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Inside Apple's AirPort 4.1 Update

The wireless software updates released by Apple this week —AirPort 4.1, along with AirPort Express 6.1 and AirPort Extreme Base station 5.5 firmware—don’t contain a multitude of changes. But the fixes that are there should go a long way to resolving the frustrations of a few users who had no workarounds for their troubles.

AirPort 4.1 for Mac OS X 10.3 lists just three changes. But each is significant in its own way.

WPA for WDS While this may sound like acronym soup, it’s actually an important security upgrade. WPA is Wi-Fi Protected Access, a method of securing a wireless network by encrypting all the data that passes across it. You use a simple password to enable WPA. An older method, known as WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy), can be broken with freely available software. Companies that sell Wi-Fi gear, like Apple, recommend using WPA.

But Apple didn’t have the software support to allow WPA when a network also used Wireless Distribution System (WDS)—a way to connect base stations using a wireless connection. AirPort Express, in particular, has been promoted as an add-on to an existing wireless network: instead of running an Ethernet cable, you could use WDS to add an AirPort Express near your stereo system.

WDS without WPA meant that users who wanted the most reliable security had to revert to a wired network. AirPort 4.1 resolves that disparity. All base stations on a WDS-connected network need the new firmware to use WPA.

Renaming USB Printers Connected to a Base Station Previously, when you plugged a USB printer into an AirPort Express or AirPort Extreme Base Station, the printer’s generic name—Canon i950, say—would become its Rendezvous name seen over the network. The new AirPort Admin Utility 4.1 allows you to choose how the printer appears on Rendezvous on base stations upgraded to the latest firmware.

This small change resolved a year-long problem that my wife and I had on our AirPort network. Her iBook, running Jaguar and then Panther, stopping being able to print to our USB-connected printer after initial success; my Panther-based PowerBook had no difficulties. The problem clearly stemmed from cached values in some obscure setting file. Changing the printer’s name in our AirPort Express immediately solved the problem. A colleague confirmed via e-mail that this solved an identical long-standing printing failure, too.

(On a related note, Apple has opted to stop listing printers that are supported by the base stations. iFelix’s unofficial list is now the best source of information.)

Keyspan Express Remote Support Keyspan has introduced an infrared remote control unit that comes in two parts: the remote control itself and a base that connects to a Mac, PC, or AirPort Express via USB. AirPort 4.1, combined with the AirPort Express 6.1 firmware upgrade, allows the Express Remote to remotely control iTunes playing through the AirPort Express.

Other Updates

The firmware upgrades for AirPort Express and AirPort Extreme Base Station models contain the complementary parts for the above features, but also appear to solve a number of cases in which network communication can be disrupted or inconsistent. We have heard many reports of standard File Transfer Protocol failing to work correctly via an Apple base station where, on the same network, switching to a wired connection works perfectly.

The technical notes for both firmware updates indicate that FTP, QuickTime’s RTSP streaming protocol, and IPsec (a virtual private networking encryption protocol) are all improved. TCP and UDP—the Internet’s underlying data communication protocols—are also better in undescribed ways. The technical notes also include items about improved performance and bug fixes for problems with DNS, USB printing, and PPP over Ethernet.

Two specific firmware additions are worth mentioning, one for each model:

Disabling the AirPort Interface or Ethernet Interface in AirPort Express It’s now possible to turn off either interface entirely if it’s not in use. This prevents access to the AirPort Express through that interface. If an AirPort Express is connected via Ethernet and used for USB printer sharing or AirTunes music streaming, then the AirPort interface can be turned off.

The Ethernet interface can be disabled in two circumstances now, too. If you’re using the AirPort Express as a wireless client, it can connect to any Wi-Fi base station—not just Apple’s—but it can’t be connected to by wireless clients. In this circumstance, the Ethernet interface isn’t available, but it still “looks” functional to a computer, which can be confusing. AirPort Express 6.1 adds a setting that allows the Ethernet interface to appear dead as well as be dead.

You can also choose to disable the Ethernet interface when you’re using WDS mode to restrict access through that means.

Multiple USB Printers for the Professional/Academic Models of AirPort Extreme Base Stations This firmware upgrade allows the Power over Ethernet (PoE) model, sold only to businesses and schools, to handle multiple USB printers through a USB hub. This seems like an artificial market distinction as there’s no good reason to disable this function on a home or small office base station since Apple specifically omits listing the PoE model on the Apple Store for anything but a few types of markets.

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