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Introduction to Wi-Fi ®

Most people associate the term "Wi-Fi" with the ability to browse the Internet wirelessly. Though this definition isn't technically incorrect, there is so much more to Wi-Fi wireless technology than just browsing the Internet. Ten years ago, no one would have thought that it would be possible to listen to music from your basement computer on your entertainment system upstairs, or download songs to your Wi-Fi-enabled MP3 player, but Wi-Fi technology has made it possible to do not only these, but a host of other applications as well.

Computer streamingWith Wi-Fi, you can wirelessly stream photos, videos, and music from your computer to your compatible TV, Blu-ray player, and other devices.

What is Wi-Fi?

Short for "wireless fidelity", Wi-Fi is one of the most popular wireless communication standards on the market. Wi-Fi is technically a trademarked brand name for the wireless standard owned by the Wi-Fi Alliance, much like Bluetooth® is trademarked by the Bluetooth Special Interest Group. In its fledgling stages, Wi-Fi technology was almost solely used to wirelessly connect laptop computers to the Internet via local area networks (LANs), but thanks to the immense flexibility the technology provides, that's no longer the case. Wi-Fi technology is now found in a host of non-computer electronic devices as well, such as home theater receivers, video game consoles, Blu-ray players, digital cameras, and even GPS devices.

Wireless Standards
The official name for the specification is IEEE 802.11, and it is comprised of more than 20 different standards, each of which is denoted by a letter appended to the end of the name. The most familiar standards are 802.11b and 802.11g (Wireless B and G) which are used in the majority of commercial Wi-Fi devices. Both of these standards operate in the 2.4 GHz band, and the only major difference between the two is the transfer rate (see chart below).

Some consumer electronics, however, use a different standard — Wireless A. These devices operate within the 5 GHz range and have transfer rates equivalent to 802.11g. However, since they operate on different frequencies, devices using the 802.11a standard cannot communicate with B and G-enabled devices.

The newest standard, dubbed 802.11n, was designed to replace all three of the previous standards. It's up to five times faster than 802.11g, with a range almost twice as far. It also adds multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) technology, which uses multiple antennas to increase data transfer rates. The 802.11n standard was drafted to allow up to four channel configurations with potential speeds up to 600 Mb/sec. It's becoming increasingly popular for its high speeds, which allow for smoother audio and video streaming among devices.

Comparison of standards
The table below provides a brief overview of the four most popular current 802.11 standards.

Standard Frequency Data Transfer Rate Typical (Max) Range (indoor)
802.11a 3.7/5 GHz 20 (54) Mb/sec about 35 m (115 ft)
802.11b 2.4 GHz 5.5 (11) Mb/sec 38 m (125 ft)
802.11g 2.4 GHz 22 (54) Mb/sec 38 m (125 ft)
802.11n 2.4/5 GHz 110+ (300+) Mb/sec 70m (230ft)

Advantages of Wi-Fi

Now that we've covered the basics of the technology, let's check out some of the advantages Wi-Fi has over its wireless (and wired) competition.

Unparalleled mobility and flexibility
If you've ever installed a multi-room stereo and had to run wires through a wall, you know the amount of time and effort it requires, not to mention the permanence of your installation. If you want to move the receiver to another room, the wiring has to be completely redone, and the holes patched.

Thanks to Wi-Fi, users are no longer confined by the cords that link their devices, enabling new levels of connectivity without sacrificing function or design options. Products like network music players use Wi-Fi technology to wirelessly stream your music to speakers located throughout your house. Some systems are different than others, but typically you can listen to the same, or different music in each room, play music from your computer or other devices attached to the network, and even listen to Internet radio.

Quick, easy setup
Setting up a wireless network may sound like a daunting task, but it's actually a pretty straightforward process. Wi-Fi networks don't require professional installation, and, best of all, there are no holes to drill or wires to run through walls. Many new routers are "plug-and-play," meaning you just connect them to a power outlet, plug in an Ethernet cord, and voilà — your network has been created. Unfortunately, wireless security doesn't automatically configure itself, so it's important to remember to enable it via a personal computer once a connection to the wireless network has been established. (We'll touch on this topic more in-depth in the limitations section.)

Fast data transfer rates
With transfer speeds around 150 megabits (Mb) per second (18.75 megabytes), 802.11n is currently the fastest commercially available Wi-Fi protocol on the market. It's more than capable of handling the demands of streaming high-definition TV signals, as well as CD-quality audio.

For information about the kinds of services you can stream through your TV, check out our article on Enjoying the Internet on your TV.

Limitations of Wi-Fi

So far we've covered some of the advantages offered by Wi-Fi wireless technology, but there are some limitations that must be addressed as well. Security and interference are the main issues with current Wi-Fi standards.

Security concerns
Though typically very easy to set up, securing your Wi-Fi network requires a bit more effort. Wi-Fi access points do not come with encryption straight out of the box; you have to do it from your computer once the network is up and running. An unsecured wireless network is susceptible to attacks from hackers, potentially giving them access to all of the information stored by the devices on your network. In addition, "friendly," yet unauthorized computers will also be able to connect to your network, occupying the bandwidth and hindering overall network performance.

Interference from other devices
Wi-Fi transmissions take place primarily within the 2.4 GHz spectrum, making them susceptible to interference from Bluetooth® wireless enabled devices, cordless telephones, microwave ovens, baby monitors, and other household devices. The farther your Wi-Fi devices are located from these known interferences — and the closer they are to one another — the more robust your signal will be, so keep that in mind during setup.

If you live in an apartment complex or in close proximity to your neighbors, their wireless network can also be a source of interference. Some newer routers automatically select the channel with the least amount of interference, ensuring that you get the best possible connection.

Securing your Wi-Fi network

The best choice for wireless network encryption is currently Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA2). Most newer access points support WPA2 encryption, and it can be configured once your network has been set up. For more security tips, check out our article on creating a home network.

Bluetooth® wireless technology, on the other hand, has security built in, and it automatically requires devices to enter a passkey in order to connect to the network. See our introduction to Bluetooth for more information on how Bluetooth works.

Current Wi-Fi Applications

As Wi-Fi-enabled devices have become more and more popular, wired devices are quickly becoming a thing of the past. Check out some of the new ways that Wi-Fi is being used below.

Apple® AirPlay®
One of Apple's latest technologies is AirPlay — a proprietary wireless media streaming system for use with devices that use iTunes® 10 (such as a computer or iPhone®) and a variety of compatible audio and video components. AirPlay lets you stream music, photos, and video stored on your computer, iPad®, iPhone, or iPod touch® to your receiver or TV via Apple's Apple TV. You can also stream music to any AirPlay-enabled device, like a speaker or receiver.

Imagine watching a TV show that you bought on your iPad streamed through your TV's big screen. Or listening to PANDORA® Internet radio on an AirPlay-compatible speaker in another room in your home, streamed through your iPhone. And let's not forget how great your tunes will sound when you stream them through your home theater system, using your iPod touch as a remote.

To find out more about AirPlay, check out Ralph's blog post.

Whole-house connectivity
You can do a variety of things over Wi-Fi that you might not expect. For example, you can listen to music in multiple rooms in your home on wireless speakers; print documents anywhere in your house with a wireless printer; and update your Wi-Fi-enabled digital photo frame without even hooking up a camera or memory card. Plus, the possibilities are continuing to grow.

We carry an assortment of Wi-Fi products to get you started. Keep a look out for more offerings as Wi-Fi becomes even more popular. Wires? They're so passé.

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