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Hitting the Road with Wi-Fi

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Envious of those people checking their e-mail at Starbucks? Armed with the information in this sample chapter and a WiFi-capable laptop, you'll be able to connect to the internet on the go as well. Harold Davis explains the ins and outs of connecting wirelessly to commercial networks, and provides pointers on where to find these "WiFi hotspots."
This chapter is from the book

In this chapter

  • Introducing Wi-Fi PC Cards
  • Finding a Wi-Fi hotspot
  • Paying for your Wi-Fi access
  • Connecting at Starbucks

One thing that is great fun to do with Wi-Fi is to connect to the Internet from a remote location such as a hotel lobby or a coffee shop. If you are on a business trip, this kind of wireless connection is not only fun and convenient, but it can help you be more productive by using your time more efficiently. The ability to connect via wireless on the road lets you pick up email, and surf for information, when you need it—on your own time.

The good news is that there is no great trick to connecting remotely via Wi-Fi.

This chapter shows you how to hit the road with Wi-Fi, even if the road is only your nearby Borders bookstore or Starbucks latte emporium!

I won't go into too many gory details at this point because I can't do everything at once, but don't worry if things don't seem quite as simple to you as they are made out to be in this chapter. There's plenty of more in-depth material later on in this book, and in this chapter I'll point you to the right place to find more detailed information on the topics covered.

The Equipment You Need

The answer to the question, "What equipment do you need to hit the road and connect?" is: not much.

Obviously, you need a mobile computing device such as a laptop, or possibly a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA). Most likely, you'll be using a laptop computer.

See Chapter 6, "Buying a Wi-Fi PDA," and Chapter 10, "Tools for the Perfect Road Warrior," for more information about using Wi-Fi with PDAs.

If your laptop features integrated Wi-Fi, such as Windows machines based upon Intel's Centrino technology or an Apple PowerBook with AirPort Extreme technology, you are home free because you've already got the necessary hardware.

You'll find more information about mobile computers that come with integrated Wi-Fi wireless technology in Chapter 5, "Buying a Wi-Fi Laptop."

Laptops that do not feature integrated Wi-Fi need a way to use Wi-Fi. Probably the most common mechanism is to add a card, called a PC card, like the one shown in Figure 3.1, to your laptop so it can connect to a wireless network.

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Another good approach is to use a USB Wi-Fi adapter with your laptop, particularly if you don't have a free slot for a PC Card. This kind of device just slips into a USB port on your laptop. For more information about using a USB Wi-Fi device with desktop or laptop computers, see Chapter 8, "Adding Wi-Fi to a Mobile Computer," and Chapter 9, "Wi-Fi on Your Desktop."

Figure 3.1Figure 3.1 A Wi-Fi PC Card is the most common way to connect your computer to the Internet without wires.

PC Cards are more technically known as PCMCIA cards. PCMCIA is short for Personal Computer Memory Card International Association, which is the name of the organization that has devised the standard for cards that can be added to laptops. These cards were originally designed to add additional memory to laptops. They've come to be used for many other things as well, not the least of which is to connect to Wi-Fi wireless networks.

If you look at the PC Card shown in Figure 3.1, you'll see that one end is actually an antenna (on the left side). In some models of cards, this antenna actually can be extended, and may even resemble the old-fashioned "rabbit ears" antenna sometimes used with old television sets. This antenna is used for the transmission and reception of Wi-Fi signals.

The side of the PC Card away from the antenna slides into a laptop (as shown in Figure 3.2).

Figure 3.2Figure 3.2 A Wi-Fi PC Card sliding into the expansion slot of a laptop.

The slot that the PC Card fits into on the laptop is sometimes called an expansion slot.

With the Wi-Fi card in an expansion slot, you'll need to be sure that the right software to make it work is loaded, and the software is set up properly. If you are running Windows XP (or Mac OS X), this will probably happen automatically.

You'll find more information about installing and configuring a Wi-Fi card's software in Chapter 8.

You will have to "tune" your Wi-Fi card to the network broadcasting the Wi-Fi signal, just as you have to tune a radio to a station to get reception. The network is identified by something analogous to call letters, called its service set identifier (SSID).

There's no equipment you need in addition to a charged-up laptop with integrated Wi-Fi, or a Wi-Fi expansion card. You do need to find out where to connect using Wi-Fi. I'll show you some ways to find this information next.

Much of the time, you'll also need to pay for your access. Any major credit card will do. I'll tell you how this works in the section "Payment Packages," which is located later in this chapter.

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