Cut Loose with Wireless AirPort Technology

SAN FRANCISCO (04/19/2000) - Apple Computer Inc. has pulled another fast one.

How else can you describe the company's ability to successfully market an otherworldly gray pod, a thin silver card, and the promise of communicating through thin air -- without stressing the word networking? Rather than frightening Mac users by mentioning brain-numbing terms such as TCP/IP and DHCP, Apple is spinning dreams of an unplugged world. In this utopia, iBook users effortlessly join communities of other mobile Macs by simply opening the lids of their colorful cordless companions. How? With Apple's new wireless technology, AirPort.

The good news is, Apple's aspirations are not far-fetched. As of now, new Macs are AirPort-ready -- all you need to get started is a $99 AirPort card (800/692-7753, www.apple.com) and possibly a $299 AirPort Base Station. Today you can walk into a classroom, flip open an iBook, and -- without benefit of wires -- send a message telling your best friend to meet you after school. You can run a cable from your PowerBook's audio-out port into your home stereo and stream MP3 files from the computer upstairs. You can connect all your ancient Macs to a single AirPort Base Station via an Ethernet hub and share a single Internet connection. Be aware, however, that you'll see a drop in data-transfer speed.

All these things are possible with AirPort, but they require more effort and know-how than you might think. Managing many of these feats requires digging down into a few control panels and mucking about with arcane settings. That's where Macworld comes in. Whether you're new to wireless networking or a seasoned professional, the following AirPort tips are sure to make your unplugged experience a more pleasant and productive one.

Getting Set Up

In a perfect world, all you'd need to do is spend the cash for an AirPort-ready Mac, an AirPort card, and an AirPort Base Station, and your network would be ready to fly. But AirPort is more than just hardware. Like any network -- wireless or not -- it requires a bit of tweaking. These configuration tips will help get your AirPort network off the ground.

Upgrade Your Software: Shortly before we went to press, Apple released version 1.1 of the AirPort software. If you want the best AirPort has to offer, you must install this free update on your Mac (go to http://asu.info.apple.com/swupdates.nsf/artnum/n11570 to download the newest version).

This update fixes a slew of bugs -- for one, it lets a "sleeping" Mac easily log back onto an AirPort network. Version 1.1 also provides new capabilities, including active roaming -- a feature for grouping multiple AirPort Base Stations into a huge wireless network. It's now easier to reset the Base Station's password. Just press the reset button for a second to reset the Base Station, as well as network passwords and the unit's IP address.

Configure Your AirPort from Any Mac: In its first iteration, the AirPort software allowed you to configure an AirPort Base Station only from an AirPort-bearing Mac, such as an iBook. Thanks to the 1.1 update, this is no longer the case. The AirPort Admin Utility -- included with the AirPort 1.1 update -- lets you configure an AirPort Base Station from a Mac that's not equipped with an AirPort card.

You'll find the AirPort Admin Utility in the Base Station Extras folder of the AirPort folder that's created when you launch the AirPort 1.1 image file. Drag the AirPort Admin Utility folder to your hard drive and read through the Installation Instructions document -- you need to take some not-so-obvious steps to use this utility on a non-AirPort Mac. If you aren't using a third-party wireless card to communicate with the Base Station, you'll need a Mac with an Ethernet port and either an Ethernet crossover cable or an Ethernet hub and two standard Ethernet cables.

Join an Existing Network: You can, of course, attach an AirPort Base Station to an existing Ethernet network by connecting an Ethernet cable from a single Mac or Ethernet hub to the Base Station. But how do you configure the Macs on the Ethernet network to communicate with the Base Station? Open the TCP/IP control panel on the Mac attached to the Ethernet network. Press 1-K to open the Configurations window, and then click on the Duplicate button to copy the existing configuration. Name the duplicate; click on Make Active; and in the resulting window, choose Ethernet Built-In in the Connect Via pull-down menu and Using DHCP Server in the Configure menu. Close this window and click on Save when prompted. You've now configured that particular Mac to access the AirPort network and to use the Base Station's modem.

Let Your Fingers Do the Typing: The AirPort Setup Assistant, the utility that helps you configure your remote network and dial-in settings, grabs settings from the Remote Access and TCP/IP control panels -- if you've previously configured them. However, these aren't the only settings you might want the Assistant to pay attention to. If you've configured the DialAssist control panel so that a 9 precedes any number dialed out from your Mac, the AirPort Setup Assistant won't transfer that setting to the AirPort Base Station for you. Instead, you must manually add this prefix setting to the numbers your AirPort Base Station dials.

