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Last updated on April 16, 2014 at 17:34 EDT

Wi-Fi Choices Can Be Confusing

January 27, 2005

AP — With three types of Wi-Fi “802.11″ technology to choose from for wireless Internet access, and more on the way, which one is best for a new laptop?

First there was 802.11b, the clunky technical name for the wireless technology which made Wi-Fi a must-have for laptops.

Then came versions 802.11g and 802.11a. Letter “n” is coming. And back in the lab, the Wi-Fi wizards are working on “e,” “r,” “s” and “t.”

There’s now an alphabet soup of Wi-Fi choices for a new laptop, as well as competing brands and worries that future versions may render a young PC obsolete.

As if there weren’t enough headache-inducing options when buying a computer?

Fret not, or at least not too much. The short answer is that nearly all current Wi-Fi products are interoperable, and provide far more speed than most users need, so the decision likely won’t result in sleepless nights.

That’s because interoperability has been a major thrust of the industry group which mercifully coined the name Wi-Fi to describe the 802.11 family of wireless technologies.

So just about any Wi-Fi modem in a computer will talk to just about any Wi-Fi transmitter, at home or on the road, regardless of manufacturer.

Furthermore, the next generations of the Wi-Fi standard, starting with 802.11n, may not hit the market until after 2006, so really needn’t be a distraction in deciding whether to buy a computer now.

Nonetheless, there are some distinctions worthy of consideration.

The original “b” flavor of Wi-Fi can provide data speeds of up to 11 megabits per second (mbps). Actual data transmission is probably closer to half the maximum speed, but that’s still several times faster than the broadband connections used by most homes and small businesses.

The next version, 802.11g, allows speeds of up to 54 mbps, but is fully compatible with equipment based on 802.11b because they both use the same radio frequency, or wavelength, to transmit data over the airwaves. Once again, actual speeds are usually about half the maximum rate.

While the third standard, 802.11a, is also billed at up to 54 mbps, it isn’t compatible with either of the first two because its signal travels over a different wavelength.

However, nearly all 802.11a products available to the general public are also equipped with 802.11g capability, so some level of connectivity is likely between devices with the latest Wi-Fi standard and those without it.

All that said, it makes sense for most users to pay a little extra for 802.11g, but not necessarily 802.11a, according to Glenn Fleishman, editor of the Web log Wi-Fi Networking News.

Right now, Fleishman said, most DSL and cable broadband connections aren’t as fast as the slowest version of 802.11, so few users can take full advantage of Wi-Fi’s speed.

But DSL and cable broadband providers are starting to boost the bandwidth they offer with little or no price increase, and some local phone companies are installing fiber-optic cables that will deliver lightning-fast connections in the same $35-to-$40 price range.

“You’re starting to see broadband speeds that exceed what 802.11b can deliver, so there is some utility for what 802.11g can deliver, especially if you’ll have the machine for five years,” said Fleishman.

While 802.11a offers the same increase in speed as 802.11g, Fleishman said the bigger appeal of 802.11a is that it operates at a wavelength that’s less clogged by competing signals from other Wi-Fi users, microwave ovens and cordless phones. While most people don’t encounter such interference, 802.11a could prove useful in densely populated environments such as an apartment building.

Although a unified 802.11n standard has yet to be finalized, some gear makers are already selling equipment based on their own versions of “n” technology, which is more than twice as fast as 802.11g and 802.11a.

But these “pre-N” products, often twice as expensive as other Wi-Fi devices, might not be a wise investment since they may not be compatible with the eventual official standard.

“You’ll be buying equipment that will be obsolete in the near future and will become cheaper in the near future,” said Fleishman.