsewhere on the network (and the installation software hasn't set this up), double-click My Computer, open Printers, click Add Printers, and follow the on-screen directions. Don't know the path to the network printer? Click the Browse button.
Test your wireless network. Test your new network by connecting to each PC's drives and printers from the other network peers. If you purchased Internet sharing software, try connecting to the Internet and surfing from each PC and notebook.
If the PCs don't recognize each other, double-check the obvious possibilities, such as antenna connections. Also, make sure you really have sharing enabled (reread Step 6). If those steps don't help, go to Start*Settings*Control Panel*System and click the Device Manager tab. If, under Network Adapters, the icon for your new wireless network adapter is shown with an exclamation point next to it, there might be a conflict with another device, preventing the adapter from working properly. Select Start*Help, search for "networks, troubleshooting," and follow the directions.
If the PCs still aren't communicating, it's time to call tech support.
The Top Down
Benefits: Share files, folders, printers and 'Net connections without wires.
Cost: $100 to $150 per PC
Time required: Approximately 30 to 60 minutes per desktop PC, 15 to 30 minutes for a notebookEquipment required: A wireless network add-in card (ISA or PCI) for each desktop PC, a wireless network PC Card for each notebook PC, network drivers, Windows 95/98 CD-ROMExpertise level: IntermediateVendors: 3Com (http://www.3com.com), S3 (http://www.diamondmm.com), Proxim (http://www.proxim.com), WebGear (http://www.webgear.com)(Stan Miastkowski is a contributing editor for PC World.)