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WiFi Guide for Netbook Buyers

1.
I just bought a new netbook, but it can't connect to all the same WiFi hotspots that my regular laptop can connect to. Or I keep losing my connection. What's wrong?
2. Do the better WiFi cards cost much more than the ones provided in netbooks?
3.
What about buying a WiFi adapter that plugs into my USB port, instead of installing a new WiFi card inside my netbook -- will that work?
4. When I buy a netbook that says it has 802.11n capability, does this mean that I have the best type of WiFi card?
5. What is 802.11n WiFi, and why is it any better than the older 802.11b or g WiFi?
6. Do incompatibilities exist between different 802.11n equipment, resulting in some kind of 802.11n compatibility nightmare?
7. Will I notice 802.11n's improved connection speeds and range when surfing the Web, or will it be more evident during other activities?
8. But the public WiFi hotspots that I use only support 802.11b or g networking -- so why would the Intel 5300 card be any better for that?
9. I see that some netbooks have WiMAX capability -- what's that, and where is it available?
10. Does the Intel 5300 WiFi card support WiMAX operation?
11. If my netbook came with WiMAX in addition to WiFi, does that mean that I have the best WiFi card?
12. Can I replace the WiFi card that came inside my netbook, with the Intel 5300 or 5350 card?
13. I've seen websites that mention other Intel WiFi cards -- what about those cards?
14. Do other companies make good WiFi cards?
15. I have an HP or Lenovo netbook -- can I swap a better WiFi card into it?
16. BUYING AN 802.11N WIRELESS ROUTER - KNOW THE FOLLOWING OR SUFFER

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QUESTION: I just bought a new netbook, but it can't connect to all the same WiFi hotspots that my regular laptop can connect to. Or I keep losing my connection. What's wrong?

ANSWER: You're not alone -- many users are noticing the same thing, and the problem is your netbook's WiFi card. And the reason netbooks don't come with better WiFi cards is that manufacturers are trying to avoid cannibalizing their sales of regular-sized laptops. So they're putting weaker WiFi cards in their netbooks to make their regular-sized laptops seem more powerful.

As a result, a lot of netbook owners have been swapping out their netbooks' original WiFi cards, replacing them with much better cards such as the Intel 5300. But doing so usually requires technical expertise, and may void your warranty.

So if you don't want to swap out your WiFi card, then look up any netbook that you plan to purchase at Laptop Magazine. That site publishes excellent reviews of netbooks, and rates WiFi performance. Choose a netbook having a high WiFi rating.


QUESTION: Do the better WiFi cards cost much more than the ones provided in netbooks?

ANSWER: No. Intel's 5300 card, for instance, sells for about $30 online.


QUESTION: What about buying a WiFi adapter that plugs into my USB port, instead of installing a new WiFi card inside my netbook -- will that work?

ANSWER: Yes, it will work. The problem is that USB WiFi adapters don't work as well, because their antennas are very small -- all squished together in a space about the size of your thumb. (Having 3 antennas instead spaced equally within your netbook's display housing is much better at what's called "beam-forming.")

So it's not unusual for a good WiFi card inside your netbook to have 2x the range and 3x the connection speed (at longer ranges) than a USB-type WiFi adapter.


QUESTION: When I buy a netbook that says it has 802.11n capability, does this mean that I have the best type of WiFi card?

ANSWER: Based on my experience, the answer is virtually always "no, you aren't getting the best card."


QUESTION: What is 802.11n WiFi, and why is it any better than the older 802.11b or g WiFi?

ANSWER: 802.11n WiFi (also called "Draft-N" WiFi) increases the speed and reliability of your wireless connection in several ways.

ADVANTAGE 1 - CHANGE THE FREQUENCY
First, a major advantage of 802.11n is that it supports operation in a much less crowded frequency band, the 5 GHz band, that neither 802.11b nor g support. 802.11b and g instead operate only in the very congested 2.4 GHz band. 802.11n can operate in either band.

