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

Here we continue our Top 10 uses for Wi-Fi:

4. Print & scan

Moving around a printer or scanner to use it with your various PCs is a hassle you can do without. Much better is to have a printer or scanner connected to your wireless network so that it can be accessed by any computer. There are various ways in which this is possible.

You could connect via USB the printer to any PC that’s part of the Windows Homegroup or network. However, to print from another PC, this host machine will need to be switched on. This wastes energy. A much better solution is to use a NAS drive that has a print server, if you have one.

Alternatively, you can directly attach the printer to your wireless router – either by using an ethernet cable or wirelessly, if your printer supports that option. Most printers these days support ethernet, which is particularly useful in office environments, while built-in wireless connectivity is becoming increasingly popular.

HP Photosmart 5520 Wi-Fi printer

If you’re planning to buy a new printer, it may make sense to look for an all-in-one model that includes print and scan facilities, plus built-in Wi-Fi. So-called multifunction printers allow you to scan as well as print wirelessly. When you connect an older all-in-one device (which doesn’t have built-in networking) to a NAS drive or router’s USB port, it may not be possible to use its scanning component.

5. Sync your stuff

If you have more than one computer you’ll probably want to ensure that your music, photos and documents are kept in sync between them.

Various cloud-based services (see our top 20 cloud storage services for suggestions) provide this functionality and will work between different devices, such as a Windows laptop and an Android smartphone or tablet.

This is handy if you spend a lot of time travelling but, when you’re at home, it doesn’t make sense to transfer data from your laptop to the internet and then back to a smartphone in the next room. After all, this could unnecessarily eat into your data allowance. The solution is to synchronise files across your Wi-Fi network.

There are lots of options, but one solution you might like to consider is Android Manager Wi-Fi. This free app allows the manual transfer of files as well as automatic synchronisation. Download the Windows component from Mobile Action and the Android app from Google Play and you’ll be in business.

In the same way that you can synchronise your documents via a Wi-Fi network, most e-readers allow you to download books without involving your PC by directly connecting to the home Wi-Fi network.

It’s also possible to sync and back up your mobile devices via Wi-Fi. To set this up with an iOS device, simply connect it to your computer via USB, then, in iTunes, select the device and check the ‘Sync via Wi-Fi’ box. It’s largely the same process for Windows Phones, which sync with the Zune software.

6. Remote control of your entertainment system

Having to use several different remote controls – one for the TV, another for the hi-fi and yet another for the DVD player – has never been popular. Universal remotes are available, but they never really took off.

They often present something of a compromise when controlling a particular device, and touchscreen models are pricey.

Sony Tablet Z remote control app

You might expect that a smartphone or tablet could be used for this purpose and provide a much better user interface, even when you’re controlling just one device. However, most devices don’t have the infrared port required for communication with TVs and the rest of your kit.

This is now starting to change. More and more home-entertainment equipment has built-in Wi-Fi or wired networking. Plenty of manufacturers provide apps to control their devices, and there are third-party apps, too.

If you have home-entertainment kit from several manufacturers, you’ll need to use more than one app. Nevertheless, all can be controlled using the same phone or tablet.

Sky, Virgin and YouView DVRs, for example, allow you to set recordings from a mobile device. DVD players and TVs also have companion apps that let you control everything from basic playback and menu navigation to more advanced features such as showing additional content based on what you’re watching.

Next page: Listen to music wirelessly, stream video over Wi-Fi and play online games

Here we continue our Top 10 uses for Wi-Fi:

7. Listen to music

A Wi-Fi network allows you to listen to music in any room of the house, and there are several ways to enjoy this freedom. Literally thousands of radio stations have an internet stream and, although you can listen to these via any PC, there’s an alternative that will likely give you better audio quality and added convenience: an internet radio.

These start at around £60 and rise to several hundred pounds. Commonly, internet radios also support FM and DAB. Just bear in mind that listening to radio via the internet will count toward your data cap.

Another popular option is to stream MP3 audio files via your wireless network. This requires you to have a media server on your network. There are a number of approaches here.

First, if you don’t mind keeping it switched on, you can configure as a media PC any PC on the network. See How to Stream Digital Media From Your Windows 7 PC for instructions on how to do so.

Alternatively, NAS devices can often be configured to act as media servers as well as file servers. Typically, they can act as both a DLNA/UPnP server and an iTunes server.

Pure Evoke Mio radio

A third option is the dedicated media server. If your NAS or dedicated media server doesn’t have built-in Wi-Fi, just plug it into an ethernet port on your wireless router.

