802.11g's "Extreme" Emergence
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You'll be able to buy two external antennas for the AirPort Extreme Base Station. Both initial models are made and marketed by veteran Mac firm Dr. Bott. Apple said that they didn't want to get into the antenna business, but Apple is having the entire $250 AirPort Extreme Base Station plus Dr. Bott antenna system certified by the FCC. (Companies pay a separate fee for each certification--which may account for part of why the cheaper AirPort Extreme Base Station doesn't have an external antenna jack.)
The Dr. Bott ExtendAIR Omni ($100) is a 3.5 dBi omnidirectional antenna suitable for extending the range of an AirPort Extreme Base Station in all directions; the ExtendAIR Direct ($150) is a 6.5 dBi 70-degree directional antenna.
Although you can still use the 56 Kbps modem (v.90, not v.92, unfortunately) to connect via a dialup Internet connection, you might still want the modem-equipped version of the AirPort Extreme Base Station even if you have a broadband connection to the Internet. That's because the AirPort Extreme Base Station also supports PPP dial-in connections. Forget a file while you're traveling? As long as your Mac is turned on and has file sharing enabled, you can use your laptop's modem to dial up your AirPort Extreme Base Station and retrieve that file. Exactly how this feature will work won't be clear until we can test the hardware, but it could be a welcome addition. (Of course, this assumes a phone line dedicated to incoming data calls.)
The AirPort Extreme Base Station's bridge feature is unique for equipment in this price range. It enables you to extend the range of a network without wires. Just buy two AirPort Extreme Base Stations, connect one to your Internet connection, and set the other to work in bridge mode. The bridge unit connects both to the master AirPort Extreme Base Station and act as an access point for computers within range. In the past, you would have had to spend well over $500 to buy a single device that could act an access point and bridge simultaneously, or combine separate pieces of equipment like the Linksys WAP11 and WET11 to achieve the same effect. (See pages 152-160 of The Wireless Networking Starter Kit for more on bridging.)
Wireless Networking Resources from Adam Engst and Glenn Fleishman
Remember that, even if you don't have a single AirPort Extreme card or 802.11g adapter on your network, two AirPort Extreme Base Stations can connect to each other at the full 54 Mbps raw speed of 802.11g. If your wired network runs at 100 Mbps, the high-speed bridging is another reason for the 10/100 Mbps WAN port on the new units.
With AirPort Extreme Base Stations, you could locate islands of wired and wireless access in various locations without running wire among those islands. This could allow you to create larger coverage area or connect neighboring buildings or homes.
Although the AirPort Extreme Base Station bridging works with up to four units at once, you cannot daisy chain the AirPort Extreme Base Stations in bridging mode; all the bridged units must each connect back to the master unit. In more extensive installations, you could run Ethernet among several master AirPort Extreme Base Stations and still use bridging on the edges of the network.
AirPort Extreme Card
The new AirPort Extreme Card is based on the mini-PCI Card form factor, and has a new shape and connector. The card is built into every 17-inch PowerBook G4 and is a user-expandable or build-to-order option with the 12-inch PowerBook G4. Both PowerBooks were announced at the same time as AirPort Extreme.
These two PowerBook models also have built-in Bluetooth and a pair of antennas. Apple said that the two antennas reconfigure themselves dynamically to provide either antenna diversity for better reception of Wi-Fi or 802.11g signals, or for one antenna to be dedicated to Bluetooth and the other to 802.11 depending on what's needed.
The antenna redesign also solves a problem inherent in the Titanium PowerBook G4 design which restricted the signal strength entering and leaving the computer. In the new PowerBook G4 aluminum case design, the antennas are located at the top of both sides of the LCD display with rubber seals providing radio "transparency".
Will there be an upgraded AirPort Extreme card for older Macs? The answer is a firm no. Greg Joswiak, Apple's VP of hardware products, confirmed for us that the older AirPort card relied on a too-slow bus, or communications channel, inside each Mac. This slow, 20 Mbps bus can't operate at the speed required by 802.11g, thus making it impossible to revise the card or plug a different card into that slot. Some rumors circulated briefly about a firmware upgrade for existing cards, but because the radio itself needs to be upgraded, this is physically impossible.
We expect that new Power Macs will be among the first Macs to sport either an AirPort Extreme slot or, less likely, a PCI-based AirPort Extreme card option. iMacs, eMacs, and iBooks would require motherboard redesign to support AirPort Extreme, and thus only a major refresh to each product line will be extreme enough to incorporate 802.11g.
It's certain that other companies will step up to the plate as well, such as Asanté, Proxim, MacWireless, and Belkin, all of which have a history of supporting Macintosh networking. These companies typically release PC Cards first, meaning that only certain PowerBook models would handle 802.11g. PCI card adapters are already shipping, and we might see Ethernet or even FireWire (USB is too slow for 802.11g) converters as well.
Other 802.11g Makers
Although Apple is early with 802.11g, it's not the first to ship products. Linksys gets that honor, having pushed out its first "54G" gateways and cards before the end of 2002, with Buffalo shortly behind. D-Link and Belkin aren't far behind. (Prices are the lowest price at Amazon.com or via the companies' online stores.)
Belkin : Many Mac users know Belkin as a cable company, but the firm has been shipping a variety of networking products, including inexpensive Bluetooth adapters, for some time. By the time you read this, the company plans to ship four devices: a wired/wireless gateway (F5D7230-4, retail price $150), a plain access point (F5D7130, $140), a PC Card (F5D7010, $80), and a PCI card (F5D7000, $80). Belkin has promised drivers for its 802.11g gear by February for Mac OS 8.6 and later.
Linksys: Linksys has two 54G gateways and two cards. The WRT54G is a combination wired switch and wireless gateway which updates their BEFW11S4 model ($130). The WAP54G is a simple access point that adds 802.11g support to the WAP11 ($130). The WPC54G PC Card ($70) is available now, and the WMP54G PCI adapter ($70) is coming soon. Linksys has little to no Macintosh support for any of its existing products.
D-Link: D-Link is offering products under the complicated brand name of AirPlus Xtreme G. They also have a wired/wireless gateway (DI-624, $150), plain access point (DWL-2000AP, $140), PC Card (DWL-G650, $80), and PCI Card (DWL-G520, $90). D-Link has offered limited AppleTalk support in its previous offerings, and Mac drivers are unlikely.
Buffalo: Buffalo has its AirStation G54 Broadband Router Access Point (WBR-G54) for a retail price of $200 and a PC Card (WLI-CB-G54) for $100. Street prices should be less. The company has offered limited Mac support in the past.
Future of G
The future of 802.11g is bright, given its advantages and the early rush to push products into the marketplace. Buying equipment now should cost only a slight premium over later prices: Apple probably won't adjust its prices much, if at all, based on its history, and 802.11g devices from other manufacturers will probably drop only $10 to $30 over the course of 2003 unless major manufacturing breakthroughs occur or chip prices plummet.
We're bullish on 802.11g because it's backwards compatible and because it doesn't rely on unproven technology. Faster speed at about the same price? Count us in.
Adam Engst is the publisher of TidBITS , one of the oldest and most-respected Internet-based newsletters, distributed weekly to many thousands of readers. He has written numerous technical books, including the best-selling Internet Starter Kit series.
Glenn Fleishman is a freelance technology journalist contributing regularly to The New York Times, The Seattle Times, Macworld magazine, and InfoWorld. He maintains a wireless weblog at wifinetnews.com.
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