Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2) makes it much easier to connect a computer to the Internet over those fantastic wireless networks.
SP2 is the suite of security technologies that make computers more secure from hackers, viruses, worms, and other threats. However, it includes other improvements that make computing simpler and more productive.
If you haven t downloaded SP2 yet, head for the Microsoft s web site (http://windowsupdate.microsoft.com). It can take hours to download the files over a dialup connection on regular telephone lines. People with dialup connections might do better by ordering SP2 on a free CD-ROM (www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/sp2). Click on Order a CD.
SP2 includes some dramatic improvements in wireless networking, which are easy to overlook. They re for the growing number of people with laptop or desktop computers equipped to connect to the Internet without a cable.
Some newer laptops are wireless-ready. An inexpensive wireless card, which can be purchased at local stores or online, will do it for older laptops. Add-on cards and other wireless gear also are available for desktop computers.
You ve got to be old enough to remember the early days of personal computing to appreciate the marvel of wireless networking.
When traveling overseas with a portable computer in the 1980s, for instance, it often took hours of frustrating work to successfully make a connection.
I m writing this column from a small hotel in rural France. The telephones don t even have modular plugs. Years ago, I would have had to take the phone apart and hard-wire the connection. I even carried a tool kit with wire snips, screwdrivers, and other stuff.
This hotel, however, offers wireless Internet service. The Internet connection is broadcast on radio waves throughout the building. Anyone with a wireless-ready computer can use it. Turn the laptop on, it recognizes that a wireless connection is available, and is ready to connect. Unbelievable!
Similar wireless connections are available in a growing number of hotels world wide, as well as coffee shops, bars, buildings on college campuses, and elsewhere.
Computers equipped for wireless display a special network icon near the system clock at one end of the Task Bar. Right click on the icon, select View Available Wireless Networks, and SP2 s biggest wireless networking improvement appears.
Called the Wireless Network Connection dialog box, it generates a list of all the wireless networks with signals strong enough to use. The list includes signal strength, connection status, and other information, including whether you need a key, or password, to use the network.
Tip: If no network names appear, click Refresh Network List in the upper left edge of the box. It makes the system take a fresh look for available networks.
Connecting to some networks can be as easy as clicking on the network name, and then on Connect. Others involve downloading instructions or going to the network provider s web page and entering a user name and password.