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  • Connect to a Wireless Hotspot
    By Robert Levy

    With a wireless card in your laptop, you're ready to mingle with happy people in all sorts of coffee-shops, libraries, and airports without missing an electronic beat. Send email, stream music, and of course shop for presents, while out of the house and unplugged.

    Wireless hotspots (that is, locations providing wireless access to the Internet) are all around us. But where do you start? Can you just saunter down to the nearest Coffee-R-Us and open your browser? Surely there's more to it than that, right?

    There is. But not much more.

    Find the Hotspots
    The first thing to do is figure out where the hotspots are. With a little foresight, you can find them before you head out on the road. That way, you can be sure you're heading to a hotspot before you get there. If you've already left the house, and need to know whether you happen to be at a hotspot, take a look at "Get Connected" below.
    If you're a subscribers to a hotspot provider (like Boingo or T-Mobile), then you have it pretty easy. You've got a password to use at their hotspots, and you can check out their Web site for a list of hotspots near you.

    Of course, Boingo's list will only show Boingo's hotspots (even if there are over 60,000 worldwide). If you want a list with an even wider range of hotspots, there are a couple of great Web sites out there. lets you plug in an address, then find all the hotspots near you (within about 10 miles). Many will cost money to use, but some may be free.

    Wi-Fi Free Spot provides a list of just the free hotspots. Choose your state, then scroll through the cities to find the one you need. You may find that free hotspots aren't as fast or easy to connect to as paid hotspots, but they're definitely worth trying!

    Once you've found the hotspot for you, charge up your batteries—you never know if there will be a socket around—and head on over to find a seat. Next step: Get connected.

    Get Connected
    Your laptop may automatically connect you to the strongest wireless signal around. To find out, just open your browser (like Internet Explorer or Safari) and try to surf somewhere. If you get where you're going, then our job here is done. Otherwise, choose your operating system below for instructions on getting connected:

    Your wireless card probably came with a special program to connect you to wireless hotspots. But there are a gazillion different wireless cards out there, each with its own software, so reasonably I couldn't give instructions for each one.

    Instead, I'll point out that most versions of Windows handle wireless connections all by themselves (Windows XP does, for example). So, if you're running Windows, you probably don't need to learn any special software.

    To connect to a wireless hotspot:
    1. From the "System Tray" in the lower-right part of the screen near the clock, click the Wireless Network Connection icon. The Wireless Network Connection screen will open.
    2. Click one of the networks shown in the list, then click Connect.
    3. If you're asked for a password, fill it in. If not, you're online!

      NOTE: If you don't know the password, but you're sure it's a free hotspot, try asking someone who works there for the information you need.
    Mac OS X
    Mac OS X will most likely realize that you're at a hotspot and ask whether you want to connect. You can take it from there. If you aren't asked about connecting, you can do it yourself.

    To connect to a wireless hotspot:
    1. Start the program called Internet Connect (it's in the Utilities folder, which is in the Applications folder).
    2. Choose Airport from the top row.
    3. From the Network pull-down menu, choose the network you want to connect to.
    4. Close the window and surf away.

    A Word about Security
    When you're on someone else's network, you can't control the security. Because of this, you should be a little extra careful about what you send in email or what forms you fill out online. Unless you're sure that you're being safe, try to keep the really sensitive stuff on hold until you get home.

    More Information
    It's usually a snap to connect to wireless hotspots, but sometimes things don't go as planned. For help with all sorts of wireless questions, take a look at Wi-Fi Planet's Tutorials page.

    Now that you know where to find hotspots, you can visit a quiet library to catch up on email or keep working while stuck at a snowbound airport. Wireless networking makes the world your Internet oyster. Here's hoping you find your pearls!

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