As the price of wireless networking equipment has dropped over the past year, the major computer manufacturers have begun offering customers a variety of wireless options. Whether your enterprise needs a hundred laptops with integrated wireless NICs or your small office needs a single access point and two wireless PC cards, two of the largest computer manufacturers, Dell and Gateway, have you covered. Let’s take a look at several of the wireless options these two companies offer.

Dell’s TrueMobile Wireless
Dell’s TrueMobile customers have their choice of four wireless devices: an integrated TrueMobile 1150 Wireless Mini-PCI card, an external TrueMobile 1150 Wireless PCMCIA card, a TrueMobile 1170 Wireless Base Station, and a TrueMobile 1170 Wireless Access Point.

Wireless adapters
At the time of this article’s publication, the integrated Mini-PCI card costs about $100 and is available on several Inspiron and Latitude laptop models. The external 1150 PC Card, which retails for around $70, works with all Inspiron and Latitude laptops and with all Dell desktops. To use the PC card with a desktop, however, you’re required to purchase an additional PCI adapter card for around $75.

Access points and base stations
The TrueMobile 1170 Wireless Base Station costs around $175 and is designed primarily for the home or home office. It supports up to 16 wireless clients, allows for 128-bit encryption, and has a maximum open-environment range of 300 feet. The 1170 Wireless Base Station has a single 10/100 Fast Ethernet connection, can serve as an Internet router—when used with an existing cable or xDSL modem—and includes a NAT firewall.

For business environments, Dell offers the TrueMobile 1170 Access Point that retails for about $650. The 1170 Access Point is compatible with all 802.11b wireless cards; supports up to 32 wireless clients; has a built-in NAT firewall; works as a DHCP server; and has Ethernet, PCMCIA, and serial ports. The maximum range for the 1170 Access Point is 1,750 feet in an open office environment, 375 feet in a semi-open environment, and 165 feet in a closed office environment.

Understanding wireless LAN protocols

The 802.11b protocol provides for data transmission speeds up to 11 Mbps and operates at a frequency of 2.4 GHz. Other flavors of the 802.11 wireless protocols exist such as 802.11a and 802.11g. Read this article to learn more about wireless LAN protocols and equipment or this article for a general overview of WLAN technology.

Gateway focuses on Intel equipment
Currently, Gateway customers who want to go wireless can choose equipment from both Proxim’s ORiNOCO product line and Intel’s PRO/Wireless line. However, because Proxim’s equipment is being quickly phased out in favor of Intel’s product line, I will cover only the Intel offerings here.

Access points and base stations
Gateway offers three different Intel access points: the Intel PRO/Wireless 5000 LAN Dual Access Point, the Intel PRO/Wireless 2011B LAN Access Point, and the Intel Wireless Base Station. Enterprise customers or those who are considering a move to 802.11a equipment should definitely consider the PRO/Wireless 5000 first. This dual-mode access point supports both the 802.11a and 802.11b protocols, offers 128-bit WEP encryption, and can handle up to 64 clients. The PRO/Wireless 5000 offers throughput speeds up to 54 Mbps for 802.11a clients, up to 11 Mbps for 802.11b clients, has a maximum range of 300 feet, and sells for around $600.

For organizations that want a cheaper alternative to the PRO/Wireless 5000 and that don’t need 802.11a support, Gateway offers the Intel PRO/Wireless 2011B LAN Access Point. This 802.11b-only device supports up to 60 clients, provides data throughput up to 11 Mbps, offers 128-bit WEP encryption, and has a maximum range of 300 feet. Unfortunately, at $450 the PRO/Wireless 2011B is only $150 less than the PRO/Wireless 5000. If you can spare the extra $150, I would definitely go with the PRO/Wireless 5000 with its dual-mode support and greater client capacity.

Intel’s Wireless Base Station is Gateway’s wireless option for the small or home office environment. Marketed primarily as an Internet connection-sharing tool, this 802.11b device features an integrated router, a NAT firewall, and a DHCP server. It can manage up to 16 wireless and 16 wired clients. The Wireless Base Station supports 128-bit encryption and costs around $190.

Wireless adapters
When it comes to wireless adapters, Gateway gives customers a choice between Intel’s PRO/Wireless 2011B LAN USB Device, Intel’s PRO/Wireless 2011B LAN PC Card, and on some laptop models, an integrated 802.11b wireless adapter. All three of these wireless adapters support the 802.11b protocol, allow for data throughput of up to 11 Mbps, support 128-bit WEP encryption, and cost about $90. The integrated wireless adapter is available on the 450 and 600 series laptops while the USB device and PC card can be purchased with any Gateway computer. However, there is a catch.

As I mentioned, if you want to use a wireless PC card with a desktop, you’ll need a PCI adapter card. The Gateway sales representative that I spoke with said Gateway doesn’t install PC cards and PCI adapters in their desktops. They would be happy, however, to sell me a PC card and a third-party PCI adapter that I could install myself. A wireless PCI adapter costs between $35 and $130, depending on the brand.