How to use a network gateway to share files

With AirPort base stations out of production, there is a way to create a network file server with a non-Apple router.

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After the writing had been on the wall for years, Apple only recently officially stated that it won’t be producing Wi-Fi base stations anymore. Many of us have relied on the AirPort line as an easy way to handle a number of basic network tasks without learning the vagaries of other hardware. One of those is network file sharing.

You can share files from macOS or Windows, but it’s not always convenient or applicable, especially if you (or your family) relies largely on laptops. Another option is network-attached storage (NAS), which are standalone file servers that often come with a lot of additional features, and now start in the low hundreds of dollars for “bare” units without any internal drives.

For example, the Synology DS218+ ($300 without drives) is a pretty powerful piece of hardware that can transcode video in real time to stream it over a network, as well as serve files over several protocols, like the widely used SMB and the outdated AFP (Apple Filing Protocol). Add a couple of $50 to $100 drives, and you’re smoking.

But if $300 plus $100 to $200 for drives is too steep for your purposes, and you’ve got a Wi-Fi gateway with a USB port that you’ve never used before, crack open its manual. You’ll typically find that you can add one or more storage devices (a thumb drive, an SSD, or a hard drive), and have it show up on the network.

Many gateways have just USB 2.0 ports, which supports up to 480 Mbps of raw data, but in practice works more slowly. Newer gateways should handle USB 3.0 or later, which can hit 5 Gbps for high-performance devices. You won’t see anything like that rate via a gateway-connected drive, but USB 3 drives generally outperform USB 2.0 ones.

You’ll need to consult your manual to sort out what is often an under-explained web-based interface to enable drive sharing and then, if available, add a password or create a set of shared folders with specific permissions if you don’t want to share the entire drive to all the users of your network. For home use, that’s usually not a big problem.

mac911 network gateway file server IDG

A bare bones disk sharing interface appears in a TP-Link router’s Web-based administrative front end.

Tricky access

The trick for macOS users, however, is that not all network gateways produce the right “discovery” announcements for macOS to show the embedded file server in the Finder’s Network browser (Go > Network). With my current gateway, a TP-Link model, the drive doesn’t show up at all, but it’s fully accessible from macOS. Here’s how you gain access.

First, in the administrative interface for your gateway, find out its IP address on your local or private network. With non-Apple gateways, this is almost always If you’re connected by Wi-Fi to it from a Mac, hold down the Option key and select the Wi-Fi menu bar icon. A bunch of additional information appears underneath your currently connected network, including Router: the number following Router is the gateway address. Note this IP address

Now, in the Finder, choose Go > Connect to Server. Enter the IP address in that dialog and click Connect. After a moment, a login dialog should appear. You may be able to connect by clicking Guest, or you may need to use the admin access credentials of the gateway. If you’ve connected user accounts or enabled a disk-access user, enter those credentials instead.

If multiple volumes are available, you should be given a choice of which to mount. If not, the server’s shared volume should mount immediately showing the entire drive or nested folders in a virtual volume.

The overall performance of a router-based shared drive won’t be fantastic, unless you’ve purchased a very high-end gateway, some of which even offer streaming, UPnP discovery (which lets it be found by apps like VLC without making a file-sharing connection), and DLNA compatibility with networked devices, like game systems. But the built-in performance may be plenty if you’re mostly moving files around or using software, like Plex, that can use networked volumes via Mac, Windows, or other server software and handles encoding on a host computer as necessary.

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