The combination of widely available broadband wireless connections and popular laptop computers has made portable, full-feature computing almost ubiquitous in the 21st Century. The process for connecting to an open Wi-Fi network is similar on an Apple MacBook Pro running OS X Snow Leopard and a PC running Microsoft's Windows 7 operating system.
Several generations of Apple laptops have come with a built-in Wi-Fi card called AirPort. It routinely shows in the menu bar at the top of the screen as an icon similar to that for sound volume, but running vertically. Click on the icon for a drop-down menu that shows whether AirPort is on or off, when it's scanning for networks, the names of currently available networks, and options to join another network, create a network or open Network Preferences to change AirPort's settings.
Connect to a Network with Windows
The PC Wi-Fi icon is located at the bottom right, in what's known as the notification area. It may look like cell-phone bars. Click on the icon, and a list of networks you can join will appear in a small window on the screen. You must choose a network and click the "Connect" button associated with it.
Secure and Open Networks
In AirPort's list of available networks, any that require a password are shown with a lock icon. On a PC, only open networks --- those that don't require passwords --- are routinely shown, other than your own network. The PC icon for each network may include a tiny shield, indicating that that network collects information on users' activities. MacBooks do not provide this information.
Logging In to Novel Networks
AirPort logs in, without asking you again, to any network it has used before --- your own home or office network, the network of a friend you've visited before or the network at any cafe or bookstore you frequent. When you go someplace new to your laptop, you'll get a popup that notes "None of your trusted networks is available," and lists, with lock icons and signal strengths, the networks it "sees" for you to choose from. The PC always asks you to identify the network of your choice.
Have Your Browser Ready
While the AirPort or PC connection may be made with almost no effort, if you're using a shared public network, such as in a cafe, hotel or store, you may not be able to use the connection until you log in to the host network, usually through your Internet browser. Allow the browser to attempt your home page or any other page, and it should automatically open to the login page. Accept terms and conditions, and you should be logged in.
Off and Back On
Whether you shut your computer down or simply send it to sleep mode, the network connection is usually broken. The next time you use that laptop, it will find available networks once again, and a PC may ask you again to identify the network of your choice. A MacBook will go back to the last network it used, if that is still available. Whether you have to log into that network again through your browser is a matter of the network, not the laptop.
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