Three quarters of us now have a home Wi-Fi network, which means we can access the internet from any room in the house. Convenient though this might be, it’s barely scratching the surface of what’s possible from wireless internet. Our aim in this feature is to help you unleash that potential.

Our guide will show you how to better use what you already have. So, for example, without spending a penny you can share files between computers and print wirelessly from your laptop. See also: Wireless router reviews

If you are prepared to invest in some extra kit, though, things just get better. A NAS drive is a worthwhile addition to your wireless network, as we’ll demonstrate. While you probably think of a Wi-Fi network as a computing resource, its potential goes far beyond. We’ll also look at how you can use your network for home-entertainment and -automation. In particular, we’ll explain how to stream audio around the house, control your home-entertainment system from a phone or tablet, and even keep an eye on what’s occurring via IP cameras.

If you start to use your wireless network for more than just web browsing, though, you might find it starts to run out of steam. If this is the case, see our feature on how to get better Wi-Fi speed and range to cope with the increased demand.

Let’s get started.

1. Share your internet

If you’re new to networking, your PC may be connected with an ethernet cable to a Wi-Fi router and you have yet to take advantage of wireless connectivity in the home. As a first step, then, we’ll explain how to wirelessly access the internet on a laptop.

If you’re going to switch on wireless internet in your home, you should be aware that the signal may also be accessible to your neighbours. Allowing others to piggyback on your internet connection can slow it down, and it can open access to your personal files.

Modern laptops have Wi-Fi connectivity built in. If yours doesn’t, USB adaptors that add this functionality are very cheap and easy to find. Most such adaptors support the current 802.11n wireless standard, but will be backwards-compatible with older 802.11g. If your router is an 802.11g model then consider upgrading for faster wireless performance. See our guide to Wi-Fi standards for an explanation of these terms.

TP-Link Wi-Fi USB dongle

To wirelessly connect your laptop to the router, click the Wireless Networks icon in the Windows 7 taskbar. In XP, this icon depicts a PC and a red cross.

Find and select your router in the list that appears. If you don’t know its name, look on the rear panel or original packaging for an SSID. The network name might include your router manufacturer’s name and a string of numbers or letters. Typically, your router will be at the top of the list, which is ordered by signal strength.

Enable Connect automatically, which will allow your laptop to automatically connect to the internet in future, then click Connect. You’ll be prompted for a password (again, if you don’t know this, look on the router’s rear panel or original packaging, or search the manual for a default code).

You are now connected to the internet. Launch your web browser to begin wirelessly surfing the web.

2. Share resources between PCs

The most common use for a wireless network is to share resources such as files and printers between computers. There are several methods of achieving this, but the easiest solution is to use Homegroup. Setting up a Homegroup in Windows 7 or 8 is straightforward, and doesn’t require additional hardware. See How to create a Homegroup network in Windows 7 and Windows 8.

If one or more of your computers is running an earlier version of Windows that doesn’t support Homegroup, you can still get them to talk to each other. See How to network Vista and Windows 7 PCs to find out how.

Windows 8 Homegroup settings

Having set up a Homegroup, it’s easy to share or un-share folders, documents and printers between your PCs. To share a folder or document, simply right-click it in Windows Explorer and select Share with from the drop-down menu. You should then choose to share it with Homegroup, opting to provide either read-only or read-and-write access.

To share a printer, select ‘Devices and Printers’ from the Start menu, double-click the printer you want to share, then click ‘Display Printer Properties’. Select the Sharing tab in the Properties dialog box for your printer and choose ‘Share this printer’.

You should now be able to see in Windows Explorer any files and printer(s) you’ve shared on other computers in the Homegroup (or on the network if you’re not using Homegroup).

See also: Window 8 review

3. Access your files via a NAS drive

NAS stands for network-attached storage and is, in essence, a hard disk that is connected to a network rather than a PC. You can share files and folders on any PC connected to a wireless network, but using a NAS provides a better solution in several respects.

First, if you have computers and mobile devices running various operating systems, a NAS could share files with them all – including over the internet. Without a NAS, sharing files among these devices would be not only time-consuming, but potentially impossible (with certain combinations of OS).

Second, using a NAS means you don’t have to leave switched on 24/7 any PC that contains shared files. Although the NAS itself will be constantly powered on, it is designed to operate in this manner. A NAS drive will consume significantly less power than your desktop PC, which is good for the environment and your wallet.

Most NAS drives can also download files from the internet, and have other functions including a print server, which will be accessible to any PC at any time.

Third, storing all your files – documents, videos, photos, music and more – on a NAS drive provides one central repository, rather than you having to remember on which machine a particular file is stored.

NAS devices cost from as little as £50, although you tend to get what you pay for in terms of capacity, performance and features.

A decent NAS device that includes a terabyte of storage will cost £80-plus. In addition to pre-built NAS drives with a certain storage capacity, it’s possible to buy the enclosure alone, then add your own hard disks. Synology’s DiskStation range is particularly good in this respect.

Synology DiskStation NAS

Some NAS devices operate wirelessly, but we recommend hardwiring one to your wireless router using an ethernet (or network) cable. This will provide a faster connection than a wireless link, and it won’t unnecessarily clog up your Wi-Fi network.

Even though the NAS itself is connected to the network via a cable, all your PCs will be able to wirelessly access its files through the router.

See also: Network storage (NAS) reviews

Next page: print & scan wirelessly, sync your stuff and remote control your entertainment system