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APRIL 2000 | VOL. 4, NO. 4

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DAN SULLIVAN is a staff technology writer for Renaissance Online Magazine.


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  AirPort Offers Surfer Freedom

DAN SULLIVAN

I love the Internet. Probably more than I should, but I do. It satiates my pop culture needs. It brings me more junk to sift through than Fred and Lamont Sanford could handle together. My curiosities are satiated. My inquiries are answered. The Internet empowers and retards. It educates and placates. It gives the flowers to Algernon, and then takes them away at three in the morning, making him late for work again.

Now it does all of that from anywhere in my apartment.

Thanks to AirPort, the Apple-branded, Lucent-developed technology, I use my iBook to surf the web from anywhere in my dwelling, including the front or back porch. It is liberating. It is fast. It is just plain neat.

I have a mini-network in my home consisting of a PC, two printers, and my iBook. The PC has a cable modem that I route to a separate Ethernet hub, which was hard-wired to my iBook. My wife and I could surf simultaneously, with a zippy connection on either computer. But I was hard-wired to the opposing desk in the home office. It felt a bit confining. Knowing the wireless potential of the iBook, I had to take the plunge. I am immensely satisfied with AirPort's capabilities.

AirPort consists of software and hardware components. The software configures and administrates the hardware and associated networked computers. The software tutorials and functionality are excellent. Most network set-up hurdles have been anticipated in advance. As an added benefit, AirPort retains previous Internet and network settings and transfers them to necessary hardware.

The hardware package consists of a Card and, usually, a Base Station. The AirPort Card fits in all iBook, G4 PowerMac, fourth revision iMac and this year's professional PowerBook models. An AirPort Base Station sends and receives signals from AirPort Cards. The base station has an internal 56K modem, and a 10 BASE-T Ethernet port. (Inside the Base Station is a Lucent WaveLan card, just like the AirPort Card.)

The hardware Base Station is considered optional because the AirPort Card installed in one of the aforementioned computers (thanks to AirPort 1.1 software) enables that computer to serve others wirelessly courtesy of the Software Base Station feature. For example, an iMac with an installed AirPort Card and a stable Internet connection can serve up to ten other AirPort-enabled computers in a 150-foot radius with Internet access. Not bad.

Installing the AirPort card into my iBook was only slightly more complex than inserting bread in my toaster. The iBook even offers diagram beneath the keyboard (no screwdriver required) for the AirPort card insertion. If you can use an ATM or pay for gas at the pump, you can install AirPort.

Once the hardware and software is installed, you are instantly the network administrator. AirPort will copy your existing settings and ask you for network preferences. Post configuration, AirPort can serve both Macs and PC's. A Mac is needed to configure AirPort's Base Station, but Lucent's ORINOCO Gold or Silver 802.11 PC cards work in PC and Mac laptops, and are AirPort compatible.

To test the network speed, I downloaded a 16-megabyte installer program from FreeWWWeb.com. On my PC it took 1.5 minutes exactly. On my iBook downloading the file wirelessly through AirPort took only five seconds longer. Streaming video is nearly the same speed as my PC.

The wireless printing feature is also amazing. Because my archaic HP 560C printer has a LocalTalk adapter installed, I can print this article two rooms away. You haven't experienced Internet nirvana until you print a movie showtime schedule from the laptop in your kitchen to the printer in your home office. Trust me, it feels good.

However, the transfer of IP addresses with AirPort acts oddly. Since the Base Station acts almost as a separate network server, it takes the IP address from the host computer and uses it on the network. This caused several alert messages for me regarding possible network problems with identical IP's on the same network. After changing my laptop IP address, there were no problems. Since AirPort allows any one IP address to serve up to 10 others, it inherently defeats a cable modem system that is programmed to serve one IP address per household.

The true power of AirPort? Leaning over to your laptop to type in an interesting URL off a .com commercial you just saw on TV. Checking eBay on your adirondak chair as you watch the world go by. A true marriage of AirPort is the iBook (with a four-hour continuous battery), an AirPort Card and Base Station, and a cable modem. It's probably the fastest wireless consumer solution available today.

If not, it sure feels like it.

AirPort costs $299 for a Base Station and $99 for a Card. Both come with AirPort 1.1 software. Both are a tremendous value. If you have the dough, one could rationalize buying a new iMac (for as little as $999) and adding an AirPort Card to it for service as a Base Station. The $299 spent on the stand-alone base station could instead be $200 towards a CPU with the same network interfaces and much more potential.

The best part about AirPort, is its use of the IEEE 802.11 DSSS wireless transmission standard. For $149, I can add my wife's PC laptop to the wireless network with a Lucent ORINOCO Silver 802.11 PC card. AirPort is Apple technology that's compatible with non-Apple products. These types of compatibility hurdles have hurt Apple in the past, and they seem to have learned from their mistakes.

So much so, that they've cleared the home-networking hurdle with no strings attached. Literally.

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