That's changed. The new class of wireless residential gateways pack most of these functions into one easy-to-install box. Some units, such as those from Cayman Systems, do it all: They bundle a DSL or cable-modem wireless access point, an ethernet hub, a firewall, and an Internet router in a single box. Because different DSL providers have different modem requirements, you typically buy an all-in-one unit preconfigured by your ISP when you set up service. Most other new gateways are designed to work with the DSL or cable modem you got from your ISP. You buy these gateways off-the-shelf from conventional computer and electronics retailers and handle setup yourself.
If you decide on a wireless network, make sure you know what you're getting into financially: Besides purchasing the gateway, you'll have to buy a PC Card, a PCI card, or a USB adapter for each device on the network. If your devices and peripherals are ethernet-ready and not too far from your gateway, you may want to consider a gateway with a built-in ethernet hub. It will cost a bit more initially, but you might be able to make up the difference on the adapter side because you can pick up an ethernet card for about $30--far less than any wireless adapter costs.
If you simply want to share broadband access, HomeRF's 1.6-mbps speed is adequate, since most broadband hookups don't exceed that bandwidth. But if you expect to transfer a lot of large files (such as music, photo, and video files) between your computers, the difference will be very noticeable. Also, since 10-mbps HomeRF products are expected later this year, investing in HomeRF right now makes little sense unless you don't need the speed.
Check VPN Status
If you're a telecommuter or have a wireless network at your office, talk to your IT department before buying. Many companies require employees to use a VPN to connect to their corporate LAN. While all of the gateways in our chart claim VPN support to some degree, that support comes in many different flavors--and you don't want to install everything only to find out later that it won't work. If you have an 802.11b wireless network at the office, your decision is simple, since you already have an adapter. Frequent travelers should go with Wi-Fi to take advantage of its growing availability in public spaces.
While residential gateways are not yet truly plug and play, reasonably savvy users should be able to install them without much pain. And once you've tasted the wireless lifestyle, you'll never want to go back.
Wireless networks are sweet, but maybe you want something that's cheaper--and still doesn't require you to string new cables. If so, check out the "no new wires" alternatives based either on the HomePNA (www.homepna.org) standard, which uses existing telephone wires, or on HomePlug (www.homeplug.org), which runs on existing electrical power lines.