By Columnist
msnbc.com
REVIEW

By now you should know all about 802.11a, 802.11b and 802.11g wireless networking. And, hopefully you have a wireless network you can join at home, work or play. But now, the people at Buffalo Technology, who make some of the best WiFi equipment on the market, are one step ahead of you. In addition to terrific “b” and “g” devices, they’ve invented some related WiFi widgets that you may not be able to live without.

802.11b is what people mean when they say the term WiFi. 802.11b is the wireless standard that lets you join a computer network at speeds of up to 11Mbps. Next came 802.11a which raised speeds up to 54Mpbs — but “a” operates at different frequencies than “b” so nothing was compatible. Now we have 802.11g. It provides speeds up to 54Mbps and operates on the same frequencies as “b”. All “b” equipment works on “g” networks and “g” devices all work on “b” networks (albeit at “b’s” maximum 11Mpbs).

A number of companies have just rushed 802.11g devices onto the market following the standard’s approval by the IEEE. Apple was even faster — marketing “g” devices before there was approval. All of this activity in wireless networking is good. Not only do you have a choice of which new “g” devices to buy but you can now get amazing deals on 802.11b equipment — which is still faster than your DSL or cable modem .

Let’s get back to Buffalo Technologies. I’ve been using one of their 802.11b access points for years in my weekend test lab. It’s been great. Setup of this early model was, let’s say challenging (the instructions were not well written), but operations-wise it’s been absolutely rock solid.

I had no intention of changing it in any way — until I saw the Buffalo Tech people at a recent show. They asked me what would make me change my mind and switch to 802.11g. “Not much,” I replied.

They asked if there’s anything I would change about my current system. I told them that their old access point was located next to the cable modem — upstairs, in a far corner of my house. The signal was good everywhere upstairs but downstairs it died at the dining room table. They just smiled.

That’s because they have a solution. Enter the WLA-G54C ($99.99 at retail partner CompUSA), their new wireless, compact repeater bridge. This little marvel constantly talks to their new 802.11g base station (the WLA-G54, $119.95 at CompUSA) and rebroadcasts the signal.

According to Buffalo Tech, “the new base station incorporates a 10/100M 4-port switch and the Wireless Distribution System (WDS) or Bridge/Repeater Mode for point-to-point or point-to-multi-point communication and to cover dead spots in Wireless LANs. The 54Mbps Bridge supports WPA, 802.1x, AES and WEP for security and offers the fastest wireless throughput on the 2.4GHz band.”

You can connect a maximum of six wireless repeater bridges to the base station. The repeater bridges adhere to Buffalo Tech’s WDS system for repeating WiFi signals. For the record, the WDS system is proprietary. Only Buffalo Tech devices can bridge to other Buffalo Tech devices.

Setup is easy once you know the trick. What you need to do is register the repeater’s ID number in the base station and register the base’s ID in the repeater. You do that by attaching a computer via a wired Ethernet connection. The trick is that you need to forget the instructions in the user guides and read the updated instructions on the Buffalo Tech Web site.

The two devices get separate names (I named mine UPSTAIRS and DOWNSTAIRS) but they both relay the same information. Setup should take all of 15 minutes.

Once set up, I placed the repeater in an out-of-the-way spot downstairs. All the dead spots in my house disappeared. I’ve tested 802.11b and 802.11g cards on the new “g” system and “b” networks in other locations. Everything works as promised. Best of all, I knew I was on to something when my wife asked why, all of a sudden, she could use her laptop in the bedroom. I just smiled.

As for the other new devices, there’s a wireless USB converter for your computer ($99), a wireless PCI card for your PC ($79.99), a wireless PC card for laptops ($49.99 after rebates at CompUSA) and a wireless Ethernet converter which allows you to wirelessly connect anything with an Ethernet port like a printer, scanner, hub, switch or game console to your network ($129). They even make tiny little plug-in antennas to extend the range of these things.

Not much more to say except I’m now thinking it’s time to change the 802.11b system in my loft to Buffalo’s “g” network. Place a little repeater in the dining room — and the entire apartment will be wired to the max.

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