By Bob Sullivan Technology correspondent
msnbc.com

Home wireless networks can make your home feel a bit like Disneyland, with Web pages and e-mails flying around your kingdom like magic. Consumers thinking about taking the plunge may have noticed electronics stores are filling up with new, next generation wireless devices called “g.” It’s great news for would-be wireless buyers — not because the new stuff is so great, but because the old stuff is so cheap, and it’s still good enough for nearly all home consumer needs.

It's been the consumers' dilemma since the dawn of the PC Age. When to buy? PCs are always getting faster and cheaper, thanks to the perpetual “upgrade cycle” we’ve all come to know so well. Buy that top-of-the-line computer today, and next week you might already be outdated.

But there are times that this upgrade cycle works to the consumers’ advantage — and that’s the case in the wireless space right now. Just like outdated fashions, when the new stuff comes out, the old stuff gets cheap. And in some cases, the expensive new equipment isn’t really any any better than the cheap, tried and true stuff.

That’s the case with new wireless network equipment. The next generation wireless “g” devices work up to five times faster than the older “b” equipment. But in this case, faster isn’t better. Experts agree that most consumers don’t need that extra speed. The reason is simple: Wireless “b” is already much faster than even the fastest Internet connection, so upgrading to the g standard won’t make any difference to those who are spreading their Internet connection wirelessly around the house.

“There isn’t a broadband technology available to consumers that will outrun a wireless-b network,” said Jeff Duntemann, an analyst with Evans Data Corp. and author of “Jeff Duntemann’s Drive-by Wi-Fi Guide”.

The maximum speed of a “b” network is 11 megabits per second, far exceeding even the top speed of a cable modem network, about 1.5 megabits, or DSL, which is about 1 megabits. Wireless “g,” in ideal circumstances, soars up to 55 megabits per second, an impressive pipe that won’t make a bit of difference to Internet surfers.

“If you are going to buy g because you think it’ll make your Internet connection faster, you will be deeply disappointed,” said Nigel Ballard, Director of Wireless for Matrix Networks in Portland, Ore.

Fire sales are on
Of course, retail stores are still pushing the new, more expensive equipment. But they are also offering fire sales now to get rid of the older stuff. That makes now a clear occasion of the upgrade cycle providing opportunity for a savvy consumer. Going wireless now can be dirt cheap.

How cheap? Discount brands of the old-fangled wireless laptop cards can be found for as little as $30, and base stations as little as $40. Even the cheapest next generation devices cost twice as much. Brand-name devices offer similar savings. At Best Buy, for example, the newest Linksys broadcasting devices, called a broadband router, costs $129. The older B devices costs $79.

“The floor has really fallen on b prices,” said analyst John Yunker of Pyramid Research. “Low cost is really driving this technology.”

Intel Corp. did its part to push wireless computing into the mainstream last week, with its “One Unwired Day,” promotion. Over 5,000 wireless Internet locations — such as Starbucks coffee shops or airports — offered their bandwidth for free to laptop users equipped with wireless cards, according to Intel spokesman Mike Buerchner. The promotion included television ads on high-profile programs like “Monday Night Football” and “The West Wing”.

By the end of this year, there will be 10,000 such places around the U.S. where wireless-enabled users can open their laptop and log in for an Internet fix, says Yunker. By next year, there will be 24,000 “hot spots.”

Consumers made curious about going wireless thanks to the promotion might be tempted to buy the latest, fastest technology at the electronics store, particularly since it owns the top shelf space.

But there’s very few reasons to buy into “g,” known also by its full name, 802.11g. The older technology is called 802.11b.

“If you are sharing very large files across your network, like a DVD stream. Or you are game playing between computers, then going to G could be a good move, because video can be very bandwidth intensive,” Ballard said. “If you need to pass data around the house it can be a good investment.”

But unless you are geeky enough to connect your VCR to your computer, or plan to set up some kind of automated nightly backup of all your PCs to a central home server, g is really overkill, Yunker said.

“In most circumstances, consumers don’t even max out b,” he said.

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