Wireless access is so common these days that most people have their own, or can access, a wireless network. With Windows or Mac OS X, configuring the wireless network card in your laptop is easy. The same can't be said for Linux; it's possible, but not quite as simple. One problem is drivers: hardware manufacturers rarely release Linux drivers, and it's up to the community to write their own. Open source drivers perform admirably with some hardware, but in others it's not even an option.
A popular choice of wireless NIC for laptop manufacturers is a card based on the Broadcom chipset. If your laptop is an x86 laptop, chances are the open source ndiswrapper program will allow you to get your laptop running wirelessly. If your laptop and OS are x86_64 (or 64-bit) things get a little more challenging.
A few months ago, Linuxant released its commercial DriverLoader package with support for x86_64 systems. It, like ndiswrapper, is a Linux driver wrapper that uses a Windows driver to communicate with the wireless card. In the case of the Broadcom chipset, you can download 64-bit drivers for Windows from the Linuxant Web site and use these drivers with Linuxant to get the Broadcom wireless card working flawlessly under Linux.
Linuxant is a commercial application, and it will cost you $20 for a perpetual license, but if the alternative is a new PCMCIA card or even using 802.11b rather than 802.11g, the cost is well worth it. Using a simple Web interface, you can configure the driver itself and then use your distribution's wireless configuration tools to set up specifics of the card, such as ESSID, WEP encryption key, and so forth.
All in all, if your laptop already has built-in wireless support but you can't get it working with standard open source drivers, giving Linuxant a try may pay off. With a 30-day trial, you can ensure that the driver works properly before paying for the perpetual license.
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Vincent Danen works on the Red Hat Security Response Team and lives in Canada. He has been writing about and developing on Linux for over 10 years and is a veteran Mac user.