AirPort Base Station and AirPort Card
After a great deal of fanfare at last July's Macworld Expo, Apple has finally shipped the AirPort Base Station and accompanying AirPort card (sold separately), heralding a new era of wireless communication for Mac users.
With the AirPort, a network of Macs can share a single IP address, and up to ten users can connect to each other or to the Web via a single Base Station. You can also wirelessly network AirPort-equipped Macs without relying on a Base Station. However, don't expect to achieve the Ethernet-equivalent 11-Mbps throughput that Apple claims. The AirPort is plenty fast for a wireless connection, but it doesn't match 10BaseT Ethernet performance. And we're disappointed that Apple has not implemented its Base Station software scheme, which turns any AirPort-equipped Mac into a virtual Base Station (see the sidebar "The AirPort Arrives," in Street Smarts elsewhere in this issue).
We installed AirPort cards in three Mac models?a 450MHz Power Macintosh G4, an iMac DV, and an iBook. Installing the cards was a breeze. The AirPort comes with a special bracket for adding the card to an iMac DV; you simply remove this bracket to install the card into another Mac model. After installing the software, you run the Setup Assistant, which lets you join an existing network or configure a Base Station.
Configuring the Base Station is a mostly transparent process. If you've already created Internet settings on the Mac from which you're configuring the Base Station, the Setup Assistant adds these settings to the AirPort application. If your Mac isn't configured for the Internet, the Setup Assistant launches the Internet Setup Assistant.
The easiest way to control your AirPort network is through the AirPort Control Strip module, which lets you monitor the strength of the AirPort's signal and choose between connecting to the Base Station and connecting to another Mac.
We were mightily impressed with the reliability of the AirPort's connections. After setting up a Base Station inside Macworld Lab, we used an AirPort-equipped iBook to log onto the Internet via the Base Station modem. Then we marched around a large office and took an elevator down one floor, using the AirPort utility to continuously monitor signal strength. Although the iBook stopped receiving data while we were in the elevator, it resumed once we stepped out to the floor below.
The connection may be steady, but the AirPort doesn't hold up to Apple's claims of Ethernet-level performance. In Macworld Lab tests, a large file transfer between two Macs took two to four times longer with the AirPort than with 10BaseT Ethernet (see "Ready for Takeoff"); performance was even slower when we connected additional Macs to the system. (Because of the Base Station's limited bandwidth, when adding clients, you can expect an even bigger performance lag than you'd get on an Ethernet network.) However, the connection feels fast enough; when we played a game of Quake II between two AirPort-equipped Macs, performance was similar to what you'd see on a LAN connection, with no noticeable lag.
In addition to offering so-so network performance, AirPort sometimes forces you to go through a cumbersome set of software procedures when restoring a lost connection.
February 2000 page: 32Ready for Takeoff