“I love it when things work like they’re supposed to!”

That has long been my favorite little catch phrase when setting up and configuring new IT solutions. Sadly enough, that phrase has become even more special to me because it’s so rare that I actually get to say it when working with today’s technologies.

However, I was able to enthusiastically utter this phrase when configuring a wireless LAN connection using Windows XP. As I recently wrote, the most valuable new feature of Windows XP is the way that it seamlessly handles WLAN configuration and roaming. Now it’s time to walk you through the process of setting up a WLAN network card in XP to prove just how intuitive it is.

Install the WLAN network card
Of course, the first thing to do is pop a WLAN network adapter into your system—and it’s still best to do this while the system is shutdown. In most cases, you’ll probably be putting a PC Card adapter into a laptop system. However, there are also PCI and USB adapters for desktop systems.

For this example, I am installing an ORiNOCO Gold PC Card into a Dell laptop. I chose the ORiNOCO card because it had good reviews from industry experts and buyers, and I was happy with the choice; the card proved to have excellent range while holding a strong signal. I highly recommend the card for corporate installs.

In my case, Windows XP was already installed on the system before I added the WLAN network adapter, but for the purposes of this tutorial, you will achieve the same effect by installing the WLAN card before loading Windows XP. If you had already installed a WLAN card (and its drivers and utilities) in a previous version of Windows, and you are now upgrading to XP, you need to watch out for a gotcha. Before upgrading to XP, uninstall the drivers and utilities that came with the WLAN card. If you don’t, then you could run into some errors and conflicts with your WLAN configuration when you upgrade to XP.

Verify that XP recognizes the WLAN card
Once you power on your system, Windows XP should automatically recognize your WLAN card. (It has a vast database of WLAN adapter drivers built in.) After it is recognized, Windows will automatically add it to the list of available interfaces in Network Connections. To verify this:

  1. Click Start | Control Panel.
  2. Click Network And Internet Connections.
  3. Click Network Connections.

You should then see an icon that says Wireless Network Connection. Double-click that icon to bring up the Wireless Network Connection Status dialog box (Figure A). This should look familiar. It’s basically the same as the Local Area Connection Status dialog box you see when you double-click on a standard Ethernet NIC, but there’s one distinction. The wireless version has a nice little graphic with green bars to show the signal strength of your radio wave connection.

Figure A
The WLAN status box shows the signal strength of the wireless connection.

Configuring wireless networks
When you’re ready to configure your WLAN settings, click the Properties button. This will bring up the network settings properties (Figure B) that you’re probably familiar with. They’re the same as the network properties for a standard Ethernet NIC, but with one important addition: When you are configuring a WLAN network card, you will see a tab called Wireless Networks.

Figure B
WLAN adapters have an additional configuration tab, Wireless Networks.

Click on this tab, as we’ve done in Figure C. Now, you can configure your WLAN adapter to connect to various wireless access points (WAPs).

Figure C
The Wireless Networks tab is where you handle WLAN setup.

First, you’ll need to make sure the Use Windows To Configure My Wireless Network Settings check box is selected. (This is the default setting.) You’ll notice that there are two sections to this tab: Available Networks and Preferred Networks. In the Preferred Networks section, you can manually set up a connection to a WAP by clicking the Add button. You can then enter the Network Name (SSID) for the access point and set up Wireless Encryption Privacy (WEP), as shown in Figure D.

Figure D
The Wireless Network Properties screen enables you to set up a connection to an access point.

Another way to connect to a WAP is to click the Refresh button in the Available Networks section. Windows will go out and look for nearby access points and give you a list of them. Just click on the one you want to use and then click Configure. This will pull up the same Wireless Network Properties screen that you saw in Figure D, only the Network Name will automatically be populated. After you tinker with the settings and click OK, the WAP will be placed on your list of Preferred Networks.

Now, when you roam to new locations (especially ones that you’ll probably be returning to later), you can simply let Available Connections find the access points, and you can add them to your preferred networks with a few clicks. When you return to that location, your laptop should then automatically connect you to the WAP, and you’ll have network access without having to do any special reconfiguration.

If you have multiple access points in a single location, you can add them all to your Preferred Networks list and simply use the Move Up and Move Down buttons to prioritize them.

There’s one more setting you should be aware of on this screen, which you can access by clicking the Advanced button. Here, you set your preference in terms of connecting to WLANs powered by access points or connecting to peer-to-peer WLANs (basically just connecting to other client machines that have WLAN network adapters installed). You also have a third option of connecting to Any Available Network, which will show you both of these categories. Obviously, in a corporate environment, you’ll probably want to rely on access points. You’ll also probably want to leave the Automatically Connect To Non-preferred Networks check box deselected.

WLAN authentication and security
Another nice feature of the Windows XP implementation of WLANs is that it has built-in support for IEEE 802.1X security. This makes it easy to require identity verification for WLAN adapters via a variety of standard authentication mechanisms including RADIUS, smart cards, and certificates. This can be configured on the Authentication tab (Figure E) of the network adapter’s properties page.

Figure E
The Authentication tab makes it easy to configure 802.1X security.

It’s important to note that 802.1X security is not limited to WLANs. It can be used for standard 10/100 Ethernet connections as well.

Basic monitoring and troubleshooting
Once you make your WLAN connection, you can easily monitor the reception and bandwidth of your connection. First, go into the properties of your WLAN network adapter (which appears in Figure B). Then, select the Show Icon In Notification Area When Connected check box. This will put a small icon with two computers in the System Tray (in the lower right-hand corner of your screen). The icon will indicate when data is being sent over this network interface by changing colors. (The little computer screens change from navy blue to sky blue when data is moving.) When you hover your mouse over this icon, you’ll see a screen tip displaying connection information. This includes the name of the wireless network that you are connected to (usually the WAP), the connection speed (in Mbps), and the signal strength of your radio wave connection (from Very Low to Excellent).

All in all, Windows XP greatly streamlines the configuration and implementation of WLANs. In addition, it improves functionality (especially roaming) and makes it easier to implement security features such as WEP and RADIUS. To my surprise, I even found that the WLAN client software that’s built into XP is superior to the third-party drivers and utilities that come with WLAN cards for use in older versions of Windows. I found that in XP, the WLAN cards have an easier time locating and holding wireless connections, and they don’t suffer from as many inconsistencies and hiccups.

I have not been a huge fan of XP. However, its WLAN implementation is the one area where XP is head-and-shoulders above all previous versions of Windows client operating systems. If you want to configure laptops for extensive use of WLANs, you should definitely consider upgrading them to XP, especially if they are going to be roaming among different access points and/or different physical locations.