Although wireless-networking products all look roughly the same, some equipment is easier to understand and install than others. Our tests of four popular brands showed two clear winners.
The top equipment pick overall is from Netgear. The latest versions are the WGT624 108 Mbps Wireless Firewall Router ($94 suggested retail price, $70 at online discounters) and the WG511T 108 Mbps Wireless PC Card ($72, $60). Pros: Compact router design, reliable and stable connections, well-organized browser-based controls and easy-to-operate adapter-card software. Cons: None.
We also like Linksys gear. The latest versions offered are the WRT54GS Wireless-G Broadband Router with SpeedBooster ($100, $85) and the WPC54GS Wireless-G Notebook Adapter with SpeedBooster ($80, $60). Pros: Reliable connections, well-organized controls for both the router and the network cards. Con: Bulky router.
Our tests left us less impressed by the next two brands. In third place are the Belkin F5D7231-4 High-Speed Mode Wireless G Router ($104, $85) and the F5D7011 High-Speed Mode Wireless GNotebook Network Card ($70, $60). Pros: Slick router controls and card software offer detailed signal strength and performance reporting. Cons: Troublesome router setup had us frequently rebooting the unit and going back to factory defaults.
Our least favorite brand is the D-Link DI-624 AirPlus XtremeG 108 Mbps Broadband Router ($150, $75) and D-Link DWL-G650 AirPlus XtremeG Laptop Adapter ($70, $43). Pros: Capable performance, useful performance monitoring in the adapter software. Cons: Poorly designed router controls are confusing, wireless connection kept dropping on and off. We couldn't get all the security modes to work.
Looking for the next big thing in wireless? It's multimedia. Adapters that will wirelessly connect your computer to audio and video devices are now available. For example, the Creative Labs Sound Blaster Wireless Music adapter ($200 suggested, $178 discounted) uses a wireless link to stream digital music files from your PC's hard drive using your router. It connects to your stereo receiver via RCA or digital optical cables.
One failing of many current wireless-media products is that they can't play back protected content, such as audio files downloaded from Musicmatch, iTunes or other fee-based online sources. Look for media adapters — including devices based on Microsoft's Windows Media Center Extender technology — that will let you send all types of protected audio and video files from your PC to play on a stereo or TV. Expect these devices to hit stores close to the holiday season.