Avoiding Idiosyncrasies

Ever notice that your AirPort connection disappears when you place your iBook on top of a running microwave? Are you getting connection errors whenever you try to log onto the Internet from your AirPort network? There's a reason:

AirPort's still a bit quirky.

AirPort and AOL: AirPort's instructions clearly state that AirPort dial-up connections will not work with America Online (AOL uses a special connection method that isn't compatible with AirPort). However, many people forget that you can log onto AOL via TCP/IP if you have another Internet connection. If your AirPort-equipped Mac can get to the Internet via another ISP, you have access to AOL as well.

To configure AOL 4.0 for a TCP/IP connection, click on the Setup button in AOL's opening screen and then select the last option -- Set Up AOL To Sign On From A New Location -- and click on the Next button. Name the location in the next window -- TCP Connect, for example -- and click on Next. In the Add Connections window, select the Add A TCP Connection option and click on Next to add TCP access. When you dial up your ISP, you'll be able to log onto AOL as well.

Try, Try Again

It takes the AirPort Base Station longer than a regular modem to complete a dial-up call -- longer than some applications might care to wait. More often than not, when you initiate a Web connection from your e-mail client or Web browser, you'll eventually receive an error message stating that a connection could not be completed. This occurs because the Base Station fails to complete the call in the time that application allots. When you see this error, acknowledge it by clicking on OK or closing the error-message window, and try your request again. In all likelihood, the Base Station has logged on in the meantime and the application will work as expected.

Get Disconnected: Unlike a standard modem, the AirPort Base Station (or AirPort Software Base Station) can't automatically log on to the Internet and then log off when it completes a task. Instead, you must either manually disconnect the Base Station by clicking on the Disconnect button in the Status portion of the AirPort application or wait for the Base Station to disconnect after a period of Internet inactivity.

If you'd prefer that your Base Station not stay connected to the Net twiddling its virtual thumbs, decrease the amount of time it spends online by shortening the idle-time interval. To do so, launch the AirPort Admin Utility, click on the Internet tab, and choose a shorter time -- two minutes, for example -- in the Disconnect If Idle pull-down menu.

Stay Up-to-Date: Security-conscious Mac users routinely change their ISP log-on password. When you change passwords, you undoubtedly update your e-mail client and perhaps the password setting in the Internet control panel. But if you use an AirPort Base Station, don't forget that you must also update the password stored inside it.

To update the Base Station password, launch the AirPort Admin Utility and select the Base Station you wish to update. Next, click on Configure, then on the Internet tab, and then on the Change Password button. Enter and confirm your new password. Finally, click on the Update button at the bottom of the Configure AirPort Base Station window, and wait while the Base Station updates and resets.

Don't Crash Any Airplanes: Apple tells us it's inadvisable to operate an AirPort card while inside an airplane -- doing so can interfere with the avionics of the aircraft. This would be a bad thing. For all our sakes, if your iBook has an AirPort card installed, please switch off the card before you fly.

Run Interference: When AirPort-equipped Macs and AirPort Base Stations are in close proximity, very little can interfere with the signal between them.

However, once they are a room or two apart, certain appliances can degrade or completely impede performance. These electronic doodads include refrigerators, microwave ovens, and -- because AirPort uses similar frequencies -- 2.4GHz cordless phones. If you notice a dramatic decrease in signal strength with an appliance nearby, consider moving your Mac or Base Station -- it may take only a couple of feet for the signal to improve.

Fun for the Whole Family

AirPort is not only great for classrooms and small offices, but also a handy -- and possibly entertaining -- tool around the house.

Rig Up a Remote Jukebox: Tunes never sound as good on small computer speakers as on your home stereo speakers. Wouldn't it be great if you could play your MP3 files on your home stereo without storing those files on your iBook's low-capacity hard drive? With AirPort, another Mac attached to your AirPort network, an MP3 encoder and player, your home stereo, and one cable, you can.

Here's how.

Encode and store a few audio CDs as MP3 files on the Mac that will act as your MP3 server, and save the playlist. On the iBook, use the Chooser or Network Browser to mount the hard drive where these encoded files reside, and then copy the playlist (not the encoded files) to the iBook's hard drive. You'll need an audio Y cable that carries a Walkman-style stereo miniplug on one end and two mono RCA plugs on the other. Attach the miniplug to the iBook's audio-out port and the RCA plugs to the auxiliary input on your home stereo's amplifier.

