Wireless connectivity is quickly becoming an essential technology for your home. Get ready for the next generation of Wi-Fi.

Wi-Fi has long been touted as an essential component of the digital home, but so far we haven’t been able to use it to its full potential. Yes, it’s given us the flexibility to connect laptops and peripherals without the wires, but many still regard Wi-Fi in the home as an option, rather than a necessity. However, as we’ve learned this month, it won’t be long before wireless becomes a required technology, with many of the hottest products launching in 2008 assuming that it will be the primary way you stay connected.

Take Apple's new MacBook Air, for instance. When Steve Jobs announced the product at Macworld Expo in January, many Mac enthusiasts, IT analysts and technology bloggers were initially so occupied by the laptop’s razor-thin dimensions (it’s just 4mm thick at its thinnest point) that they overlooked the fact that it doesn’t include what’s regarded as a bread-and-butter component for a laptop: an ethernet port. You can, of course, buy an add-on with this functionality, but the assumption is that any self-respecting MacBook Air user will already have a wireless network at home and in the office.

Then there’s Microsoft’s new operating system (OS) for the home: Windows Home Server. Servers running the OS, such as HP's MediaSmart Home Server EX470, are intended to be used as huge storage devices holding all your videos, photos and music. This becomes the hub to which you connect the office computer in the study, the media centre in the living room and the kids’ PC in the bedroom.

While Home Server is at the heart of everything, Wi-Fi provides the arteries by connecting every piece of hardware over the airwaves. This means that, as well as media content, the box can be used as a glorified network-attached storage device. It can automatically back up important data from connected PCs, or be the device from which you distribute Windows and security updates.

Of course, Microsoft’s new platform won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but even if you don’t buy into it, this vision of the connected home is inspiring a great deal of product development. We’ve seen an increase in the number of Wi-Fi products being pitched for review to PC Advisor, with the world’s leading manufacturers desperate to press home their wireless credentials. AMD, for example, sees its answer to Intel’s Centrino wireless platform – called Better By Design (read our review of MSI's 'Better By design' GX610 laptop) – as a key component in the battle with its rival.

The next generation

However, the technology that could have the biggest impact on the way we use wireless this year has a less catchy moniker: 802.11n. The upgrade to the ageing 802.11g standard has yet to be fully ratified, but router manufacturers believe it’s ready for the mainstream and regard it as the breakthrough that will finally rid us of the frustrations associated with slow Wi-Fi connections.

The precise speed achieved by using 802.11n depends on a number of factors – manufacturers quote figures ranging from 270 megabits per second (Mbps) to 300Mbps, but in reality you’re unlikely to get more than 75Mbps. However, the fact that this could allow you to stream multiple high-definition TV streams at 20Mbps each paints a picture of the significance of the upgrade. What’s more, it will considerably increase the range of your network.

So, regardless of whether you’ve got your sights set on the ultimate digital home, next-generation Wi-Fi can have a huge impact on how and where you use your computer and peripherals. Pick up a copy of our April issue for the full lowdown.