Just as there are several ways of streaming your audio around the house, there are lots of ways you can access that data. The most obvious method is from any computer connected to the network, although this probably won’t provide you with the audio quality you hoped for. A much better solution is to use a Wi-Fi-connected hi-fi system, such as multiroom systems from Sonos or Pure.

Alternatively, you could opt for a standalone music streamer, such as an internet radio (virtually all models will also play music from your local network) or connect a dedicated network player such as a Naim NDS to a hi-fi system.

8. Stream video

Just as you can stream audio across a Wi-Fi network, you can also stream video. This is an increasingly popular way of accessing your movie collection – you can have your entire collection on tap, without ever having to get up and put a disc into the DVD player.

While we wouldn’t suggest that you throw away your DVD and Blu-ray discs (after all, they form a convenient backup), it’s far easier to find what you’re looking for on a media server than by rummaging through shelves full of discs in boxes.

The cheapest way to stream video is to set up one of your PCs as a media server. Alternatively, as we’ve said before, if you want to avoid having to keep your PC switched on all the time you could invest in a NAS device, making sure you choose one that can work as a media server.

You could use another PC or laptop to view video stored on a PC or NAS media server, but you’ll probably prefer to watch it on a large-screen TV. It’s usually possible to connect your laptop or PC to your TV with an HDMI cable, but you can also wirelessly stream video if your laptop has built-in Wi-Di (you’ll still need a receiver to connect to the TV, such as the Netgear Push2TV HD), or use a kit that includes both the video sender and receiver, such as HP’s Wireless TV Connect.

WD TV Live

However, rather than using a laptop or PC, you’re usually better off buying a dedicated media streamer, such as the D-Link Boxee Box, Roku 2XS or Western Digital WD TV Live. If you have a Mac rather than a PC, or simply a burgeoning iTunes video library, an Apple TV is likely to be the best choice.

Don’t forget your TV itself may have the capability to play video files across a Wi-Fi network. Most ‘smart’ TVs have a built-in media player that can play files from a local USB stick, but also across your home network from a DLNA or UPnP media server. Many TVs have optional Wi-Fi dongles, but can usually be connected to your wireless router via a standard network patch cable.

Finally, you can use your Wi-Fi network to stream those videos to your tablet or smartphone. Whether you have an iPad, iPhone, Android device or something else, there are many apps that can seek out media servers on your wireless network and play videos of many formats.

9. Play online games

Playing games on your PC doesn’t have to be a solitary affair. Virtually all games can also be played with (or against) other players online. What’s more, if your laptop, PC or tablet is connected to the internet via your Wi-Fi network, you’ll be able to enjoy online gaming from these devices, too. However, online gaming doesn’t start and end there.

Online gaming

The Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection, for example, allows users of the Nintendo DS and the Wii to participate in online multiuser games via their home Wi-Fi network. Similarly, the latest Xbox 360 has Wi-Fi built-in; if you have an older model you can add Wi-Fi with a USB adaptor. This permits online gaming via Xbox Live (note that you’ll need to pay for the Gold service, which costs between £30 and £40 per year depending on where you subscribe). In the same way, the PS3 uses Wi-Fi to provide a gateway to the PlayStation Network.

Next page: Monitor your home using Wi-Fi IP cameras

Here we continue our Top 10 uses for Wi-Fi:

10. Monitor your home

If you want to keep an eye on your home or office, your Wi-Fi network can be the key to your security needs. By adding a so-called IP camera, you’ll be able to monitor your property either from a device on the same Wi-Fi network or via the web.

Most cameras can send you an email if motion is detected. Although wired network IP cameras are still available, they’re not ideal in many cases. Models with built-in Wi-Fi start from about £35; if you want a high-quality picture with sound, you should budget for at least double this. For extra features, such as motorised pan and tilt (even zoom), prepare to spend hundreds.

Wi-Fi IP cameras differ in their resolution but, in reality, if your application is purely surveillance, the VGA resolution of 640x480 should be adequate.

More important is a remote-controlled pan-and-tilt capability, which will allow you to look around a whole room from a single viewpoint. You can now get this functionality in even some entry-level products.

Something else to look out for and, again, for which you don’t have to pay a fortune, is night vision. This is provided by a ring of infrared LEDs around the lens.

Y-Cam White Knight IP camera wi-Fi

A waterproof housing for outdoor use will command a substantial price premium. Some manufacturers, including Y-cam, provide free apps that allow you to easily view the video feed on your smartphone or tablet via Wi-Fi.