With more people buying notebooks and setting up home networks, we field quite a few questions related to wireless technology. The goal of this guide is to address some of the more common questions related to wireless networking to educate you in some key areas in order to keep your connection running smoothly.
Range and Interference
The location and placement of your wireless router can dramatically impact the effective range of your wireless network. Your router should be placed as centrally within your home as possible. An ideal location in a two-story home would be on the 2nd floor, up on top of a shelf in a central room.
By far, two of the biggest sources of interference are cordless phones (especially those that run on the 2.4GHz band) and microwave ovens. If you have a cordless phone or microwave, it’s best to keep the router away from it. Screen doors and other materials comprised of wire mesh can also detract from wireless performance.
Your router is equipped with means to overcome interference from other wireless devices. Nearly all routers offer the ability to change the wireless channel on which they operate. Typically a small shift in frequency is enough to keep your router’s wireless signal from conflicting with another router in your neighborhood or another device that works on the same frequency.
Wireless routers are small computers that run an operating system much like your computer runs Mac OS X. As such, most vendors provide regular updates that include bug fixes and security patches, as well as occasional feature updates. If you are experiencing problems with intermittent connections that require a reboot of the router, it’s possible that your router needs a firmware update.
Firmware is much like software in that it is updateable via a utility built into your router’s configuration program. When a firmware update is needed, you will download the update from the vendor’s website, then log into the router and upload the update file to the router.
Wireless security is by far the most misunderstood aspect of wireless technology. Out of the box, most wireless routers have no security enabled. It is up to the user to establish some form of security once the initial setup is complete.
When a wireless connection is unsecured, your network and Internet connection are freely available to anyone within range of your router. Also, any relatively savvy user can intercept things like passwords, banking information and credit card numbers.
The original wireless security protocol is called WEP. Additionally, many people use a technology known as “MAC filtering”, which specifies which devices are allowed to talk to the network. These technologies, whether used in tandem or separately, are largely ineffective.
Recent developments in readily available hacking tools can thwart a WEP secured connection within minutes. It is highly recommended that you move to a stronger encryption method if you are currently using WEP.
Most modern routers and network cards made since late 2002 support better means of security known as WPA and WPA2 .
WPA is a strong, yet easy to use, encryption method. Once you’ve set WPA as the encryption choice, you then choose a “passphrase” (sometimes just referred to as a “password”). You should choose a non-English word that includes symbols or numbers so that it cannot be easily broken. Once the password is set on the router, the next time you try to connect with one of your wireless computers, you will be prompted for a password. Enter the password you chose and you should be connected securely.
WPA2 is another variant of WPA that is updated for better speed and security. It works very much in the same way as WPA, but is only supported by newer routers. If your router offers WPA2, you should choose it.
Q: How do I access my router’s configuration options?
A: Like with many things, the process will vary depending on the make and model of your router. You should consult your user manual. For Apple routers, you will use the Airport Utility, located in your Applications => Utilities folder.
Q: Do I need to buy an AirPort wireless base station to use my Mac wirelessly?
A: Absolutely not. Although the AirPort is a well-reviewed wireless router, it conforms to the 802.11(a/b/g/n) specification like any other wireless device. These devices are designed to have interoperability.
Q: What wireless vendors support Macs?
A: Apple, D-Link, and Belkin officially support Macs. Linksys and Netgear do not. That doesn’t mean your can’t use a Netgear or Linksys router (or any other brand for the matter), but if you need help with your router, don’t expect the help desk to assist once you tell them you’re on a Mac.
Q: My Mac connects just fine without security, it’s only when I enable security that it has problems. What gives?
A: Recent security updates have been known to be problematic with some wireless security standards. If you are having difficulty, upgrade your firmware to the latest version. Enable WPA2 if you’re using WPA. Also, most newer Macs have compatibility problems with WEP encryption (which shouldn’t be used anyway).
Q: I’m having trouble maintaining a consistent connection recently. I didn’t change anything, what can the problem be?
A: It’s possible that your neighbor hooked up a new router that is conflicting with your router. You should try changing the wireless channel to something different. If you’d like to see what other wireless networks are available in your neighborhood, try the AirPort Radar widget. The AirPort Radar widget will sniff out other networks in your area and tell you what channel and what kind of security they use.
Q: What with all of this ‘b’ ‘g’ and ‘n’ stuff? What’s the difference and why should I care?
A: b/g/n are all different varieties of the 802.11 WiFi standard which are all interoperable. B runs at 11Mb/s, G runs at 54Mb/s, and N runs at a theoretical rate of 248Mb/s. Each will vary depending on conditions and range.
Although each standard is backward compatible, if you connect a ‘g’ device to an ‘n’ network, the network will only function at ‘g’ speeds. For most people who simply want to share an Internet connection, ‘g’ will work just fine. Even the fastest cable modem connections only run at 6-10Mb/s, so you’d never be able to saturate the bandwidth alloted by a ‘g’-based network (54Mb/s).
If you intend to purchase an AppleTV or stream video amongst the computers on your network, then it may make sense to go with an ‘n’ based router.
Q: My router is a dual-band unit. Is it better to use 5GHz instead of 2.4GHz?
A: If your router supports more than one band, find out if it can auto-select the best band given conditions in the environment. The latest AirPort Extreme can do this automatically, but some routers will offer you the option of setting up multiple networks – for example, one specific to media players and one for ordinary computers.
In general, the higher you go up in the spectrum (5GHz), the more limited range will be, but keep in mind that 5GHz is also far less “crowded” than 2.4GHz, so effective range may actually be better since you’re not having to contend with other wireless radio signals.
Q: My computer’s built-in AirPort wireless adapter doesn’t seem to be working well. Do these things “go bad” after some time?
A: In theory, your wireless adapter is made of “solid state” components and should last the life of your equipment. However, in some cases, I have seen cards fail after some time or have limited range. If you’re having chronic problems with your AirPort card on multiple networks, you may be able to replace the internal adapter (depending on the model of MacBook). One site that specializes in these replacements is QuickerTek (http://www.quickertek.com/).
Also, many vendors offer USB devices that include Mac-specific drivers. I have successfully tested the ASUS model USB-N10, a tiny dime-sized adapter and found that it works well.