For some time now I've read Glenn Reynolds' reports of blogging via WiFi from bookstores and elsewhere with envy. So a few months ago I bought a laptop with WinXP Pro and built-in WiFi and I've been dying to try it out. Then came yesterday's free WiFi day, so I found a local Borders store and checked it out.
It was wide open, and Windows warned of that. I wasn't prompted for anything at all before I was able to sign on and surf the Web. I'll have to see what is different on another trip.
I'm guessing that the core of the system (from T-Mobile) was in the coffee shop, because that seemed to be where the strongest signal was according to XP. I went to the extreme corners of the store and the reception weakened but was still "very good".
Then I went outside to test it from the first row of parking spaces. The strength was "low", but still didn't give me any problems. Well, other than the strange looks I got standing there using the PC off the hood of my vehicle around 10:30 PM.
I can't speak to the reliability other than to note it was pretty idiot proof while I was using it. I considered having it download a 62MB file but I didn't want to have to wait for it.
At one point I closed the laptop, which as my laptop is configured causes WinXP to go into standby. This apparently ended the connection, and when I opened the laptop again I got what seemed like a million "Delayed Write Failure" nastygrams, which didn't cease until I gave the machine a hardware reboot a few minutes later. The messages said that the problem could result from a lost connection, so I guess in the future I'll either leave the thing open while I transport it or else disable the wireless connection before closing.
Not having significant experience with WiFi in the real world yet, I'm not sure what would happen under other conditions. Rain, for instance - that might have affected me while I was outside. Or heavier traffic - near as I could tell I was the only one using it. Battery life seemed OK, even after I turned the screen brightness way up under the bright bookstore lighting.
I can't remember when I read about the free WiFi, but when I told the Borders people about it the day before they had no idea. They didn't have to do anything, so they really didn't need to know, but it sounds like something that they might have liked to promote. For my part, I sent Glenn Reynolds an email about it in case he wanted to plug it, but he didn't.
Looking for free WiFi access? It might be as simple as turning on your machine, if your neighbor has it and hasn't locked it down. You can look for warchalking symbols like these (concept based on these), or buy a gizmo like this.
UPDATE: Our Misanthropyst could ruin his reputation with comments like this, but I'll repost it here:"Well, don't forget that when you joined their network you have no say so as to who else is on it and what they are doing. Make sure you're running a software firewall, and pass no username / password data that isn't encrypted via secure websites or VPN. Funky world out there..."