In my neighborhood, for instance, my Intel 5300-equipped laptop sees 12-15 WiFi networks at any given time. 11-15 of them are in the 2.4 GHz band, and only one of them (mine) is in the 5 GHz band. Plus, the 2.4 GHz band only has room for 3 non-overlapping channels, while the 5 GHz band has room for 12 such channels. Given the choice of being one of a dozen or so networks fighting over 3 channels, or instead operating in a virtually unused band having 12 channels, which would you choose?

Unfortunately, your netbook manufacturer has already chosen the much more congested band for you. Virtually all of the netbooks having 802.11n capability operate only in the 2.4 GHz band. And oh, by the way, your microwave oven leaks energy into the 2.4 GHz band, and Bluetooth uses that band as well. Enjoy!

ADVANTAGE 2 - CHANNEL BONDAGE
The second advantage of 802.11n is that it can use two channels at once, thus DOUBLING your connection speed! This is called "channel bonding." 802.11b and g can only use one channel at a time.

And remember that 802.11n wireless card that came in your netbook? Unfortunately, it seldom gets a chance to use two channels at once. That's because it can only operate in the crowded 2.4 GHz band, where there are only 3 non-overlapping channels. A better WiFi card such as the Intel 5300, however, can hog two channels at once in the 5 GHz band with no problem, since 12 non-overlapping channels are available in that band, with virtually no other traffic.

ADVANTAGE 3 - BEAM ME UP, SCOTTY!
The third advantage of 802.11n is that it converts your WiFi signal into a "beam." Think of the older 802.11b and g networks as transmitting data via a vertical flourescent lightbulb. They send energy out in all different directions.

Now think of 802.11n as transmitting data via a laser beam. It sends data in just one direction.

Many laser pointers, using just a FRACTION OF A WATT of power, can blind you at 100 feet. On the other hand, a flourescent lightbulb using TENS OF WATTS can barely light the area around your shoes at that same distance.

So beams of data provide much stronger connections, and at much better data rates, and at much longer distances. And the way those beams are formed is by using multiple antennas.

For example, the Intel 5300 uses 3 antennas for transmit and 3 for receive. And it can actually transmit or receive three separate beams (called streams) of data simultaneously! These beams take advantage of "multi-path reflections." What that means is that one beam may bounce off the wall to your left and into your wireless router. Another beam may bounce off the ceiling to your router. And a third beam may travel directly to your router. In that case, you actually TRIPLE the amount of data sent through one channel!

For all of the above reasons, 802.11n (simultaneously using three beams, or streams, of data, and two channels) has a maximum connection speed of 450 Mbps, vs. 54 Mbps for 802.11g. And the Intel 5300, using 802.11n operation, has approximately double the range of the older 802.11g.

Unfortunately, many of the 802.11n WiFi cards that come in netbooks only use 1 antenna for transmitting data (and thus no beams). Plus they only use 2 antennas for receiving data (and 2 beams). So this falls far short of the Intel 5300's capability to use 3 antennas for transmitting (3 beams), and 3 antennas for receiving (3 beams). Thus the Intel 5300 has far better connection speeds and range than the WiFi cards that come with netbooks.

Note that, to use 802.11n networking, you need to connect to a wireless router (or access point) that has 802.11n capability. You seldom see this at public WiFi hotspots, so 802.11n currently comes into play more for business and home networks. And if you want to use 802.11n at 5 GHz, then you'll specifically need to buy an 802.11n wireless router that operates at 5 GHz. (See the end of this article for some tips on buying 802.11n wireless routers.)


QUESTION: Do incompatibilities exist between different 802.11n equipment, resulting in some kind of 802.11n compatibility nightmare?

ANSWER: No, not at all. In fact, the Intel 802.11n WiFi cards, which are already used in a large number of laptops, have been part of the 802.11n "Draft-N Testbed" all along. In other words, all manufacturers must show that their 802.11n equipment is compatible with those cards in order to pass 802.11n certification testing.


QUESTION: Will I notice 802.11n's improved connection speeds and range when surfing the Web, or will it be more evident during other activities?

