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Networkers Aren't Tied to AirPort's Hub

November 23, 2000|JIM HEID | jim@jimheid.com

I've taken to reading this newspaper hunched over my morning cereal. There's nothing unusual about that--except that I'm reading it online using an untethered PowerBook.

I'm using Apple's AirPort wireless network technology, which enables you to roam within 150 feet of a base station to access the Internet, swap files with other computers on the network and share printers. As fast as a conventional Ethernet network, AirPort is ideal for anyone who wants to network a house, classroom or small office but doesn't want to string cables.

Every current Mac except for the entry-level, $799 iMac is capable of wireless networking. You need add only a $99 AirPort Card, which installs in a slot that's connected to two tiny, built-in antennas. For older PowerBooks, there's Farallon's SkyLine PC Card ($191; http://www.farallon.com). Farallon also plans to ship an AirPort-compatible PCI card for older G3 Power Macs by year's end.

The hub of an AirPort network is the $299 AirPort Base Station. About 6 inches across and shaped like a flying saucer from a 1950s sci-fi flick, the station can unite as many as 10 computers. Ideally, you connect its Ethernet jack to a high-speed cable or DSL modem, but the station also contains a 56-kilobit-per-second modem, enabling you to share a dial-up connection. (Note that AirPort can't dial into America Online.)

After connecting the base station and installing the AirPort card in your Mac, it takes just a few mouse clicks to be up and wireless. The AirPort software's signal-strength meter shows how well the Mac is receiving the station's radio signal. As I strolled around my neighborhood listening to an Internet radio station on my PowerBook, earning wary glances from my neighbors (yet again), I found that the base station's range often exceeded Apple's 150-foot rating.

AirPort is not some esoteric, Mac-only technology. Apple wisely settled on a wireless networking standard called 802.11b, and numerous companies sell AirPort-compatible cards for Windows desktop and laptop machines. Farallon is one. Another is Lucent Technologies (http://www.wavelan.com), which worked with Apple to develop the AirPort hardware. For a list of 802.11b players, see the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance site at http://www.wirelessethernet.com.

AirPort supports several variations on the wireless theme. In computer-to-computer mode, for example, AirPort-equipped computers can communicate without a base station, enabling a group of AirPort users to form an ad hoc wireless network to swap files, collaborate or play games. This may sound appealing to frequent fliers wanting to play games with the boss up in First Class, but Apple recommends turning off AirPort when airborne to avoid interfering with a jetliner's electronics.

It may be verboten in a plane, but you can certainly use AirPort in an airport. Several companies offer 802.11 networking services in airport terminals and lounges as well as in hotels and other public locations. Fire up your AirPort-equipped Mac in one of these locales, and you instantly have a high-speed Internet connection.

The major players are MobileStar (http://www.mobilestar.com), Aerzone (http://www.aerzone.com), and Wayport (http://www.wayport.com). Each has deals with airlines, airports and hotel chains. And each offers several service options. MobileStar, for example, charges from $2.50 for a 15-minute session to $60 per month for unlimited access, with several tiers in between.

Besides sparing me from crawling under my house to string cables, AirPort has transformed my working and surfing habits. The Web is an entirely different beast when you can access it from the sofa, the breakfast table or the airport gate. Once you've tasted the freedom of untethered networking, plugging in a modem or network cable seems as archaic as cranking up a phonograph.

Jim Heid is a contributing editor of Macworld magazine.

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