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Monday, August 6, 2007

Landing Safely at the Mac AirPort

All the Macs introduced during the last few years can exploit wireless networking through radio technology that Apple brands AirPort. Most of the rest of the computing world refers to the core technology as Wi-Fi, as outlined in the later section "The ABCs of Wi-Fi."

If your Mac doesn't have built-in wireless but does have OS X version 10.27 or later, you can install an optional AirPort Extreme card. Also note that AirPort Extreme is not compatible with Power Mac G5 Dual and Power Mac G5 Quad computers introduced in October 2005.

Macs with built-in wireless communicate over the air — even through walls and at times considerable distances — with a compatible router or base station.

Apple sells two versions of the AirPort base station, the AirPort Extreme and the portable AirPort Express, addressed in a later section. Apple grounded the first-generation AirPort base station model and cards, although you can still find them on eBay. The cards may be your only hope if you want to go wireless on an older Mac.

Although Apple would love to sell you an AirPort base station, wireless-capable Macs can tap into routers produced by Belkin, D-Link, Linksys, and Netgear, even if you previously set those up to work with a Windows network.

Under ideal, and frankly rarely met, conditions, AirPort Extreme provides maximum ranges of 50 feet at around 54 Mbps (which is plenty fast) and 150 feet at 11 Mbps (still plenty fast enough for Web surfing). A combination of up to 50 Macs or Windows PCs can simultaneously share a single AirPort Extreme base station.

To set up AirPort Extreme, follow these steps:

1. Plug the AirPort Extreme into a power outlet.

You have no power switch; status lights are your only immediate clue that your AirPort has taken off.

2. If you're using a cable modem or DSL, connect an Ethernet cable to the LAN port on the base station. With a wired Ethernet network, connect to the WAN port.

You can also connect a regular phone line to the modem port.

3. Run the AirPort Setup Assistant software, found in the Utilities folder inside the Applications folder.

4. For advanced security and other settings, run the AirPort Admin Utility software, also found in the Utilities folder.

The ABCs of Wi-Fi

The underlying technology behind AirPort is called Wi-Fi, the friendlier moniker applied to the geekier 802.11 designations. "Eight-oh-two-dot-eleven" (as it's pronounced) is followed by a letter, typically b or g. These letters indicate the speed and range you can expect from your wireless configuration. Alas, the geek alphabet makes little sense. Indeed, a few years ago, products that met a wireless standard called 802.11a hit the market after those based on 802.11b.

AirPort Extreme measures up to the modern 802.11g standard, nearly five times faster than the b standard that the original AirPort met when it debuted in 1999. Currently, products based on an even faster standard, 802.11n, are emerging. The newer standard is backward compatible, meaning that products based on it can work with older gear, though not to its fullest potential.

Using the AirPort Express

It looks kind of like a power adapter that might come with an Apple laptop, right down to its built-in plug. But the rectangular, near-7-ounce AirPort Express device is a versatile little gadget. This portable hub has just three ports on its underbelly: Ethernet, USB, and Line-out.

If you plan on using AirPort Express as a router, plug the device into an AC outlet and connect an Ethernet cord to your cable modem or DSL. You'll use the same AirPort software as the Extreme base station.

You see no on-off button; status lights clue you in on how things are going. A steady green status light tells you that you've connected with no problem. Flashing amber means that the device is having trouble making a connection, and you may have to resort to other means, including (as a final resort) taking the end of a straightened paper clip and holding down a "Reset" button for ten seconds.

Here's what AirPort Express can accomplish:

  • Connect it to your cable modem or DSL and use it as a wireless 802.11g router, just like its larger sibling.
  • Use it as a wireless bridge to extend the range of an existing AirPort network beyond 150 feet.
  • Connect a printer to the AirPort Express USB port to share that printer with any computer on the network.
  • Connect a cable from the broadband box in a hotel room, and you can roam around the room and surf wirelessly.

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