Desktops: PCI Cards
PCI stands for Peripheral Component
Interconnect. It is an old and established way of installing new
equipment in a desktop computer. If you find a wireless card that looks
like a green rectangle with something sticking out of the end, then what
you've got is a PCI card.
To install a PCI card, you need to --
horror of horrors -- actually unscrew your computer, take the cover of,
and plug the card in inside it. Scary as that might sound, it is
designed to be very easy, and once it's done your computer will have
internal wireless networking capabilities for the rest of its life.
You should go for this option, then, if
you own a desktop computer, and you're not afraid to get your hands
dirty (perhaps literally -- I've seen years worth of dust in those
things) by installing it yourself. Or, of course, if you're willing to
pay someone to do the installation for you.
Laptops: PCMCIA Cards
PCMCIA stands for Personal Computer
Memory Card International Association. A PCMCIA slot is a small slot
in your laptop that allows you to insert these cards and so add
functions to your laptop quickly and easily. They were originally for
memory expansion, but are now more often used for networking.
Almost all laptops have PCMCIA slots.
If you're not sure whether yours does, take a look at the side of the
machine -- you should see a slot there, probably near the CD drive. Even
if you do have a slot, you need to make sure it's free, by pressing the
button to eject anything that might be in there. If it's an Ethernet
card then, well, not to worry, as you can just replace that, but if it's
anything else then you might want to consider using USB instead.
For 99% of laptop owners, at least,
it's best to use PCMCIA -- the only reason some go with USB is because
they didn't know they had an alternative.
The Third Way: USB
Whether you're using a desktop computer
or a laptop, you can use USB (Universal Serial Bus). USB ports
look like very small slots, and could be almost anywhere on your
computer -- but it will help you to locate them if you remember that
they very rarely appear in groups of less than two. Computers have come
with these USB ports for years now, and newer computers often come with
four or even more. If you need more space, you can buy a splitter (a USB
hub) that allows you to use more devices than you have ports for.
So where's the problem? Well, you
wanted a wireless network, right? With USB, your network won't be
entirely wireless, as there will still be a small wire between your
computer and the USB device -- it might not sound like much, but it
makes USB wireless on laptops a bit of a joke.
Another factor is that small USB
devices are very easy to break -- when I used to use USB wireless, I
went through three new receivers inside a year. This is offset, of
course, by the fact that USB wireless cards are usually the cheapest
ones, and are far simpler to install than PCI.
Essentially, if you're a laptop user
without a free PCMCIA slot, or you're a desktop user who doesn't relish
the prospect of opening up your PC, then USB is a good 'third way' for
If you do go the USB route, however,
and you have a reasonably new computer, you should check whether the
device you're buying supports USB2. Most newer computers have USB2
ports, and using specially-designed USB2 devices with them can give you
a significant speed boost.