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Going Wi-Fi without a hitch _ almost

People sipped caffe lattes and caramel macchiatos as they read newspapers, magazines and books. They talked _ face to face. And I surfed.

Except for the ubiquitous cell phones, high tech seemed out of place in the neighborly atmosphere of Starbucks. But I was there to check out the coffee chain's Wi-Fi Internet access.

I used two devices with built-in Wi-Fi capabilities: a Palm Tungsten C handheld device and an IBM Thinkpad notebook computer with Intel's Centrino processor.

To start, I set up an account at the T-Mobile Web site, with a user name and password, from my desktop PC. Then I hit the road.

The directions were straightforward. For the Thinkpad, I went into the Start menu and clicked on Connections, then Wireless Network Connection. After following the steps, including letting Windows configure the settings, the computer should have automatically detected the Wi-Fi network at Starbucks.

It did not, and fiddling with settings and manuals in a coffee shop can be more frustrating than at home or the office. The problem turned out to be conflicting directions from Intel and IBM about how to turn on software called the radio tuner.

Once configured properly, the Thinkpad worked like a charm. It picked up the signal, I clicked on the Internet Explorer icon and signed on. Surfing on the 12-inch screen was nice, and the speed was good.

The Palm did much better on the first try. It immediately identified the T-Mobile signal and let me sign on. Yet surfing on a handheld's small screen became a distraction when trying to do more than send an e-mail.

Typing on the Tungsten's small keyboard was pretty easy, but reading a news story required almost continuous scrolling, both down and sideways.

One point not to be overlooked, even in the friendly surroundings of a coffee shop or home, is security. Much has been made about Wi-Fi's vulnerabilities. For example, "war drivers" are people who go around looking for open access points. It doesn't take much equipment (even a Pringles potato chip can converted into an antenna). While most war drivers are harmless, it does illustrate the need for caution.

Software called virtual private network and firewalls should be sufficient to protect mobile surfers, and experts say more security enhancements for the technology are on the way.

"A lot of the (security) stories are overblown," said Ken Dulaney, a research director at Gartner Inc.