How It Works: Networking

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by Dustin Sklavos

Here we are at the belated part ten of the “How it Works” series. We’ve come a long way, but we’re not done yet. While we’ve covered most of the major components in the notebook — including a couple you may not have even been aware of — there’s still a couple stops left to make on this journey. This particular stop is one I’ve been dreading even more than the last one: networking.

The fact is that networking on computers in general is oftentimes the kind of hell that you would want to punish your misbehaving child with. While Microsoft has made steps forward with each new incarnation of its Windows operating system towards making networking easier to setup and run — and Windows 7 promises only to continue that trend — networking is still capable of being an enormous chore.

Anecdotally, I used to work in a local county IT department when I was in junior college. The IT professionals I worked with really know their stuff. They know hardware and they know how to code. That said, I spoke to someone with more experience with wireless networking than me and we both arrived at the same conclusion: you can do everything right and still have problems with wireless. It’s the nature of the beast.

The good news for anyone reading this is that I’m not going to talk about how to set up a network — wireless or otherwise. I am going to talk about the hardware that facilitates it, and at least hopefully point you in the direction of hardware that will make networking at least marginally easier.

HOW IT WORKS: NETWORKING
Pretty much every modern notebook and netbook comes equipped with a wireless networking adaptor and a wired networking jack … and Bluetooth is materializing more and more frequently today. I want to focus more on the essential networking and less on Bluetooth, which handles peripherals more than actual computer-to-computer or computer-to-internet communication.

The nice thing about networking is that standards are for the most part kept in line and fairly simple. The really nice thing is that, when purchasing a notebook, this isn’t something you even have to actually concern yourself with (Bluetooth notwithstanding). Outside of 802.11a wireless (to be discussed later), subsequent wireless versions are backwards compatible with one another.

Now, as far as technical details are concerned, this article will be a bit more spare than the other ones, offering only the details you need to understand why your wireless connection keeps dropping.

I should point out that a term you’re often going to hear associated with networking is “LAN,” which means Local Area Network. Its wireless equivalent is the creatively named “WLAN,” and if you can’t figure out that the “W” stands for “wirless” you may want to stop reading now. Another term worth throwing out there is “PAN,” or Personal Area Network, which is used for technology like Bluetooth and refers to the peripherals (mice, speakers, keyboards, etc.) you’ve networked together.

It’s also important to mention that all these networking standards run at all kinds of different speeds, but devices only operate at the speed of the slowest device they’re connected to. If your router isn’t gigabit but your Ethernet jack can operate at that speed, your connection will run at the highest speed the router supports. Likewise, if your wireless adaptor supports wireless-n but your router only goes up to wireless-g, the adaptor will only run in “g” mode while connected to that router.

And finally, since this is often your internet connection, you should know that if you have a good, solid connection to the network (particularly if you’re wired), your machine will seldom if ever throttle the speed of your internet connection. Since all of these standards are measured in Mbps, you should know that even the slowest standard in modern use, wireless-b, runs at 11Mbps at full speed. Few if any internet connections can saturate that much bandwidth.

ETHERNET: WIRED NETWORKING
Wired networking currently has three speeds it can operate at: 10Mbps (10 Megabits per second), 100Mbps, and 1000Mbps (or Gigabit as it’s commonly referred to). All of these operate out of the same type of jack, commonly dubbed RJ45. This jack is also called the Ethernet jack. This has been the common interface for broadband internet services for a decade now to connect to cable modems, DSL modems, and the like.

Wired networking is generally preferable to wireless simply because it doesn’t have the same drawbacks that wireless does: interference, interoperating standards, security, and having to deal with other nearby wireless networks. It tends to be much more stable and far less likely to drop connection.

However, just to prove how much of a pain even wired networking can be, getting two computers to talk to each other over this type of network can be a bit of a chore. First, unlike wireless networking, you’ll generally need a router or network hub to connect the two. This is because of the way the cables themselves are designed, however you can buy something called a “crossover cable” to directly link two computers. This is without getting into workgroups and the other nonsense you may have to go through to get the computers talking and sharing files.

Still, if your laptop is going to be stationary or you just need the best connection you can get, a wired connection is the way to go.

WI-FI: WIRELESS NETWORKING
Wireless networking has essentially four standards: 802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g, and 802.11n, and these standards materialized in that order. 802.11a has largely fallen out of favor, at least with consumers, and “b” and “g” are not backwards compatible with it while “n” is. In the process you may hear about networking products that offer “Super G” or “MIMO” and so on; “Super G” is utterly irrelevant while “MIMO” just means “multiple-input multiple-output,” essentially ganging connections to form one faster connection.

The speeds these standards operate at are as follows: wireless-a operates at 54Mbps, wireless-b operates at 11Mbps, wireless-g operates at 54Mbps, and wireless-n operates at 300Mbps. Wireless-b was able to supplant the much faster “a” in the market due to having generally better wireless range while being less expensive. That said, while the “b” and “g” networking standards operate in the 2.4GHz radio bandwidth range, “a” operates in the 5GHz range, and “n” can operate in either one. The 5GHz range tends to be less cluttered, reducing interference from other networks and from household devices.

