A network is a way of getting computers and accessories such as printers to communicate with each other. This means you can share files, such as music or video content, between computers. So, the kids can listen on the laptop in the bedroom to music stored on the main PC in the living room. They can also share an Internet connection, and share printers so that everyone in the house can print to one printer.
What's a wireless network?
Simply it's a network or connection without wires. It uses radio waves to transmit information around. There are several different standards, the main one being 802.11g. The latest version called 802.11n is as fast as Ethernet(108Mb/s). The main difference between the two is that 11n can run faster and over a longer distance than 11g.
If you are investing in wireless technology for the first time, then an 11n network might be your best bet, as you'll be able to do more with it in the future; for example, the speed at which it operates provides better quality video streaming. However, if you already have existing wireless kit (e.g. A laptop that has built-in wireless) then it's unlikely to be able to operate at 11n speeds-so an 11g network is probably good enough.
For example many laptops and netbooks now come with 802.11n as standard. However, a Nintendo Wii is only 11g so if this was connected to an 11n network, it would bring down the speed to that of an 11g network, same with the PS3 and Xbox 360.
What do I need?
The basic element is a wireless router . This will connect to your broadband (you will need a wire between the router and the broadband-enabled phone socket) and send out the wireless signal. Routers come in two main types: an ADSL router for broadband over a BT phone line, or a cable router for cable broadband such as Virgin. icid=wirelessnetwork_buyingguide_link1Most laptops and many printers are now enabled to work with wireless technology. The majority of desktop PCs will require a dongle or wireless card for this technology to work.
If the network isn't properly secured then anyone within range could connect to your network and "borrow" your Internet access, or worse access all your computer files. It's therefore vital to ensure you are properly secure, ideally secure it by changing the router password and network id (SSID) and using WPA or WPA2 with a personal key (PSK).
How do I set it all up?
For people reasonably comfortable with computers, it's not too difficult. Basically, you'll need to set up the router to connect to your broadband connection with your login and password supplied by your broadband supplier, set up a name and security for the network and router, set up file and print sharing as needed, and then connect your wireless kit to the network.
My broadband supplier has already given me a router. What now?
Some broadband suppliers (e.g. Sky) supply a wireless router that is pre-configured with your broadband login details. It's then a simpler job to set up the wireless security and router security and connect to it, though file and print sharing will still need to be configured. Note that some broadband suppliers as part of the contract require you to use their equipment, so you can't swap out the router they've given you for a faster 11n router, for example.
What if I don't want to go wireless?
Unless you're lucky enough to have a house that's been wired up with Cat5 cables and network ports then one of the easiest alternatives to wireless is to use Powerline or HomePlug adapters. They're also really useful to get a network connection in houses that struggle with wireless networks due to their size, or having thick stone walls. They work by transmitting the network data over your mains electrical wiring. You simply plug one adapter into a mains wall socket near your router and connect them together with an Ethernet Cat5 cable, and then plug the other adapter into a wall socket near where your other equipment is, and run an additional Ethernet cable from this second adapter to your other equipment - which could be a PC or a laptop, a games console, Blu-ray player or even a TV.