The wireless-networking revolution, which has spread from a few hotels and airports to the coffee shop down the street and homes everywhere, began in late 1999, when Apple released the silver, flying-saucer-shaped AirPort Base Station and the AirPort card–the first commercially available 802.11b wireless products. But three and a half years later, the AirPort is one product in a crowded wireless-networking market. With its new and improved AirPort Base Station, Apple is finally responding to users’ demands; however, our testing revealed that this new AirPort leaves Apple following, rather than leading, the wireless pack.
New on the Network
This new Base Station has the same unique shape as the original, but the new model is white, not silver. The other visible difference is the addition (a long-overdue one) of a 10/100-Mbps Ethernet port next to the original 10-Mbps Ethernet port and modem ports. This new LAN port lets you connect the AirPort to an existing, wired Ethernet network, or a single, non-AirPort-capable Mac, at high speed, leaving the 10-Mbps port for WAN, DSL, or cable-based access to the Internet.
Apple has added firewall and DHCP-bridging capabilities as well, making for a seamless link between wired and wireless networks. This feature alone may make the AirPort worth its price to anyone who operates a network that includes both wired and wireless Macs. It uses NAT (Network Address Translation) to share a single IP address among as many as 50 clients (up from the original AirPort’s 20), or it can function as a DHCP server.
Unique AOL Support
With the first AirPort products, it was not possible to dial up to AOL and deliver Internet access to the other machines on a network. The new AirPort fixes this problem. Though AOL provides TCP/IP access to its content, other wireless access points–even those equipped with a modem–cannot connect to AOL as an ISP. Owners of the original AirPort can access AOL by upgrading their Base Station with the AirPort 2.0 software, available for free from Apple.
Batten Down the Hatches
Data security is a significant concern with wireless networks, which are vulnerable to any mischief maker wielding an 802.11b-equipped laptop who comes within range, so it’s easy for just about anyone to read everything that is transported over your network. The AirPort, like other 802.11b access points on the market, relies on WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) for encryption of network data. The new AirPort software has increased WEP encryption: 128 bits (up from 40), and though WEP is still a fundamentally flawed security mechanism, the update brings the AirPort’s security in line with that provided by competing products. The 128-bit WEP upgrade is also part of the AirPort 2.0 software upgrade, so it’s available to owners of the original AirPort Base Station.
Upping the security ante for education and corporate environments, the AirPort now supports user authentication through RADIUS (Remote Authentication Dial-In User Service) servers. RADIUS servers use a wireless network card’s MAC (Media Access Control) address to authenticate users seeking access to the network. The AirPort Base Station and AirPort 2.0 software also support Cisco Systems’ LEAP (Lightweight Extensible Authentication Protocol) security protocol. Although those features will not be useful for home users, they may allow AirPort users and Base Stations to join some large wireless networks that use non-Apple equipment. Some comparably priced competitors of the AirPort offer RADIUS support, but very few offer both RADIUS and LEAP.
Though flaws in the WEP-encryption scheme have been confirmed and well documented in the press and are not a failing of the AirPort product, Apple makes no attempt in its documentation to warn users that WEP is subject to attack by “war drivers,” who search for and infiltrate wireless networks by running programs that can quickly disarm WEP. Apple should be warning AirPort users against transferring sensitive data over wireless networks or choosing passwords that would compromise data if discovered.
Apple has benefited from a widespread belief among Mac users that only the AirPort can connect Macs wirelessly. This may explain why updates to the original Base Station have been so long delayed and why the AirPort’s price, $299, has failed to keep pace with less-expensive products. A number of vendors sell wireless routers and access points in the $150-to-$400 range, and most of these products are compatible with Mac-only networks.
The majority of wireless access points can be configured in a Web browser and used to provide wireless connectivity for Macs or any other computer that employs TCP/IP and Ethernet. But just as AirPort requires a Mac application for configuration, some non-Apple devices must be configured using Windows software. These are not practical choices for a Mac environment. Similarly, AirPort, though it’s compatible with PCs, requires at least one Mac on the network for configuration purposes.
While Apple has only now added a second networking port to the AirPort, many access-point vendors include 10/100-Mbps multiport switches, allowing you to connect wired devices directly to the access point, eliminating the need for a wired Ethernet hub, at least in small LANs. Several vendors have added full routing capabilities (in addition to selling bare-bones access points at a lower cost), and a few provide VPN (virtual private network) support for those who need a completely secured connection between a wireless network and a corporate VPN. There are access points that include Windows print servers, DHCP servers (the AirPort includes one), and more. In this competitive market, the AirPort holds its own in terms of features–at a much higher price. There are devices that have comparable features–such as the D-Link DI-714 and the Proxim Skyline Wireless Broadband Gateway–available for $200, about $100 less than the AirPort.
Though the AirPort isn’t the most feature-rich product on the market, most Mac users will find that the intuitive configuration interface is quick and easy to use, whether they are setting up the AirPort for the first time or making configuration changes later. The AirPort Setup Assistant and AirPort Administration Utility, both of which can be launched from OS 9 or OS X, bear Apple’s trademark ease of use, which is especially welcome in a networking product that might seem daunting to the casual technophile. But if the software fails you, don’t look to the skimpy printed documentation to bail you out. A few of its pages skim the basics of setting up the AirPort for the first time, but you won’t find much beyond that in the way of help, and there is no discussion of alternative network or Internet-access scenarios.
Macworld’s Buying Advice
If friendly Mac software and an intuitive configuration interface are your paramount concerns, the AirPort Base Station is the right choice for building your wireless network. People who depend on AOL for Internet access over a network will also find that the AirPort provides a simple and unique solution.
However, cost-conscious buyers and those who require advanced networking features may want to look into other products that cost less and do more, such as providing the flexibility of Web-based configuration and multiple network ports.
Owners of the original AirPort will find that most features included in the new model will be available to them in the AirPort 2.0 software update, which is a good reason not to replace an old unit with a new AirPort–until Apple releases updates available only for the newer Base Station.