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Sending out strong signals

Jun 05, 20034 mins
Cellular NetworksNetwork Security

* Extend your wireless network range with signal boosters from Linksys and SMC


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Everyone always wants more, and wireless computer users are no exception. Since they’re no longer tethered to the network, they want more distance from their Wi-Fi 802.11b access points.

To increase the distance between the wireless client and access point, you need to boost the signal strength of one or the other. Linksys increases the signal strength of the access point with the WSB24 Wireless Signal Booster ($146 list price), which sits atop the WAP11 or BEFW11S4 access point.

SMC took the other route, boosting the power of its EliteConnect 802.11b High Power Wireless PC Card ($139.99 list price) up to 200 milliwatts (mW). 100mW is considered the power high end for most 802.11b PC Cards, and some use only 50mW. SMC claims doubling the power improves throughput as much as threefold by reducing multipath distortion, meaning stronger signals are less affected by other signals and by their own reflections.

But do they work? After several hours reworking my home network and wandering around with my laptop, I can say that yes, they do.

I took signal strength measurements four ways: standard 802.11b, adding the Wireless Signal Booster, adding the SMC High Power Wireless PC Card to the standard access point and then with both the signal booster and high-powered PC Card. For each configuration, I checked signal strength in four places: same office as the wireless access point, the next room (20 feet and a wall away), at the top of the stairs (50 feet and a wall and a floor away), and in the kid’s playroom (75 feet and two walls and a floor away).

Here are the figures for the tested combinations. Note, higher signal strength and speeds are better. Also, the rates reported in the speed column were what the client software reported. I didn’t actually get 11M bit/sec.

* Standard configuration

802.11b using Linksys Wireless Access Point and an available NetGear 802.11a/b dual-speed PC Card set for 802.11b (location/signal strength/speed):

Office – 85% to 90% – 11M bit/sec

Kitchen – 40% to 50% – 11M bit/sec

Top of stairs – 40% to 50% – 11M bit/sec

Farthest room – 10% to 15% – 1M to 2M bit/sec

* Linksys Wireless Signal Booster

NetGear PC Card, with Wireless Signal Booster added to Linksys Wireless Access Point:

Office – 90% to 95% – 11M bit/sec

Kitchen – 45% to 55% – 11M bit/sec

Top of stairs – 45% to 55% – 11M bit/sec

Farthest room – 35% to 45% – 11M bit/sec with dips to 5.5M bit/sec

* SMC High Power Wireless PC Card

Standard 802.11b Linksys Access Point and SMC High Power Wireless PC Card:

Office – 100% – 11M bit/sec

Kitchen – 100% – 11M bit/sec

Top of stairs – 90% to 100%  – 11M bit/sec

Farthest room – 50% to 70% – 11M bit/sec

* Both the Wireless Signal Booster and High Power Wireless PC Card

Office – 100% – 11M bit/sec

Kitchen – 100% – 11M bit/sec

Top of stairs – 100% – 11M bit/sec

Farthest room – 75% to 100% – 11M bit/sec

Not surprisingly, combining the SMC PC Card with the Linksys Signal Booster provided the best signal strength over distance and through walls. Of course, it also costs the most because you need to upgrade the devices at both ends of your wireless signals. But since the prices of these units aren’t out of line with standard 802.11b devices, new purchases will give you more range for your dollar.

If you have more clients than access points, the Linksys Wireless Signal Booster might be best because one access point supports them all. If you have only a few clients or non-Linksys access points, the SMC High Power Wireless PC Card could be better because it works with any 802.11b access point. The Linksys Signal Booster only works with two Linksys access points. If you want your personal laptop to network faster and more reliably, get the SMC High Power Wireless PC Card. If you manage a wireless network, both products give you more for your money.