Launch a copy of your MP3 player -- Casady & Greene's $50 SoundJam MP (831/484-9228, www.casadyg.com) or Panic's $18 Audion (503/296-2185, www.panic.com), for example -- on the iBook, and open the playlist you copied from the other Mac. Click on the play button and listen in amazement as the MP3 files contained on the server beam to your iBook and begin playing through your home stereo.

Send a Wireless Message: Want to make a wireless date with that special someone in your trigonometry class? For this trick to work, you must configure the remote Mac so that your Mac's hard drive appears on its desktop.

Open the File Sharing control panel on your Mac, click on the Activity Monitor tab, and option-double-click on any name that appears in the Connected Users field. In the window that subsequently appears, type a message -- comprising as many as 199 characters -- to that user. When you're ready to send, click on OK -- your message will appear on the remote Mac.

The Last Word

Now that you have these tips and techniques under your belt, freedom from wires is in sight. To further increase your AirPort knowledge, check your Mac's Help menu for additional materials. You and your Macs are ready for the airwaves.

Sidebar: Airport Alternatives

With the release of the latest PowerBooks, Apple offers wireless networking technology in all its new computers. While this is unquestionably giddy news for those who have recently purchased -- or are planning to purchase -- a new Mac, it tends to create a gap between the AirPort-ready haves and the have-nots. Integrating the AirPort Base Station into any Ethernet network is easy, so owners of deskbound Macs need not worry, but what about those with earlier PowerBook models?

Thanks to PC Cards that support the IEEE 802.11 standard (the wireless standard AirPort uses), owners of the PowerBook 190, 1400, 2400, 3400, or 5300 or any PowerBook G3 model can connect to AirPort-equipped Macs -- wirelessly.

PowerBook users currently have a couple of choices in PC Cards, including Farallon's SkyLine Wireless PC Card and Lucent Technologies' Orinoco PC Card Silver.

Slow SkyLine: As we go to press, Farallon offers a 2Mbit version of its SkyLine card for $249. Compared with the Orinoco Silver card -- priced at $179 -- the SkyLine is no bargain for a couple of reasons. To begin with, in our lab tests, the SkyLine was less than half as fast as the Orinoco Silver. In addition, the SkyLine works only if you've turned the AirPort Base Station's encryption option off. (Lucent's cards required that you turn off encryption under the AirPort 1.0 software, but this is not necessary with the AirPort 1.1 software.) Finally, configuring the SkyLine card to work with a Mac can be confusing.

For the card to coexist with AirPort, you must first double-click on the card's icon on your desktop. In the resulting dialog box, select Infrastructure in the Network Mode pull-down menu and Translation-Apple/Lucent in the Address Mode pull-down menu. If you have a single access point -- an AirPort Base Station, for example -- enter an asterisk (*) in the SSID field.

Thankfully, by the time you read this, Farallon should be offering an 11Mbit version of the SkyLine that will more closely match the performance of the Orinoco Silver card with encryption activated and will be easier to configure.

Farallon was unwilling to commit to a price at press time, but a marketing representative stated that the company intended the price to be competitive.

Farallon will offer the 11Mbit card at a reduced price to those who have already purchased the 2Mbit SkyLine card.

Orinoco Quirks: The Orinoco card is not without its vagaries as well. Unless you want your Orinoco card to reside permanently in your PowerBook, you should be aware that you can't eject the card by simply dragging its icon to the Trash. In order to remove the card, you must select a different networking protocol in the AppleTalk and TCP/IP control panels -- changing these from AirPort to Ethernet, for example. With these control panels changed, you can drag the card's icon to the Trash, and the card will pop out as it should. The SkyLine 2Mbit card we tested ejects without requiring changes to control-panel settings.

Macworld's Buying Advice: The Orinoco PC Card Silver is a fine solution for users with older PowerBooks who want to take advantage of AirPort. Regrettably, Farallon's current SkyLine card is too slow and too expensive to earn our recommendation.

Orinoco PC Card Silver

RATING: Pros: Compatible with older PowerBooks; compatible with AirPort software and encryption. Cons: Difficult to eject. Company: Lucent Technologies (800/928-3526, http://www.wavelan.com). Company's estimated price:

$179.

SkyLine Wireless PC Card

RATING: Pros: Compatible with older PowerBooks. Cons: Slow; expensive. Company: Farallon (800/613-4954, http://www.farallon.com). Company's estimated price: $249.

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