After a great deal of fanfare at last July’s Macworld Expo, Apple has started shipping the AirPort Base Station and accompanying AirPort card (sold separately), heralding a new era of wireless communication. With the AirPort, a network of Macs can share a single IP address, and up to ten users can connect to one another – or to the Web – via a single Base Station. You can also wirelessly network AirPort-equipped Macs without relying on a Base Station. However, don’t expect to achieve the ethernet-equivalent 11bps throughput that Apple claims. And, we were upset that Apple has not implemented its Base Station software scheme, which turns any AirPort-equipped Mac into a virtual Base. We installed AirPort cards in three Mac models – a 450MHz Power Macintosh G4, an iMac DV, and an iBook. Installing the cards was a breeze. The AirPort comes with a special bracket for adding the card to an iMac DV – you simply remove this bracket to install the card into another Mac model. After installing the software, you run the Setup Assistant, letting you join an existing network or configure a Base Station. Configuring the Base Station is mostly transparent. If you’ve already created Internet settings on the Mac from which you’re configuring the Base Station, the Setup Assistant adds these settings to the AirPort application. If your Mac isn’t configured for the Internet, the Internet Setup Assistant is launched. The easiest way to control your AirPort network is through the AirPort Control Strip module – which lets you monitor the strength of the AirPort’s signal, and choose between connecting to the Base Station and connecting to another Mac. We were mightily impressed with the reliability of the AirPort’s connections. After setting up a Base Station inside Macworld’s lab, we used an AirPort-equipped iBook to log onto the Internet via the Base Station modem. Then we marched around a large office and took an elevator down one floor, continuously monitoring signal strength. Although the iBook stopped receiving data while we were in the elevator, it resumed once we stepped out to the floor below. The connection may be steady, but the AirPort doesn’t hold up to Apple’s claims of ethernet-level performance. In Macworld’s tests, a large file-transfer between two Macs took two to four times longer with the AirPort, than with 10BaseT ethernet (see "AirPort: ready for take off", below). Performance was even slower when we connected additional Macs to the system. Because of the Base Station’s limited bandwidth, when adding clients you can expect an even bigger performance lag than you’d get on an ethernet network. However, when we played a game of Quake II between two AirPort-equipped Macs, performance was similar to that which you’d see on a LAN connection. In addition to offering so-so network performance, AirPort sometimes forces you to go through a cumbersome set of software procedures when restoring lost connections.
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