November 28, 2002

How low-cost 802.11b and Linux have improved my life

- By Robin 'Roblimo' Miller -

I was in the computer section of Circuit City, a major consumer electronics retailer, when I saw an 802.11b wireless router on sale for $89 (after $30 mail-in rebate). A salesman walked up and asked if he could help me. I asked, "Can you tell me if this works with Linux?" He said, "It sure does." This short conversation tells you just how far Linux has come in the last few years, and the router itself shows how far wireless networking has come.

I remember when coworker Jeff "Hemos" Bates (of Slashdot) started experimenting with a wireless home network. The wireless access point cost him close to $400 and the PCMCIA cards cost nearly $200 each. He had to download and compile software to run the PCMCIA cards, and was forced to use a Windows computer to set up the access point, and getting everything working took him an entire weekend.

This was two years ago.

Fast-forward to the present. You can now find 802.11b wireless cards on sale for as little as $50 -- possibly less -- with a little shopping. You can find access points for under $100. Almost every modern Linux distribution includes support for common 802.11b cards, so setting one up in your computer has become a click-click no-brainer. And yes, some of the salespeople at Circuit City and similar stores now know what Linux is and can steer you toward Linux-friendly products.

What's more, while we still grouse about hardware support for Linux, the Netgear MR314 wireless router I bought said right on the box that it would work with Linux and Unix. If I had not bought it on impulse, but had gone to Netgear's Web site for help in picking equipment, I would have found that their product selector page included Linux as one of the operating system options.

Plug and play

The Netgear router was so easy to set up that -- literally -- the hardest part of the operation was getting the box open without tearing it. I plugged everything in, restarted my cable modem in accordance with the instructions on the (Linux-readable) CD in the box, and that was that. I was online wirelessly with one of my laptops without a bit of thought.

My #2 laptop did not have a wireless connection configured. I plugged in an SMC 802.11b card I had around, clicked on the Mandrake "Controls" icon, put in my root password, and let the system autodetect the wireless card and set it up. The script behind the GUI interface took about 150 seconds to run. I was then asked if I wanted to start the network. I clicked "Yes" and that was that. My next move was to pick up laptop #1 and take it outside to my little patio to work, since there is no point in being in Florida this time of year and staying inside.

About two hours later my laptop beeped to remind me of one important thing I had forgotten: To bring my power brick out to the patio. This IBM T-20 ThinkPad gets along fine with APM in Linux, and kindly reminded me I was running out of battery in plenty of time to get plugged in before I lost any work.

(APM was automatically configured by Mandrake 9.0 when I first installed it on this laptop last week, by the way. This, too, is a great advance. My early attempts to get APM working with Linux, a few years ago, were -- to put it mildly -- frustrating.)

Changes in computing, changes in attitude

My personal computer use patterns have changed radically for the better since 1996 because of four major technological advances:

  • In 1997 Linux started getting easy enough to use that an ordinary person like me could use it as a full-time operating system. It was still work to get Linux going and do everything, but in return for that work I freed myself from system crashes, viruses, and other PC disasters too many people seem to believe are an inevitable part of home or office computing.

  • 1999 was the year laptops started getting powerful enough, and laptop prices came down enough, that I could afford to move to a laptop full-time and work in any room of my house where I had a CAT-5 jack and a power outlet instead of being tied to an office. And, at the same time, laptop screens started getting bright enough that you could use the things in fully-lit roooms, even outdoors in a shady location.

  • In 2000 (roughly) Linux GUI tools and user-level software matured to the point where I no longer needed to keep a terminal window open all the time in order to perform basic tasks like file management or getting information from a CD. This let me spend more of my screen/keyboard time thinking about my writing, and less time (and brainpower) thinking about computer functions.

  • In 2001 wireless started getting so easy and cheap that I went 100% wireless. Suddenly the old line, "You can't take a computer into the bathroom like a newspaper or book," was no longer true. In my case, the bathroom part was not important. The ability to work outdoors was the biggest lifestyle change a wireless network gave me. I am basically an outdoors person. One of my biggest gripes about having become a full-time writer and editor was that the workd tied me to an indoor office. Now I do most of my work outdoors. Yay!

The next stage is a truly useful PDA with a wireless connection for on-the-spot reporting, and I mean a PDA that will integrate seamlessly with my Linux computers. The next-generation Sharp Zaurus, with its integrated keyboard, may fit that bill. Supposedly they'll get me a demo unit at some point, but they are apparently still having some problems with the latest model and are delaying the release of review units until they feel thet have a fighting chance of positive reviews. Perhaps I'll break down and go for a Palm-powered PDA, although I have become so used to an open source operating system that I am now leery of almost all proprietary software, expecially at the OS level. (sigh)

How quickly we forget!

In 1996 -- just six years ago -- I had a huge, clunky desktop computer that cost more than the laptop I am using now. The thing crashed twice a day, minimum, usually at the most inconvenient possible times, and I had several virus problems that caused me major grief even though I had antivirus software installed. Most of the software I used cost more than I could really afford, but I had to have it if I wanted to work. Now I use almost nothing but free software, and I haven't had a system crash -- or a virus -- for years. And Linux is much easier to use and administer than the proprietary operating system I had in 1996.

My Internet connection then was strictly dialup, and was usually slower than the 14.4K I get from my backup cell phone data connection now.

I no longer suffer from eyestrain if I look at my computer screen for more than a few hours at a time. I love LCD monitors. Indeed, half the reason I switched to a laptop full-time was that once you included the cost of an LCD monitor, there was little cost difference between a laptop and a desktop. The funny thing is, in 1996 I had a 14" monitor, no bigger than the laptop screen I have now, except the laptop screen is closer to my eyes, and sits at a more comfortable angle. A bigger monitor wouldn't do me much good. I am limited by the "near vision" area in my bifocals. (I have terrible eyes.)

Computer hardware has gotten better, connectivity has gotten better, Linux has gotten better, and it is now easier than ever to have great connectivity on a wide range of hardware with Linux.

In between all the Linux/Open Source bickering and software patent fears, new Internet regulations (not that long ago there was no Internet to regulate), and anti-P2P measures (file trading, too, is rather new), we need to take a few minutes to remember just how much better our computing lives are than they were five or six years back.

If you're in the U.S., consider this article a hint that recent computing advances -- including easy, inexpensive, Linux-compatible wireless networking -- ought to be in your Thanksgiving thoughts.

If you're not in the U.S., you can be thankful for these advances even if you don't celebrate a holiday this week.

And, of course, the best thing for all of us to do -- no matter where we are -- is to remember how much better things keep getting on the computing and Internet front all year round, not just on one particular day or in one particular season.


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