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Budget shopping tips: Wireless networking

A quick guide to getting a wireless network without paying too much money.

It's probably unlikely that any of you reading this don't already have a wireless network at home. But hey, if you don't, it's not too late: I have some quick tips for you on how to get one up with the least amount of money.

The high-performance, low-budge Trendnet TEW 633GR router. Corinne Schulze/CNET

Go free
This is not always the case but a lot of Internet providers, such as AT&T, offer a free gateway (most likely after rebate). Take it. I have also learned that if you have been a long-time customer who originally got only the modem, you can call in and ask to exchange the modem for a gateway, which is a combination of modem plus wireless router. Obviously this only works on a case-by-case basis but a slight "threat" to switch the service sometimes can be a sufficient push.

Most free routers are Wireless-G. They are generally rather simple and without great performance or range, but for regular casual Internet and networking needs they are good enough.

Upgrade the current router
If your current router is not wireless-capable or a Wireless-G one, you can very easily upgrade it to Wireless-N by adding an access point. Some access points are very affordable, the Trendnet TEW-637AP Easy-N-Upgrader, for example, only costs around $30 and offers great Wireless-N speed and a good range.

Also about add-ons, if you buy a desktop and intend to use wireless networking with it, don't get a wireless card from the computer vendor. You can easily find an add-on wireless card from an online store, like NewEgg for much less than what the computer vendor would charge you for this upgrade.

The Belkin N+ router offers great performance at an affordable price. Corinne Schulze/CNET

Buy off-brand names
There are three major wireless networking vendors on the market including Linksys, Netgear, and D-Link. Routers made by these vendors tend to be more expensive than those made by Belkin or Trendnet. It varies by model, but some off-brand-name routers can be very good, too. Both the Belkin N+ and the Trendnet TEW 633GR got excellent ratings and cost less than $100.

Avoid fancy features
Generally, I like routers that offer everything including dual-band (both 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz), USB port for printers and external storage, Gigabit Ethernet, Wi-Fi Protected Setup, and so on. However, most of the time you just need a 2.4Ghz Wireless-N functionality. A simple Wireless-N router can be had for just a bit more than $50. Example of these are the Trendnet Wireless N-Draft Router, TP-LINK TL-WR941ND, or any router on this list.

Buy used
Craiglist and eBay are good venues to find used routers that can cost just $20 or even less. Garage sales are good spots too. Just make sure you check CNET Reviews before you decide to make a purchase. Generally, routers are designed to work 24-7 so if you buy a router that have been released for a year or less, chances are it's as good as brand new. Make sure you upgrade the router to the latest firmware, which, along with the instructions, can be found at the vendor's Web site.

Share your hot spot
The best thing about wireless networking is the ability to easily share your Internet connection with your roommates or even neighbors, especially if you live in a condo. If your building is secluded and everybody agrees to pay their part, you can just leave the wireless network open. Otherwise, make sure you encrypt and only give the encryption key to those who agree to chip in with the monthly payment. Most routers can support more than 200 users at a time. Of course, this doesn't mean the bandwidth to the Internet is always enough for 200 heavy downloaders. So, pick carefully those you want to share it with.

That's it. Now you have no excuse not to tuck those wires away and make your computer corner a bit less cluttered. Happy (wireless) networking!