Wireless Networking Simplified: The Terms You Should Know
Do you know the difference between an “access point” and an “ad hoc network? What is a “wireless repeater” and how can it improve your home network? Is a “wireless router” as simple as it sounds, or is there more to it? There are a lot more wireless networking terms around that encompass more than “WiFi” ever could, and it might turn out to be beneficial for you if you knew what these terms meant.
Not only will these terms help you to be more knowledgeable on the networks at home, at school, or at work; they may even prove useful when you need to troubleshoot issues. Nonetheless, wireless networking is a large component of modern technology, so there’s no downside to clarifying your familiarity with these terms.
Before the invention of wireless connections, networks were comprised of long lines of interconnected cables. In order to tap into such a network, you would need to physically connect your device to the network. An access point is a device connected to such a network that allows other devices to tap in wirelessly.
Access points can be either private or public. For example, a home network may have a private access point that’s encrypted and password-protected, allowing only household users to access the network. On the other hand, a café might have a public access point that allows anyone to use their network, otherwise known as a wireless hotspot.
Don’t confuse the term access point with the term wireless router. There is some overlap between the two, but semantically speaking, an access point is different from a wireless router. A wireless router is an access point, but an access point doesn’t have to be a wireless router.
Ad Hoc Network
A wireless ad hoc network is a type of wireless network that doesn’t rely on a preexisting network. The phrase “ad hoc” is used to describe something that’s created for a singular purpose; therefore, a wireless ad hoc network can be thought of as a spontaneous wireless connection between computers for a temporary purpose, such as a file transfer.
The important distinction is that an ad hoc network is decentralized. There is no particular device acting as the hub for wireless activity. In the case of an access point, the access point is the gateway through which all devices must connect into the network. In an ad hoc network, you can think of each participating device as an individual peer.
A wireless router is a device that acts as both an access point and a network router. In other words, it acts as a wireless gateway into the network and routes incoming network data to multiple connections (e.g., desktops, laptops, tablets, phones, gaming consoles, etc.). Again, all wireless routers will have elements of an access point, but not all access points are wireless routers.
When looking to buy a new wireless router, you should first become familiar with the most important wireless router features to see which ones you would make use of. Then, check out this post on what you need to know when buying a wireless router . For those of you who are more advanced, you may want to look into using DD-WRT to supercharge your router .
A wireless repeater, which can also be known as a wireless range extender, is a device that takes a signal from an existing access point and rebroadcasts it as a second network. Users who connect to the second network will actually be part of the initial network but using the repeater as a sort of gateway. As the name would suggest, wireless repeaters are great for extending the range of a wireless network.
While wireless repeaters are useful for situations where a computer is outside a network’s range, it can also be useful for computers which have a weak signal to a network. The repeater can boost signal strength, allowing for a stronger connection. Similarly, a repeater can prove beneficial in cases where there is a lot of interference from walls, metal, or other wireless signals.
Most modern wireless routers offer a “repeater mode” that you can enable, turning the router into a repeater. This is a great way to utilize old routers that you no longer need to boost signal strengths around the house.
Remember that an access point is a device that connects to a wired network and allows other devices to wirelessly connect to said network. A wireless bridge works in a similar but opposite way. The bridge device first connects wirelessly to a network, then allows other devices to connect to it using wires. In essence, a bridge allows wired devices to join a wireless network.
Most modern wireless routers offer a “bridge mode” that you can use to extend your home wireless network to far away wired devices (e.g., a gaming console on the other side of your house) without having to weave long lengths of cabling through multiple rooms. We even have a post detailing how to turn an old router into a wireless bridge .
Wireless Network Adapter
A wireless network adapter allows a device that normally doesn’t have wireless capability to join a wireless network. These adapters are built with the ability to both send and receive wireless signals. Most portable devices, such as laptops and tablets, are manufactured with a wireless network adapter already in place.
Network adapters come in two main forms: the network card and the USB dongle. A network card is installed directly into the motherboard and provides wireless connectivity that way. A USB dongle requires little more than to be plugged into a free USB port, which makes it a more convenient option. In general, though, network cards tend to offer stronger connections and faster speeds than their USB counterparts.
Now you know enough to expand, improve, or troubleshoot your network without getting lost in most of the jargon thrown around left and right. Of course, there are plenty of other terms and acronyms related to networking that we haven’t covered, but when it comes to the physical devices involved, you are now above par.
Have any questions regarding any of the terms laid out here? Feel free to ask in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer.