In kindergarten terms, please explain wireless networking.
June 21, 2006 7:48 AM   Subscribe

In kindergarten terms, please explain wireless networking.

We're going to be getting a laptop (probably a Mac) in the near future. We currently have a PC running XP and a cable internet connection.

In order to get the laptop connect to the net, we're going to have to buy a wireless router (and make sure the laptop has a wireless card of course) and hook that up to our cable 'net connection, right?

Is it really as simple as all that, or will we have to do something fidgety with the cable connection? Does this mean I have to set up a home network? Where do I get kindergarten-ese instructions for that?

As a bonus question, will there be any PC/Mac networking issues or do they really 'hold hands' like Mac's new commercials indicate?

I've skimmed other AskMe's and googled, but I need this explained in the very simplest terms.

Software I get. Hardware and networking I don't get.
posted by misanthropicsarah to Computers & Internet (17 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
yes. you may have to unplug the cable box (fromt he wall) for 5 minutes, but that'd be it really. by doing this you've set up a home network. the foldouts that come with the linksys boxes are pretty easy to follow. unless you want to share files between computers, the Mac and the PC can share the network with no fiddling. (sharing files requires you check a checkbox in Sharing on your Mac.) (this is all in order, btw.)
posted by mrg at 7:58 AM on June 21, 2006

Does your cable modem have an ethernet connection the the XP PC, or a USB? You need to get a wireless router with the same connection. You don't say if you want the PC to go wireless - I assume you want it to stay wired? In that case your new set up will look like this:

Outside world - cable modem - wireless router - PC (connected by ethernet)

With a laptop floating around on the wireless connection.

You have to setup a home network, but if you buy a big name like Netgear, the installer will hand-hold you through.
posted by Orange Goblin at 7:59 AM on June 21, 2006

I recommend that you consider an Apple Airport Extreme router. They are more expensive, but insanely simple to set up. We have a similar setup -- PC running XP connected to a cable modem, with a wireless Apple laptop.

You disconnect the cable modem from the PC, then plug the cable modem into the router, then plug the router into the PC. The setup details are very straightforward (instructions with the Extreme).

I think the only trick regarding networking between the two was that you have to turn on sharing on the XP machine, either for all folders or one special "drop off" folder.

You can do it! :)

I'm sure you'll get good explanations for "regular" routers, but I don't think they'll be quite as simple as the Airport.

And as a bonus, getting online with a wireless Apple laptop is a gazillion times easier than with a Windows laptop, in my experience. Get the Apple!
posted by theredpen at 8:03 AM on June 21, 2006

one thing I forgot: you'll want to change the network name and set a password at least to discourage other people from using your internet connection. this should be part of the foldout. if not, it's easy; use the configuration program that came with the box or go to the web page. the settings you need are under the "Wireless" tab. as for the password, that's under the wireless tab as well (and probably under a subtab named "security" - these are rough instructions for a linksys router, for what it's worth) and you'll probably have a choice of what kind of password to use. I'd suggest WPA or WPA-2. then you enter the password. the Mac will pick it right up, usually. your PC will(?) be hardwired so none of these settings really matter to it.
posted by mrg at 8:04 AM on June 21, 2006

Please secure your wireless network. Even if you don't care about your privacy, as a matter of good citizenship you should keep wardriving criminals from borrowing your IP address.

Once you have your network set up, you can access its configuration settings through your browser. Usually, you just go to something like, and use the web interface to change settings. This article is a decent summary of some security steps you should take.
posted by profwhat at 8:06 AM on June 21, 2006

on posting again, go with theredpen's suggestion. the Apple routers are way more expensive than, say, Linksys or Netgear but they are in fact way easier to set up.
posted by mrg at 8:06 AM on June 21, 2006

Most wireless routers are ready to use out of the box. You'll be plugging the cable modem into a designated port on the back of the wireless router via Ethernet cable. Your PC will also be connected by Ethernet cable to the router. And your laptop(s) will connect via the wireless connection.

The built-in DHCP on the router will handle the networking stuff like assigning DNS. Your primary tasks will be to follow the instructions for setting up and changing the router's SSID (the router's "name") and setting the password.

For connecting to the router, PCs (on XP) and Mac handle it nearly the same way. You just need to find your router's SSID and enter the password. To share files between computers, you'll need to turn on File Sharing. Here's instructions for how to do it on:
Windows XP
OSX (Mac)
posted by junesix at 8:10 AM on June 21, 2006

The suggestions here are good, so I'll just chime in with a couple of extra things, rather than trying to write up the whole process.

The Apple stuff is expensive, but relatively easy to set up. And, since you'll have a Mac laptop, if you buy one and have trouble, you can call Apple and ask for help. An Airport Express should work fine for you... it's cheaper than an Airport Extreme, and should do everything you need.

If you don't want to spend that much money, the Linksys WRT54GLs are good... they run Linux inside, and just go and go without trouble. Not as easy, but still not that difficult. (note that you must buy the 54GL, not the 54G or 54GS... the latter two don't run Linux anymore and aren't as good.)

