Network Routers, Access Points, Adapters, and More

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Unless you're an IT specialist or have set up multiple wireless networks, being able to decern various wireless devices can be a difficult task. So let's break it down and clear the air on all of these devices and exactly what they each do.

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Wireless Routers

Linksys WRT54GL Router
Linksys WRT54GL Router.

Photo from Amazon

The centerpiece product of many home computer networks is a wireless router. These routers support all home computers configured with wireless network adapters (see below). They also contain a network switch to allow some computers to be connected with Ethernet cables.

Wireless routers allow cable modem and DSL internet connections to be shared. Additionally, many wireless router products include a built-in firewall that protects the home network from intruders.

Illustrated above is the Linksys WRT54G. This is a popular wireless router product based on the 802.11g Wi-Fi network standard. Wireless routers are small box-like devices generally less than 12 inches (0.3 m) in length, with LED lights on the front and with connection ports on the sides or back. Some wireless routers like the WRT54G feature external antennas that protrude from the top of the device; others contain built-in antennas.

Wireless router products differ in the network protocols they support (802.11g, 802.11a, 802.11b or a combination), in the number of wired device connections they support, in the security options they support, and in many other smaller ways. Generally, only one wireless router is required to network an entire household.

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Wireless Access Points

Linksys WAP54G wireless access point.
Linksys WAP54G wireless access point.

Photo from Amazon

A wireless access point (sometimes called an "AP" or "WAP") serves to join or "bridge" wireless clients to a wired Ethernet network. Access points centralize all WiFi clients on a local network in so-called "infrastructure" mode. An access point, in turn, may connect to another access point, or to a wired Ethernet router.

Wireless access points are commonly used in large office buildings to create one wireless local area network (WLAN) that spans a large area. Each access point typically supports up to 255 client computers. By connecting access points to each other, local networks having thousands of access points can be created. Client computers may move or roam between each of these access points as needed.

In home networking, wireless access points can be used to extend an existing home network based on a wired broadband router. The access point connects to the broadband router, allowing wireless clients to join the home network without needing to rewire or reconfigure the Ethernet connections.

As illustrated by the Linksys WAP54G shown above, wireless access points appear physically similar to wireless routers. Wireless routers actually contain a wireless access point as part of their overall package. Like wireless routers, access points are available with support for 802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g or combinations.

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Wireless Network Adapters

Linksys WPC54G Wireless Network Adapter
Linksys WPC54G Wireless Network Adapter.

Photo from Amazon

A wireless network adapter allows a computing device to join a wireless LAN. Wireless network adapters contain a built-in radio transmitter and receiver. Each adapter supports one or more of the 802.11a, 802.11b, or 802.11g Wi-Fi standards.

Wireless network adapters also exist in several different form factors. Traditional PCI wireless adapters are add-in cards designed for installation inside a desktop computer having a PCI bus. USB wireless adapters connect to the external USB port of a computer. Finally, so-called PC Card or PCMCIA wireless adapters insert into a narrow open bay on a notebook computer.

One example of a PC Card wireless adapter, the Linksys WPC54G is shown above. Each type of wireless network adapter is small, generally less than 6 inches (0.15 m) long. Each provides equivalent wireless capability according to the Wi-Fi standard it supports.

Most notebook computers are now manufactured with built-in wireless networking. Small chips inside the computer provide the equivalent functions of a network adapter. These computers obviously do not require separate installation of a separate wireless network adapter.

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Wireless Print Servers

Linksys WPS54G Wireless Print Server
Linksys WPS54G Wireless Print Server.

Photo from Amazon 

A wireless print server allows one or two printers to be conveniently shared across a Wi-Fi network. Adding wireless print servers to a network:

  • Allows printers to be conveniently located anywhere within wireless network range, not tied to the location of computers.
  • Does not require a computer be always turned on in order to print.
  • Does not require a computer to manage all print jobs, that can bog down its performance.
  • Allows administrators to change computer names and other settings without having to re-configure the network printing settings.

A wireless print server must be connected to printers by a network cable, normally USB 1.1 or USB 2.0. The print server itself can connect to a wireless router over Wi-Fi, or it can be joined using an Ethernet cable.

Most print server products include setup software on a CD-ROM that must be installed on one computer to complete the initial configuration of the device. As with network adapters, wireless print servers must be configured with the correct network name (SSID) and encryption settings. Additionally, a wireless print server requires client software be installed on each computer needing to use a printer.

Print servers are very compact devices that include a built-in wireless antenna and LED lights to indicate status. The Linksys WPS54G 802.11g USB wireless print server is shown as one example.

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Wireless Game Adapters

Linksys WGA54G Wireless Game Adapter
Linksys WGA54G Wireless Game Adapter.

Photo from Amazon

A wireless game adapter connects a video game console to a Wi-Fi home network to enable Internet or head-to-head LAN gaming. Wireless game adapters for home networks are available in both 802.11b and 802.11g varieties. An example of an 802.11g wireless game adapter appears above, the Linksys WGA54G.

Wireless game adapters can be connected either to a wireless router using an Ethernet cable (for best reliability and performance) or over Wi-Fi (for greater reach and convenience). Wireless game adapter products include setup software on a CD-ROM that must be installed on one computer to complete initial configuration of the device. As with generic network adapters, wireless game adapters must be configured with the correct network name (SSID) and encryption settings.

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Wireless Internet Video Cameras

Linksys Wireless-N Internet Home Monitoring Camera
Linksys Wireless-N Internet Home Monitoring Camera.

Photo from Amazon

A wireless Internet video camera allows video (and sometimes audio) data to be captured and transmitted across a WiFi computer network. Wireless internet video cameras are available in both 802.11b and 802.11g varieties. The Linksys Linksys Wireless-N Internet Home Monitoring Camera is shown above.

Wireless Internet video cameras work by serving up data streams to any computer that connects to them. Cameras like the one above contain a built-in Web server. Computers connect to the camera using either a standard Web browser or through a special client user interface provided on CD-ROM with the product. With proper security information, video streams from these cameras can also be viewed across the Internet from authorized computers.

Internet video cameras can be connected to a wireless router using either an Ethernet cable or via Wi-Fi. These products include setup software on a CD-ROM that must be installed on one computer to complete initial Wi-Fi configuration of the device.

Features that distinguish different wireless Internet video cameras from each other include:

  • Resolution of the captured video images (for example, 320x240 pixel, 640x480 pixel, and other image sizes).
  • Motion sensors, and the ability to send email alerts when new activity is detected and captured.
  • Ability to time stamp images.
  • Built-in microphones and/or jacks for external microphones, for audio support.
  • Types of WiFi security supported, such as WEP or WAP.
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Wireless Range Extender

Linksys AC1200 Dual-Band Wi-Fi Range Extender / Wi-Fi Booster (RE6350)
Linksys AC1200 Dual-Band Wi-Fi Range Extender/Wi-Fi Booster.

Photo from Amazon 

A wireless range extender increases the distance over which a WLAN signal can spread, overcoming obstacles and enhancing overall network signal quality. Several different forms of wireless range extenders are available. These products are sometimes called "range expanders" or "signal boosters." The Linksys AC1200 Dual-Band Wi-Fi Range Extender/Wi-Fi Booster is shown above.

A wireless range extender works as a relay or network repeater, picking up and reflecting WiFi signals from a network's base router or access point. The network performance of devices connected through a range extender will generally be lower than if they were connected directly to the primary base station.

A wireless range extender connects via Wi-Fi to a router or access point. However, due to the nature of this technology, most wireless range extenders work only with a limited set of other equipment. Check the manufacturer's specifications carefully for compatibility information.

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