When you purchase a notebook, it usually tells you which of these wireless standards the notebook supports. Wireless-n still isn’t a ratified standard, but with even Intel jumping on board and offering it standard in their current generation wireless hardware, it might as well be treated as such.

Security is a major issue with wireless networking, and most manufacturers ship their routers secured now. While I don’t want to get into how to secure your wireless network (a subject for another article), I feel compelled to mention that public, unsecured networks are good for general websurfing but strongly ill-advised for handling any kind of important or sensitive material, and may open your computer to unwanted intrusion if it’s not at least password-secured. I’ve seen people check their bank accounts on these networks and honestly, I wouldn’t advise it. All it takes is one well-informed but morally flexible geek on the network to make your life a hell.

The other consistent issue I’ve found with wireless networking is the general lack of stability. In the building I presently live in, which is a nest of townhouses rife with wireless networks, a wireless connection can be unstable. This can be remedied somewhat by carefully choosing which channel your router is set to broadcast on, but it’s a problem that most of you are going to have to deal with at some point. Wireless connections can be and often are flaky, especially on larger, public (and unsecured) networks.

If you want to mitigate these issues, consider standardizing on wireless-n in your home and using the 5GHz range instead of 2.4GHz. Wireless-n isn’t overwhelmingly common yet, and is less prone to interference.

Finally, it’s worth noting that wireless networking can substantially reduce your battery life. Though modern wireless cards (especially Intel’s) can mitigate this greatly, it still requires power to operate, especially if you’re constantly downloading and uploading large amounts of data. If you’re not using your wireless while operating on the battery, every laptop comes with a method (either a physical switch or a Fn key combination) to disable it. This will actually physically disable the wireless card and prevent it from drawing power. Windows Vista also offers you a way to control the amount of power your wireless consumes in the “Power Options,” but keep in mind that if you set the power management to be too aggressive, it can impede your wireless performance to the point where you may not even be able to connect.

BLUETOOTH
Bluetooth is much more common for the folks that use it to connect their headsets to their phones, but Bluetooth and the proper software can be used to connect all kinds of stuff to your computer. My last laptop had internal Bluetooth that I’d switch on to use a wireless Bluetooth mouse – no dongle required! Likewise, if you have the software from your phone’s manufacturer, you can theoretically use your computer to connect to your phone and manage your phonebook, ringtones, and so on.

Bluetooth toggles on and off in laptops the same way regular Wi-Fi does, and has multiple standards with version numbers; newer versions are backwards compatible. There’s also EDR, or Enhanced Data Rate, and this is common in internal laptop Bluetooth modules. Ultimately, however, Bluetooth is best used for these peripheral purposes and not for networking computers. Its range can be somewhat limited, and bandwidth tops out at just 3Mbps.

I’ve found in my experience that Bluetooth peripherals tend to be a bit more reliable and responsive than standard wireless peripherals (keyboards and mice). This is purely anecdotal and can be taken with a grain of salt, but I’ve found my Bluetooth mouse to often provide better range and performance than the standard RF wireless mouse I use with my desktop (which starts having fits when the receiver is more than four inches away).

Experience with Bluetooth power consumption can be hard to find on the internet, but I’ve found that even with an external USB Bluetooth adaptor plugged into my laptop, it really doesn’t draw a whole lot, generally less than conventional Wi-Fi.

CONCLUSION
First, as far as brands go, laptops with Intel processors almost always have Intel wireless hardware, and to me that’s a good thing. I’m often disappointed Intel’s wireless isn’t available in desktops as I’ve had such consistently good experiences with them. If a laptop is marketed as a Centrino or Centrino 2, you can be certain that the wireless is Intel. And if you’re custom ordering a machine, it may be in your best interests to fork out the (usually) ten extra bucks to get the Intel.

Other manufacturers of laptop wireless are Broadcom, Atheros, and Ralink, and these are all essentially pretty reliable, though drivers for these can often be much harder to for the do-it-yourself user to track down.

As far as Bluetooth goes, brand isn’t really an issue, and the only question is going to be whether you want it or not. Frankly I’d rather have it, as it’s usually a cheap add-on when ordering a laptop. USB Bluetooth adaptors are also pretty inexpensive (I got mine for $15).

In all this, I’m sure I’ve probably filled you with the same kind of unspeakable dread I often experience having to deal with setting up and troubleshooting networks. The truth is that for you, the consumer, manufacturers have come a long way towards making these things at least a little easier, oftentimes having simple wizards you can walk through to set up your wireless network. Likewise, these different standards and so on can often be considered essentially minutiae for what you’re going to do with your laptop. The wired Ethernet jack certainly isn’t likely to vanish from modern laptops anytime soon, as wireless still doesn’t offer enough to warrant its disappearance. If you want to operate as stress-free as possible and you own one of those ten pound behemoths (or are looking to buy one), wired networking may offer the piece of mind you’re looking for.

But clearly wireless isn’t so bad that no one’s using it.

COMING UP: PERIPHERALS
Our next stop is one down an easier street when I discuss peripherals and specifically all the crap you can plug into all those ports on your shiny new laptop. Ever wonder what a FireWire port is supposed to do? Curious about eSATA? All this and more, next time!


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