Apple offers 802.11n, and a wireless wow

Apple is moving ahead again, this time with wireless routers that use a standard not yet finalized

What a difference a letter makes.

Just as it did in 1999 when it began pushing 802.11b -- the first wireless networking standard to go mainstream -- and again in 2003 when it was on the leading edge with the faster 802.11g networking, Apple is moving ahead again, this time with wireless routers that use a standard not yet finalized: 802.11n.

With its latest Airport Extreme base station, Apple has done more than revamp the look of its popular wireless router. (The silky white UFO look is out; the simple, flat Mac mini look is in.) In addition to adopting 802.11n -- a whole new standard in Wi-Fi that promises faster transfer speeds and better range -- it is also making a foray into home storage networks.

Now you can add a USB hard drive to your Airport Extreme base station, creating an ever-present storage repository that anyone on your wireless network can access. More about that in a minute.

In case you're not familiar with the vagaries of wireless standards, 802.11b offers a theoretical maximum speed of 11Mbit/sec. and a range of about 150 feet. Its successor, 802.11g, promises about five times that maximum speed, 54Mbit/sec., and a slightly wider radius of coverage. And 802.11n, according to Apple officials, offers five times the speed of its predecessor and about twice the range. Think of it this way: fast, faster and fastest.

Apple's new hardware can also use 802.11a networking, which is more common in enterprises, and has a built-in NAT firewall and three 10/100 Ethernet LAN ports.

As always, mileage will vary when you set up your wireless network, depending on your hardware, the location of your router and the presence of other equipment that might cause interference. But the Airport Extreme base station I've been using for a couple of weeks has worked flawlessly so far.

Although Apple made a splash earlier this month with the release of its new US$179 base station -- it's priced higher than rival systems -- other router makers were out the door first. They began offering "pre-n" hardware last fall that can be updated to the final standard when its adopted by sometime late in 2008. What Apple is touting, as it often does, is ease of use. And as someone who's had a Linksys pre-802.11n wireless router since November -- I got it when I first saw rumours that Apple was putting 802.11n-capable wireless cards in its laptops -- I can say that Apple's solution is indeed simple to set up and use.

Apple officials last month confirmed that the company has been using wireless cards that are 802.11n-enabled since last year in most of the company's hardware. Only the Mac mini and the entry-level iMac are without them now. A US$1.99 software update will enable the function in computers with the newer cards. It's included with the Airport Extreme base station.)

That's not to say that the Linksys hardware hasn't worked well. For me, so far, it has. But it can be a daunting task to figure out NAT settings and decipher which security settings to use on a wireless network. If you're in an enterprise environment or like to tinker with arcane settings, you might find those settings necessary or just fun to monkey around with. Me? I want a wireless network that's easy to set up and performs as promised, one that I can generally forget about once it's up and running.

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Ken Mingis

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