ANSWER: The speed of most DSL connections, for example, is only about 6 Mbps. But the theoretical maximum speed of 802.11n is 450 Mbps (using the Intel 5300, with 3 streams), and is 54 Mbps for 802.11g. So surfing the Web using DSL can't even make use of the maximum speed of 802.11g, much less 802.11n. Therefore, if your netbook is close to the wireless router, then you won't notice any difference when surfing the Web.

But as your netbook moves farther from the wireless router, or if it's in a separate room from your router, then you'll get significantly less than the maximum speeds. And that dropoff in speed occurs much more quickly for 802.11g than for 802.11n. So, yes, as you move farther from the wireless router, you will notice the speed difference. Plus you'll notice that 802.11n will give you a much more reliable connection than 802.11g as that distance increases, with much fewer connection dropouts.

And 802.11n really shines when it comes to transferring files over your local home or business network (providing much shorter file copying times), or when streaming video (with much less stuttering/dropped-frames). Those activities make much more use of the capabilities of 802.11n, and you'll notice a huge difference.


QUESTION: But the public WiFi hotspots that I use only support 802.11b or g networking -- so why would the Intel 5300 card be any better for that?

ANSWER: Remember the beam-forming capability of 802.11n? This is performed using multiple antennas and what's called "Antenna Diversity." The Intel 5300 WiFi card can also use "Antenna Diversity" for 802.11g using its 3 antennas. So that helps you improve your 802.11g connections. None of the WiFi cards shipping with netbooks that I've seen use more than 2 antennas. And, to perform Antenna Diversity, 3 antennas work better than 2. So the Intel 5300 gives you better 802.11g connections than the WiFi cards that come with most netbooks.


QUESTION: I see that some netbooks have WiMAX capability -- what's that, and where is it available?

ANSWER: WiMAX is basically a city-wide type of wireless network that provides DSL-like speeds, for as little as $30/month (or $10/day for just an individual day). Here are the locations within the U.S. in which WiMAX service is currently available (BE SURE TO CALL THE WIMAX SERVICE PROVIDER TO VERIFY THAT A PARTICULAR AREA IS COVERED, AND TO DETERMINE AVAILABLE PLANS AND PRICING):

Clearwire Wireless Service Areas
The dots are cities in which it's available, and the shaded areas are where it supposedly will soon become available. For WiMAX, you're charged for each device that you connect directly to the WiMAX network. So, for a home network, for example, you may want to use ethernet to share a single WiMAX connection among multiple computers.

Clearwire offers an arrangement whereby, for a monthly fee, you can use WiMAX whereever WiMAX coverage is available, and automatically switch to Sprint's slower 3G network in all other areas (you'll need additonal equipment for this). WiMAX is basically a 4G (or fourth-generation) network. Be sure to call to verify service availability.

Clear Wireless Service Areas
Clearwire just recently changed its name to Clear. And the service areas are different, omitting some of the service areas listed for Clearwire, and adding other areas! So definitely call to verify service availability.

Sprint Wireless Service Areas
On this page, press the "Clear" button on the right side of the page. Then enter the name of your city/state, or your zip code, and press "Map It" on the right side of the page. Then click on the "Data, Email and Multimedia" tab near the lower right part of the displayed controls. Then, within that tab, select the sub-tab labeled "Sprint Devices with 4G." At that point, any BLUE areas you see indicate the "4G" (i.e. WiMAX) coverage for your area, if it exists.

Just to make things more confusing, Sprint is a major investor in Clear, but competes with Clear in terms of WiMAX service. Some of the areas that the two companies serve are the same, and some are different. And, as mentioned above for Clear/Clearwire, Sprint similarly has a plan that uses Sprint's WiMAX network where it's available, and you automatically switch to Sprint's slower 3G network in all other areas (you'll need additonal equipment for this). But Sprint doesn't call their WiMAX service WiMAX, they instead refer to it as their 4G service.

Some implementations of WiMAX allow you to maintain a connection in a moving vehicle. Ask your WiMAX provider for more details.


