Whether you’re on the road or on the move within your own home, wireless internet connections are essential.
But that doesn’t mean they always work as intended - or that it’s easy to understand what to do when something goes wrong. That’s why knowing how to configure and troubleshoot wireless internet connections is vital. Here are some rules for the road.
Pick the right network
In urban areas, it’s common to find multiple wireless networks to choose from. On Windows systems, you’ll find the list of available networks by right-clicking the wireless network icon in the system tray. Each network is listed by its SSD (service set identifier) name, which is selected by the owner of the network.
Just because you see multiple networks - or access points - available does not mean that they’re all actually open for you to use. Before selecting one, allow your mouse cursor to hover over each wireless network name.
When you do, a balloon will provide you with more information about the network, including whether it is secured by WEP, WPA, or another security protocol. If it is secured, there’s no point in selecting it, unless you know the password.
If it is unsecured, you may be able to use it to connect to the internet. It doesn’t hurt to try. But you still might have to pay a fee to get anywhere online.
This occurs frequently in airports, for example, which often team up with service providers to offer internet access in terminals. When you actually attempt to use this service, you’re taken to a web page on which you must pay a fee for use.
In other public places, either look for free, unsecured wireless connection or talk to the company that provides the access to find out logon details.
Signal strength vs speed
When selecting among available wireless connections, you’ll see an indication of both their speed and their signal strength. Prefer signal strength over speed, since a steady, strong connection is better than a fast one that drops out periodically.
It’s a good idea to monitor the signal strength of your current wireless connection from time to time. To do this within Windows, click the Wireless Network Connection icon in the system tray.
The Status window opens, showing you both your system’s connection speed and signal strength. If signal strength is low, try moving around a bit to see whether you can get a better signal.
If you have persistent problems with signal strength, either try a different wireless connection or consider moving your wireless router, if possible, or switching out the router altogether for one with better signal strength.
Maximize your connection
There are multiple wireless connectivity standards out there.
Among the alphabet soup of signals are 802.11b, 801.11g, and 802.11n.
By far the most prevalent today is 802.11g, which offers speeds up to 54Mbps (megabits per second). 802.11n offers speeds up to 300Mbps, rivaling even wired networks, but these are still less common.
Matching your desktop or notebook’s speed to the speed of the available wireless networks in your area is usually not critically important, since the faster wireless standards and adapters are generally backward-compatible with the slower ones.
But that’s not always the case. Because it will always behoove you to choose the fastest wireless connection when several are available, you should know the type of adapter you have in your notebook or desktop. The last thing you want is a wireless connection that doesn’t work because your internal adapter is 802.11g while you’re trying to connect to an 802.11n-only wireless network.
Also understand that if your notebook is currently saddled with a relatively slow internal wireless adapter - such as an 802.11b model - you do not necessarily have to put up with the slower speeds until you get a new machine.
There are plenty of add-on adapters available. Both USB and PCMCIA models can give your old notebook new life with 802.11g or even 802.11n compatibility. Check your favourite computer retailer - either locally or online - to see the wide range of add-on wireless adapters that are available. 802.11n USB adapters are in the 50- dollar range, while 802.11g models generally run for half that price.
Restore dead connections
If your wireless connection goes dead, or if you see a red X in the Windows system tray where your active wireless icon should be, there are several steps you can take to troubleshoot the problem.
First, make sure your notebook computer’s power management scheme is not set up to turn off your wireless adapter in order to conserve power.
Visit your notebook’s Power Management settings - often found in the Windows Control Panel - and check to see which components of the computer are set to be shut down during periods of inactivity. If you find your wireless adapter is being shut down and it is not waking up properly from sleep mode, try leaving it on all the time.
A wireless adapter that does not wake up properly from a sleep state, however, most likely has a driver issue. Check with the manufacturer of your notebook or your wireless adapter to see whether an updated driver is available.
Use a better operating system
Connecting to the nearest available wireless network should be a simple affair, but too often it’s not. It’s much simpler, however, with more recent versions of Windows - Vista and especially Windows 7 - than it is with XP and older versions.
If you’re still working with an old version of Windows, consider upgrading. You’ll get better driver support and more guidance when a wireless network is nearby. In the end, what you really want out of a wireless network is trouble-free performance. Better operating systems get you closer to that goal.