12 downloads to make your Wi-Fi life easier and fun

Wireless networking made easy

Increasingly, the world is becoming wireless. At home, at work, and on the road, you'll often connect to Wi-Fi networks and hotspots for Internet access. But doing so isn't always simple. You can use some assistance in finding and connecting to hotspots and networks, making sure that you don't link to any that are dangerous, and protecting yourself when you do connect.

We've found a dozen downloads to make your Wi-Fi life easier. Among other things, they'll help you locate and connect to networks, enable you to set up a virtual private network for staying safe when you're connected, let you switch between networks with ease, and even allow you to do some social networking via Wi-Fi.

Note that many of these programs require that your firewall allow them through, so you may receive notifications from your firewall asking whether to block them. Make sure to tell the firewall not to block. Also, some of them install special drivers, so it's a good idea to set up a Restore Point before installing, so you can revert to a previous state if you run into trouble.

WeFi

Download this program to see how wireless networking meets social networking. It's a great way not just to find hotspots and connect to them, but also to get in touch with existing friends and make new ones. After you download the free software, it will show you all the nearby hotspots to which you can connect, including whether the network is encrypted or open, and the signal strength. Double-click any to connect. In addition to seeing the hotspots in the software, you can also see all nearby hotspots on a map on a Web page.

If you want to meet up with people who are connected to hotspots near you, click the People tab, and you'll see a list of folks nearby. You can then obtain more information about any of them, and contact them as well. The software also lets you easily upload information about the hotspots you've found and add them to the site's maps.

Download WeFi Price: Free

Plug and Browse

If you often connect to more than one wireless or wired network — one at home and one at work, for example — you know the meaning of frustration. Networks usually have different settings. One, for instance, may issue IP addresses via DHCP, while another uses a static IP address. One may have a certain set of firewall rules and a default printer, and another network a different set of rules and its own printer. Perhaps one network requires that a script be run when you connect, or has a set of mapped drives, and others don't.

Whenever you connect to a different network, you need to change all those settings manually, which can take a considerable amount of time. That's where Plug and Browse helps. This exceedingly simple tool lets you instantly switch to new, predefined network settings in a flash: You set up a profile for each different network, and then just double-click the profile you need when you connect to a particular network.

Making things even easier is the fact that you don't need to create the profiles manually. Connect to a network and tell the program to gather the settings, and it does it all for you automatically, creating a new profile. The program works with any kind of network, so it's useful even if you don't connect wirelessly.

Download Plug and Browse Price: $US40 (free demo)

JiWire Wi-Fi Hotspot Finder for Windows XP

Here's a convenient, free way to find nearby hotspots when you need wireless access in a hurry. Run the program and enter your location (such as your zip code or city), and it lists all nearby hotspots. It will search for either paid or free hotspots, or both. The program's database is frequently updated, so you're assured of getting an up-to-date list.

When you click on any listed hotspot, you see more details about it. For example, if it's from a for-pay provider, you'll see who owns it. You'll also receive basic information about the hotspot, such as its SSID, pricing plan, and so on. You can also display a map showing the hotspot, so you can easily make your way to it.

A for-pay version of this software, called JiWire Hotspot Helper, offers additional benefits. It keeps you safe by encrypting your connection whenever you're at a hotspot, and it also lets you use your e-mail software to send messages at hotspots. (At many hotspots, you can't use your e-mail software for sending because hotspot operators block outgoing messages, fearing that the hotspot could be used as a relay to send spam.) The for-pay version costs $US25 per year.

Download JiWire Price: Free ($US25 per year for enhanced features)

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Preston Gralla

PC World (US online)

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