Need help with wifi basics
May 7, 2008 6:43 AM   Subscribe

I need help with wifi basics - routers, security, encryption etc.

Assume I know nothing about wireless internet.... (I've used a laptop in coffee shops / hotels etc, and got good advice about using Firefox / limited user account / VPN in response to a previous question.)

As my wife and I now both have laptops we'd like to set up a wireless router in our house. Can you give me answers to the following, or point me to a good online resource with info for beginners?

I see online retailers offering routers with 'Wireless G' / 'Wireless N' ... what does the letter mean? Are our laptops one or the other, or will they work with either? (I want to avoid a repeat of my embarrassing attempt to use DVD-R discs in my DVD+R drive a few years ago!)

I don't really need specific router recommendations as I'll get whatever is on sale that works ... and I will need one with wired ports as well for my desktop machine / printer.

Security ... set the router up with a password to prevent others from using it - I know that much. I'm sure there's much more...

Encryption. Huh? I've heard of it but have no idea what to do about it. Is this only really necessary if we're doing banking over wireless? We probably wouldn't - we'll use the wired desktop machine for that.

What have I missed?

Laptops + Desktop are all running XP. House is relatively small so I don't need a huge access area.
posted by valleys to Computers & Internet (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: G is "slower" N is "faster" - but in your laptop if you don't have "N" wireless cards, an "N" router is not needed (will still work with G though!)

I like Linksys routers and the instructions in the box will show you how to set up the "password" to protect it.

Any configuration that you do might be easier through your desktop machine or plugging in your laptop.

That's really it. If you have cable modem, the router should work automatically. If it is DSL, you'll have to do some configuring but your DSL company will give you the details.
posted by k8t at 7:41 AM on May 7, 2008

Best answer: Setting the router up with a password is the same as setting up encryption. If you use WPA or WPA2 with a strong password you can feel safe about doing banking online. You'll be doubly encrypted: from your browser to the bank's server with SSL and from your laptop to the wireless base station with WPA. Do not use WEP at all, as it's been cracked.
posted by zsazsa at 8:01 AM on May 7, 2008

You may not think you need specific advices on the brand, but you should know the bad ones to avoid. I live on the other side of the world so I can't really help you on this, but there are good routers and bad routers, as opposed to hubs and switches which are pretty much the same across all names.

You almost never have to worry about encryption. Or passwords, for that matter; I imagine Internet access is pretty abundant these days, so having no password makes it easier for you and your guests. Just be sure to password-protect the router's administration panel (usually found at

What kind of router you should get depends on how you connect to the Internet. There are routers which only route, dial-up routers which also dial, ADSL routers which do what the name suggest and many more. The shop you buy from will help you pick the right one. Setting up should be easy if you just follow the instructions; unfortunately the steps are usually brand-specific.
posted by semi at 8:40 AM on May 7, 2008

Best answer: Good article on setting up your security, here.
posted by allkindsoftime at 8:59 AM on May 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: 1. G is the current standard for wireless. N is the new one. The big advantage with G is that your laptop probably has a g-compatible card built into it, so theres no need to buy a seperate card that sticks out the side. The big advantage for N is that its a bit faster and might provide better reception in some circumstances. Considering how new N is, I recommend sticking with G.

2. Use WPA encryption. This is like having a password on your wireless router. Pick a strong password with letters and symbols in it. Like "!m3tafil3r$" not "metafilter." WPA is only as strong as your password.

3. You can write your password and network name down on a piece of paper and tape that paper to the underside of the router. This makes it easier when you have guests over.
posted by damn dirty ape at 10:25 AM on May 7, 2008

Best answer: Any of the big brands (Linksys, Netgear, Belkin, Buffalo, etc) with at least 802.11g will do. Avoid weird generic routers. They tend to be unstable and have a weak signal, as quite a few friends of mine have found out.

There are three standards in common usage.

In order of speed and reception quality
802.11b - the b might as well stand for basic these days
802.11g - The most common standard to find around.
801.11n - The newest standard. If your laptops are new, they might well support it.

You'll commonly see them called Wireless G or Wireless N or something. A router that adheres to 802.11n will also transmit a G and B signal, and a 802.11g router will transmit a B signal, so you don't have to worry about backwards compatibility.

Make sure you use WPA encryption because, as everyone else notes, WEP (a lighter form of security) has been cracked, and while it's unlikely that you'll be targeted, there's no point leaving yourself vulnerable for the sake of a couple of mouse clicks at setup.

An SSID is basically the name of the wireless network. You'll probably have to change it from something like LinksysNetwork to valleysinternetoffun. It's simply to identify your network, and as long as it's encrypted it doesn't really matter what the SSID is.

It's dead easy. Just do it and remove one more excuse to get out of bed. :)
posted by Magnakai at 10:37 AM on May 7, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks folks. I picked up a Linksys router for 50% off earlier today and got it working in the length of time it took me to call my ISP to remind me of my DSL password.

Only wrinkle is that the long-term loaner laptop I have has an ancient wireless card that doesn't do WPA. I've got it set up on WEP for now, but will probably spend the extra $25 to get a USB wireless adapter that can do WPA. My wife's can do WPA with no problem.
posted by valleys at 2:37 PM on May 7, 2008

You also might consider leaving your wifi access point open. That article explains why Bruce Schneier, internet security guru does.

It does add a very small amount of risk, but I feel like it's worth it to be good neighbor. If you ever download illegal content, it also makes it much more difficult to prove that you were the downloader.
posted by chrisamiller at 4:22 PM on May 7, 2008

>That article explains why Bruce Schneier, internet security guru does.

Bruce also knows how to harden servers, lock down shares, build virtual lans, captive portals, etc. Most people dont. Its incredibly stupid to leave it open and irresponsible to tell non-techies to do so.
posted by damn dirty ape at 6:14 PM on May 7, 2008

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