QUESTION: Does the Intel 5300 WiFi card support WiMAX operation?

ANSWER: No, but its sister card, the Intel 5350 does. The Intel 5350 costs about $54 online, and is identical to the 5350 except that it adds WiMAX capability. Note that the 5350 can NOT maintain both a WiMAX and WiFi connection simultaneously -- just one or the other. But before buying a 5350, be sure to read the buying tips in my Intel 5350 WiMAX FAQ.


QUESTION: If my netbook came with WiMAX in addition to WiFi, does that mean that I have the best WiFi card?

ANSWER: No, you usually still have the same typical type of WiFi capability that comes with netbooks. WiMAX capability was simply added to that.


QUESTION: Can I replace the WiFi card that came inside my netbook, with the Intel 5300 or 5350 card?

ANSWER: In many cases, yes. Look in support forums for your model of netbook, and look for reports of people making that swap. To find those reports, add the make/model of your netbook (e.g., "Samsung NC20") to the beginning of the following line, then use the result as a search term in Google:

   5350 OR 5350agn OR 5300 OR 5300agn netbook wifi antenna OR antennas OR antennae -"pc2 5300"

But before buying a 5350, be sure to read the buying tips in my Intel 5350 WiMAX FAQ. If you instead want a 5300 card, you can find them here:

Intel 5300 WiFi card


In addition to swapping cards, you'll need to add a third antenna. The best location for the third antenna is inside the display housing. I'm about to write a how-to guide for performing such an installation. A non-metallic (i.e., plastic or composite) display housing works best, because metal housings reduce the strength of WiFi signals. You can also place the antenna inside the base of the netbook (preferably just beneath the palmrest, as far as possible from circuit boards and speakers), although this sacrifices some performance. Here's a source for the antenna that you'll need, plus some tools required to perform the installation:

the 3rd antenna that's needed when installing
either the 5300 or 5350 card
...you'll also need to wear an Antistatic Wrist Strap,
or else you may damage the card when installing it
...here are the tools you'll need,
if you don't already have them


And note that you may need a certain level of technical skill to swap WiFi cards without screwing up your netbook. And, unfortunately, doing so may void your warranty.


QUESTION: I've seen websites that mention other Intel WiFi cards -- what about those cards?

ANSWER:

INTEL 51XX-SERIES CARDS
The Intel 5100 and 5150 (same as 5100, but adds WiMAX) cards are basically stripped-down versions of the 5300 and 5350 cards, respectively. The 51xx cards can use 802.11n at 5 GHz, which is a plus. However, they only use one antenna for transmit (only one stream), and only two antennas for receive (two streams). So except for operation at 5 GHz, they're otherwise similar to the WiFi card that came with your netbook, and I don't recommend them. They don't have the connection speed, range, or reliability of the 53xx cards.

OLDER INTEL CARDS
You also may see mention of Intel's 4965agn card. It supports 802.11n operation at 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz, but uses just 2 antennas for transmit (two streams), and 3 for receive (two streams). It was Intel's top-of-the-line WiFi card until the 5300/5350 came along. So it should be better than the WiFi card that came with your netbook, but not as good as the 53xx cards, and doesn't offer WiMAX operation. However, if possible, you should instead use the 5300/5350 cards.

Note that the 51xx cards and the 5300 come in half-height versions, while the 5350 does not. So, if your computer only has space for half-height cards, then you'll be limited to those cards.


QUESTION: Do other companies make good WiFi cards?

ANSWER: Yes. But the Intel cards are extremely strong contenders, so I'm not going to cover other cards here.

Note that if your netbook uses a non-Intel "chipset" then you may be required to turn to those other cards for replacements. Perform the search I mentioned above, for finding info on swapping your WiFi card, to find out.


QUESTION: I have an HP or Lenovo netbook -- can I swap a better WiFi card into it?

ANSWER: I've read that HP and Lenovo netbooks actually look for an identifier in the WiFi card upon bootup, to make sure that the card was distributed by the netbook's manufacturer. If the identifier doesn't match, then the netbook presents an error to the user and won't boot. For more information perform the search I mentioned above, for finding info on swapping your WiFi card. Plus you can contact your netbook's manufacturer.

