Configuring your Mac's network settings

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About the Wi-Fi menu

If you’re using a Wi-Fi network, it’s worth your while to enable the Show Wi-Fi Status in Menu Bar option in the Network system preference. Do this and you can easily turn off Wi-Fi by choosing the Turn Wi-Fi Off command. Also, a helpful fan icon appears in the Mac’s menu bar. The number of black bars in that fan indicates the wireless network’s signal strength. If you see just one or two black bars, try moving closer to the wireless hotspot to increase the signal strength, as a poor signal can mean a slower connection.

But the Turn Wi-Fi Off command and the fan icon aren’t the only reasons to enable the Wi-Fi menu-bar option. You’ll also see many nearby wireless networks. Those that bear just a fan are open and those with a lock icon next to them require that you know the password to join the network.

Note: Not all open networks truly are. If you’ve spent time with a laptop or iOS device in an airport, convention center, or hotel, you’ve likely seen entries for Free Public Wi-Fi networks. These aren’t real open networks. Rather, they’re the result of a bug in Windows XP. When a computer running XP can’t find a recognized Wi-Fi network, it creates an ad-hoc network of its own and broadcasts itself as Free Public Wi-Fi. If you try to connect to it, you’ll discover that no Internet connection results. It’s not dangerous to do this—your Mac won’t get cooties—but in terms of actually getting on the Internet, it does you no good whatsoever.

Speaking of creating an ad-hoc (or computer-to-computer) network, this is something you can also do via the Wi-Fi menu. Click on this menu, and you’ll see a Create Network command. This command allows you to turn your Mac into a wireless hotspot, which you can share with others. Back in the days when most hotels had only wired ethernet Internet available, you’d use this so you could connect other nearby wireless devices to the hotel network (without having to pay for an additional connection or because your other devices didn’t support ethernet).

Create a computer-to-computer network.

Creating an ad-hoc network is still a good solution in that increasingly rare situation, but there are other reasons to do it, too: for instance, when you want to create a secure network that only those who know the network’s password can log in to.

To create a computer-to-computer network, just choose the Create Network command and, in the sheet that appears, create a network name ('Super Secret Network', for example) and choose a channel to broadcast over. (Channel 11 is the default, but if there’s a lot of wireless traffic where you are—which can degrade the signal—choose another channel such as 1 or 6.) And if you want a secure network, click the Security pop-up menu and choose 40-bit or 128-bit WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy)—128-bit is more secure. If you choose either WEP setting, you must enter and confirm a password—exactly five characters for 40-bit WEP and 13 characters for 128-bit WEP.

Accesse a hidden network via the Join Other Network command.

More? Okay. Some nearby Wi-Fi networks don’t appear in the Wi-Fi menu because they’ve been set up as private networks—networks you can access only if you know their name and password. If you’re aware of such a network (because the boss sidled up to you and hissed “Not only have you earned the key to the executive washroom, but you can now use our private network. Its name is ‘Perk’ and the password is ‘ent1tled.’”) just choose Join Other Network from the Wi-Fi menu and in the window that appears enter the network name, choose the kind of security the network uses, enter the network’s password, and click Join.

Where this leads

Configuring a Mac to join a network is a necessary but unenthralling chore. But now that you have established a network, the good stuff can begin: You can now share printers and scanners, swap files, and remotely control another Mac on your network. We'll look at these tasks next week.

Next week: All about sharing

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