Whatever you do, MAKE SURE YOU USE WPA or WPA2 ENCRYPTION. You configure that, usually, with a dropdown box for what kind of encryption (WEP, WPA, or WPA2 are generally your options), and a password key. Don't use WEP! And don't use nothing at all. Both approaches are very insecure... you're just asking to be hacked.
posted by Malor at 8:27 AM on June 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

Doesn't the Airport express lack an ethernet port for the XP computer? I thought it was more like a wireless bridge?
posted by maledictory at 9:20 AM on June 21, 2006

Recently I wanted to go wireless at home. I already had a router for my cable modem 'net access. I have a PC desktop plugged into the router.

So I bought a wireless-G WAP for around $80 and also plugged that into the router. I bought a wireless card for my PC laptop and an AirPort card for my Mac G5. All three computers will now access the 'net and share files with each other.

The WAP was plug-n-play to setup, I was actually surprised.

- As mentioned above you have to turn on file sharing on each PC/Mac.
- I recommend getting Bonjour for Windows (free d/l), it helps the PCs find the Macs on your network.
posted by shino-boy at 9:38 AM on June 21, 2006

The Airport Express has only one Ethernet port which you can use to plug into the Cable Modem and provide wireless only, or as a wireless bridge to connect to a computer. But not both.

The Apple products are incredibly simple to use but a tad expensive. I've probably gone through 5 or 6 linksys routers over time since either they'd just stop working or the wireless LAN would break due to some interference in my apartment building. I'd have to reboot the router to get it to work again.

I ended up with an Airport Extreme and a Airport Express in my pad. The network is bulletproof and is always up. If only the cable modem would be that reliable. I use the airport express to extend the network range and to beam music from iTunes from my Mac in the other room to my stereo. And my TiVo who never could get along on my wireless network reliably is plugged into the ethernet adapter.
posted by birdherder at 9:42 AM on June 21, 2006

I don't know how easy an Airport is. I do know that lazy zombies from brain-damage victims could set up another brand of wireless router and think to themselves that it's dead easy. This cannot possibly be a difference between easy and hard, but only between really really easy and really easy.

About the only issue in getting an initial setup to work: if your cable company are jerks, they might have bound up the cable modem to the MAC (a unique identifier) of the network card in the XP box. If so, you'll have to tell the router to use that MAC instead of its own. This takes ~20 seconds.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:53 AM on June 21, 2006

Go to your local Best Buy/Circuit City and buy a Linksys Wireless G router. It'll be $25-50, depending on what kind of sales they have going on.

Then follow the rest of this:

from here

1. Unplug the cable modem and the router.

2. Then make sure that there is an ethernet cable (fat phone cord) going from the back of the cable modem into the FIRST port (that will say internet) on your Linksys router.

3. Then plug your cable modem and your router in.

4. With your laptop, scan for a wireless network named linksys (if there are multiple ones, go for the one with the strongest signal (assuming that you're sitting next to the router.))

5. Connect to it.

6. Go to -- it opens? Hoorah!


7. Type this into your web browser: - the user name is BLANK (like, don't type anything) and the password is admin (if this doesn't work, try admin for the username and password, but more likely than not there is no username).

8. You'll be in the configuration of your router. You need to do a few things:
a. rename your network -- give it something fun that isn't identifying of your name or addresses, then save settings.
b. put a password on it -- click on wireless, then wireless security, and pick WPA Pre Shared Key -- then pick a word that you can remember, then save settings.

Now, do a new scan for wireless networks and you should see your new network with the name you gave it -- connect to it. You should be prompted for a password, type in the WPA Pre Shared Key that you picked earlier.

Then run another ethernet cable (again, fat phone cord) from one of the 4 numbered ports on the back of the router to your PC.

That should be it!
posted by k8t at 10:30 AM on June 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

Just a warning: I had a nightmare time getting my XP thinkpad to connect to my girlfriend's Airport Extreme. It might have been my fault setting it up (I eventually got it working) but the 'Apple works seamlessly with everything!' wasn't true for me...
posted by underwater at 10:42 AM on June 21, 2006

underwater: That's what happened to me too -- with a laptop. Attaching an XP machine via Ethernet was pretty much painless. The Apple laptops see it instantly, as does the PC desktop. I borrowed a PC laptop once, though, and never got it to see the signal -- gave up in frustration (it was only for a day or two) and hard-wired it to the router too.
posted by theredpen at 11:19 AM on June 21, 2006

I've configured hundreds of airport extremes, airport expresses, and routers of all types.

I think that linksys is the easiest and most reliable.
posted by k8t at 11:33 AM on June 21, 2006

Please secure your wireless network. Even if you don't care about your privacy, as a matter of good citizenship you should keep wardriving criminals from borrowing your IP address.

Another viewpoint: I leave my wireless nework unencrypted and unsecured. Good citizenship also means sharing with your neighbours. In my experience at least, there are vastly more neighbours than wardriving criminals. (Port 25 -- used for email delivery, aka SMTP -- is blocked, but that's it. Guests are expected to use POP or IMAP to talk to their own email servers.)

(By the way, if you do care about privacy: the encryption and security that WiFi provides is unsafe: it will only keep out the law-abiding. Do not rely on it to keep you out of trouble. Regardless of your wireless network settings, just remember that the entire world is potentially listening in on anything sent over the wireless network. Do not blindly share folders etc. on that Windows machine.)
posted by phliar at 6:51 PM on June 21, 2006

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