Some netbook manufacturers charge a considerable markup when selling WiFi cards as individual parts. Check with your manufacturer.

I don't recommend the following, but some users have gotten around such limitations by installing (flashing) a hacked BIOS into the netbook, or installing a physical switch to disable the WiFi card during bootup (and then they use the switch to enable the card after bootup completes).


BUYING AN 802.11N WIRELESS ROUTER - KNOW THE FOLLOWING OR SUFFER

If you want to buy an 802.11n router, then make sure it says that it supports 802.11n or "Draft-N" operation. Make sure that it has a logo on the box indicating that it's certified by the "WiFi Alliance" for such operation. Any such unit will also support 802.11b/g operation (plus many support the seldom-used 802.11a operation).

An 802.11n wireless router that operates only at 2.4 GHz is called a "single-band" router. An 802.11n wireless router that operates at 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz is called a "dual-band" router (and dual-band is more expensive than single-band).

Many dual-band routers have only one radio, and thus you have to preset these routers to operate in only one band or the other (they're incapable of switching back-and-forth on the fly). These are called "dual-band, single-radio" routers. Other 802.11n wireless routers can SIMULTANEOUSLY connect to laptops using 802.11g at 2.4 GHz, and laptops using 802.11n at 5 GHz. These are called "dual-band, dual-radio" wireless routers (and dual-radio is more expensive than single-radio).

So don't buy an 802.11n wireless router unless you know whether it's single-band or dual-band, and single-radio or dual-radio. I recommend only dual-band. And, as far as the number of radios goes, I recommend a single-radio if you don't have to support 802.11b/g, and a dual-radio if you do. So I recommend using 802.11n operation at 5 GHz.

And only buy a wireless router having 3 or more antennas. Units with antennas "hidden" inside their case tend not to work as well as units with external antennas.

Virtually all of the 802.11n wireless routers currently available support only 2 simultaneous streams of data, whereas upcoming units will support 3 streams. As I mentioned earlier, the Intel 5300/5350 cards support 3 streams of data. The difference is that 2-stream routers only give you a theoretical maximum speed of 300 Mbps, whereas 3-stream units instead yield a maximum of 450 Mbps. So the 3-stream routers, once they become available, should give you 50% faster connections with an Intel 5300/5350 WiFi card, than the current 2-stream routers.

These are the best 802.11n Draft-N routers that I've found:

D-Link DGL-4500 Xtreme N Gaming Router
(dual-band, single-radio)
D-Link DIR-855 Xtreme N Duo Media Router
(dual-band, dual-radio)
Netgear Rangemax WNDR3700 Wireless-N Router
(dual-band, dual-radio)


I bought the D-Link DGL-4500 at approximately the beginning of 2009, and it has proved extremely reliable and has good signal range. I only recommend using its firmware version 1.15 at this time (later firmware versions currently under testing have not yet been confirmed to be trouble-free by the user community). The D-Link DIR-855 is essentially identical to the DGL-4500, hardware-wise, but has dual radios compared to the DGL-4500's single radio.

However, given recent positive reviews of the new Netgear Rangemax WNDR3700 router, I would probably buy that. It sells at a good price for such a high-quality dual-band dual-radio router. It also has a convenient "Guest" user account, which lets you isolate temporary users from the rest of your local network. Here's a detailed technical review of that router. The only problem with the Netgear router is currently its extremely limited availability.

Another competing unit is the Linksys WRT610N, which has received a number of complaints in Amazon reviews regarding its wireless range and a need to manually restart it from time to time. So, based on those complaints, I would not recommend the Linksys unit.

One other way that you can support both 802.11b/g for older computers, and 802.11n (Draft-N) for newer computers, is to keep your old 802.11b/g router and use it in combination with a new DGL-4500. That saves you the extra cost of the DIR-855, and saves you from having to wait for the Netgear Rangemax WNDR3700 to come back in stock.

Good luck!


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