The lay of the LAN

Before you jump into wireless, make sure you pick the right equipment for the job.

Because physical structures can eat up wireless signals, the layout of your home or office -- the placement of walls, hallways and doors -- counts for everything. If you ignore the floor plan, you may end up with a network that fails to reach every nook and cranny.

Break out the blueprints
First, size up your location. We know Wi-Fi works best for large spaces and 802.11a for high-throughput applications, while Bluetooth simply requires devices to be in close proximity. You could use just one Wi-Fi access point, centrally located, to cover a 20,000-square-foot workspace. It could also cover a typical one- or two-story home and the outdoor property around it. A single 802.11a access point could cover a modest house or apartment. Remember, wireless networks range vertically as well as horizontally -- depending on the building's construction, you may be able to cover as much as a floor above and below the access point or router. Still, various physical and technical obstacles may require you to place networking devices strategically or add extras to compensate for problems. Every wall and ceiling is a potential barrier to radio signals of any kind. Plaster walls are the easiest to go through, although older construction (which includes wood, lathe, metal screens and plaster) can eat up signals. Steel and stone are the worst wall materials (the signal barely trickles through), while glass acts like a reflector, bouncing back the signal. The only solution is to place the access points to avoid walls and dead ends. Sometimes the best technique is trial and error -- testing a device in a variety of locations for the best reception.

Choosing the right gear
In most environments, you'll need three different types of equipment. Check out our side-by-side comparison of the different types of kit.

Wireless networking equipment

Pros Cons Approximate cost: 802.11b / a

Router/gateway combines Ethernet router and access point in one small box devices can't be mixed and matched to get best of breed £100 / n/a
Access point powerful central radio for setting up wireless LAN expensive; involved setup; sometimes hard to optimise location £100 / £150
PC Card small, power-efficient radio for notebooks puts extra power drain on battery-operated equipment; takes up a PC Card slot £50 / £75
CompactFlash card very small; for use in handhelds and cellphones limited range; expensive; drains battery £60 / n/a
USB adapter desktop or notebook device that connects via USB port; signal can be optimised with a boom antenna bandwidth often too low for high-speed LANs £50 / n/a
Buetooth connects to desktop PC via internal card slot, but radio is stuck behind the computer PC must be opened to install; some products require a PC Card to operate £50 / £100