Once you’ve hooked up your most speed-critical devices via Ethernet, it’s time to think about what should connect wirelessly. The most obvious answer: anything that moves around the house, including laptops and iPhones. Additionally, anything that you can’t or don’t want to connect via wired Ethernet, such as Apple TV, can still connect wirelessly.
When You Need It
As we explained, just because something can be connected wirelessly doesn’t necessarily mean it should be. But in some cases, Wi-Fi is the best connection; other times, it’s just a good fallback solution.
Mobile Devices Most electronics that move—including your laptop, iPhone (or other Wi-Fi-ready smartphone), iPod Touch, and Wi-Fi-enabled digital camera (including those with Eye-Fi cards)—should connect wirelessly. While you may on occasion want to connect your laptop via wired Ethernet (such as when transferring large files or doing a big backup), for the most part Wi-Fi is more convenient.
Fixed Devices If you don’t transfer a lot of big files to or from your desktop Mac, or back up over the network, Wi-Fi is fine for less-demanding connectivity.
Networked Printers These don’t require much bandwidth and are good candidates for Wi-Fi, although setting things up may require printer sharing.
Game Consoles and Streaming Media Boxes Although it’s best to hook these up via Ethernet (as explained above), many of them (for example, Apple TV, PlayStation 3, Roku Netflix Player, Sonos, and Squeezebox) include built-in Wi-Fi or have optional Wi-Fi adapters (for example, TiVo Series 2 and Xbox 360). If you find that built-in Wi-Fi works acceptably, you can certainly use it.
What to Buy
If you have a modern Mac or an AirPort base station that supports the 802.11n standard (now at Draft 2.0), you may already have all the wireless networking you need. But if you don’t, you may need to upgrade your wireless hardware. Your network will only go as fast as the slowest component, so unless your Macs, your wireless router, and the peripherals you’re connecting wirelessly all support 802.11n, they’ll network at only a fraction of the speed they otherwise could.
Both the current AirPort Extreme and Time Capsule fill that bill, so you could upgrade to either one. Most Mac owners will default to that Apple hardware, but you should give third-party routers some consideration. Many have features that Apple’s hardware doesn’t. For example:
A Wide Selection of Products and Price Points Highly-rated wireless routers from vendors other than Apple can be had for $80 to $100, about half the cost of an AirPort Extreme.
True Dual-Band For the same price as an AirPort Extreme, you can buy a router that will run two simultaneous 802.11n networks—one in the 2.4GHz spectrum, another at 5GHz. (In contrast, the AirPort Extreme and Time Capsule run a single network on one frequency or the other.) That can be a huge advantage, because it lets you separate your network traffic into two wireless streams. You could dedicate one to video streaming and the other to computing traffic, or one to open guest access and the other to a private encrypted network. All current Mac Wi-Fi devices can operate on both frequencies.
Better Gaming Some third-party routers are specifically tuned for online gaming, with port triggering and especially fast processors.
UPnP Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) makes it easier to install some network peripherals, such as media servers, game consoles, wireless videocams, and set-top streaming video boxes.
Advanced Networking Options Most third-party routers support such handy networking tools as Dynamic DNS (DDNS, which makes it easier to remotely access your LAN from the Internet) and better routing and content filtering.
Better Hardware Several routers let you connect add-on antennas, which can solve wireless coverage issues. And most have more Ethernet ports than AirPort Extreme or Time Capsule.
That said, third-party routers are missing some features that make AirPort handy. None support Time Machine backups. Few of them have USB ports for attaching printers and hard drives. Other vendors lack Apple’s skill in user interface design, so their setup software will require you to summon up your inner nerd. (Belkin and Linksys are notable exceptions.) And using a third-party wireless router means that you have two vendors, not one, to call if you encounter problems.
If you do opt for a third-party router, be prepared for a bit more work than you’d face with Apple hardware. Although Belkin and Linksys offer excellent Mac setup utilities, the configuration software for most non-Apple routers—if they come with configuration software at all—is Windows-only. But you can still configure most such routers from your Web browser.
The usual setup routine is this: Plug the router in to your Mac via Ethernet. Enter the router’s default IP address in your browser. (Make sure your Mac’s Ethernet port is set to Using DHCP in the Advanced window of the Network Preferences pane.) Enter a user name and password to access the router’s configuration screens. They are typically crude compared to Apple’s, but you can usually find what you need quickly.
Finding some of those access details can be tricky. The default IP address (usually something like 192.168.0.1 or 192.168.2.1) and password (often admin, password, or blank) should be, but aren’t always, specified in the user documentation. If there are no printed docs, look for a PDF file on the install CD, or browse the support area of the vendor’s Web site.
After entering the password, you’ll be at the configuration utility home screen, and from here on you can follow the same directions in the manual as for PC users.
If you buy a simultaneous dual-band router, such as the D-Link DIR-655 or the Linksys WRT310N, you can use that setup screen to create two separate networks—one on the 2.4GHz band, the other at 5GHz. Just make sure that the devices you want to put on the 5GHz net support it. Most new HD-capable streamers with built-in Wi-Fi—including Apple TV and Windows Media Center Extenders—do.
[Becky Waring is a Berkeley, California-based technology writer and former MacWeek reviews editor.]