QuickerTek QCard 3 full review
When Apple launched the MacBook Pro with Retina display two summers ago, we experienced the usual inner conflict, at once slack-jawed over new features in this advanced notebook, and simultaneously disappointed at those essentials that had been removed.
So while the plus column could list the best display on the market, lighter and even more stylish design and twice the Thunderbolt port quota, there were also those sad losses – things like built-in FireWire, the optical drive, Kensington lock slot (for peace of mind securing your covetable hardware to the desk), even the reassuring pulsing white sleep light.
Other people missed the infrared remote control sensor, or the handy battery-check LED string that showed remaining battery charge. And of course, the loss of the ability to change the battery, or upgrade the memory or the storage.
But perhaps the most universally missed feature for many professionals was the built-in gigabit ethernet port. You can slip in a surrogate in the form of a Thunderbolt-to-Ethernet adaptor, and in our experience this is a true plug-and-play and fuss-free solution with performance to match the real thing. But it’s extra desk mess and you’ll likely forget to pack it on the very trip when you need it most.
This writer at least expected the removal of built-in wired networking to be quickly followed by a ‘but hey, we’ve replaced that old gigabit wiring with gigabit wireless!’ from Phil Schiller.
In June 2012, the latest Wi-Fi protocol of 802.11ac had already been available to the world for over six months. It has been nicknamed ‘gigabit wireless’ by the usual barefaced marketing merchants, but even if it’s very far from hitting gigabit-ethernet performance, it is around half-way there on a good day with no other wireless clients contending for bandwidth.
Since it was Apple that first popularised Wi-Fi networking with its standards-compliant AirPort in 1999, Apple has long been a trailblazer in the best of wireless technology. And so it seemed natural that it should be Apple that would announce the world’s first real 11ac laptop.
It wasn’t to be though. The first generation MacBook Pro with Retina display was saddled with the familiar 802.11n, along with the usual real-world capability of 217 Mb/s on 2.4 GHz, and 450 Mb/s for wireless sync speeds with 5.0 GHz radio.
The minor refresh that followed in early 2013 also saw no change in the Retina MacBook’s wireless spec. But the MacBook Pro with Retina display of late 2013 (along with the MacBook Air refresh a few months earlier in June) did receive the long-awaited upgrade to 802.11ac Wi-Fi. And as far as we know, the MacBook Pro with Retina display is still the only production notebook computer with a full 3x3 MIMO array for its 11ac wireless adaptor.
QuickerTek QCard 3: Make do and mend
If you have one of the first two series of MacBook Pro with Retina display made between October 2012 and October 2013, it’s now possible to upgrade its wireless adaptor to full 802.11ac capability.
This is done by replacing the Mini-PCIe card inside with a new adaptor available from Mac upgrade specialist QuickerTek. It sells two different versions, the QCard 2 and QCard 3, made respectively for the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro with Retina display.
The difference lies in the number of wireless streams each can process. The Air has two internal antennae, giving a 2x2 MIMO configuration, while the Pro MacBook has three antennae to provide a 3x3 MIMO array.
Physically, the two cards have the same Mini-PCIe connector at one end, but the QCard 3 is around 6 mm longer overall, each matching the size of the original 11n cards that Apple supplies; and of the new 11ac counterparts in modern Macs..
QuickerTek QCard 3: Installation
Upgrading your Mac with the new 11ac card is a relatively straightforward operation. You just need to remove the laptop’s baseplate, remove old card and drop in the new one.
The old 11n card is known as a Broadcom BCM94331CSAX module, while the new card is labelled as a Broadcom BCM94360CSAX module.
Of course there are a few minor hurdles to vault before completing the job. First you will need to gain access to the MacBook’s innards, which requires a specialised pentalobe screwdriver. This is available from QuickerTek, other specialists like iFixit <https://www.ifixit.com/Tools/MacBook-Pro-and-Air-5-Point-Pentalobe-Screwdriver/IF145-090-3>, or may be found in various precision toolkits dedicated to the modern computer tweaker.
When removing these screws, also note that they are not all the same size. We found that some of the screws that run along the back, closest to the screen hinge, are slightly longer, so be sure to make a note in order to return these to the correct place on reassembly.
It’s good practice whenever accessing the inside of a computer and its components to earth yourself. If you don’t have the necessary wiring strap to attach to your wrist or ankle, make sure you touch the bare metal of a nearby radiator, for example, preferably while seated; and then ensure you don’t move from this position while working.
While working, you should also disconnect the lithium-polymer battery pack, attached by a snap-on PCB connector under a triangular warning symbol.
The card itself is held down with one Torx T6 screw. With screw removed, it can pop upward like an SO-DIMM memory module, and be gently pulled out when it’s reached its natural angle away from the logic board.
But first, you must detach three aerial leads that clip on to the card’s edge. Make a note of the position of each before you remove the old card, and clip these back into place in the same position on the new card. With the old card out, you can also exchange the sticky foam that’s applied to the back side of the wireless card, although our replacement card had this already attached.
When your MacBook is reassembled, you should check the MacBook has recognised its new powers, with System Information.app under Network/Wi-Fi entry. Here it should now list ‘802.11 a/b/g/n/ac’ for its Supported PHY Modes.
QuickerTek QCard 3: Performance
We tested the wireless performance of a MacBook Pro (Retina, 15-inch, Mid-2012) fitted with the new QuickerTek QCard 3. For comparison, we conducted simultaneous tests with a later model with intrinsic 802.11ac wireless, the MacBook Pro (Retina, 15-inch, Late 2013).
Testing was made in a relatively low-RF domestic environment, running speed tests over legacy 802.11n on 2.4 GHz, as well as 802.11ac on 5.0 GHz. To gauge real data throughput speed (TCP), we used WiFiPerf for measurement, and an Apple AirPort Extreme 802.11ac (6th Generation) as wireless access point. Serving as WiFiPerf server, we used a wired connection to a Mac mini.
Even in a location relatively free of other SSIDs and RF interference, we could see from WiFiPerf’s plotted graph when interference was momentarily causing drop outs in throughput; for example, tallying with the distant sound of a neighbour’s lawnmower starting or stopping. So up to three measurements were taken for each of three ranges (1, 2 and 10 m), with the best result reported.
Tests were made of both client-to-server and server-to-client performance, and a mean average made of the two figures.
QuickerTek QCard 3: Results
On the 2.4 GHz radio band, results were essentially identical between the two test laptops. For example, at 1 m range, both systems managed around 160 Mb/s. To wit, 166 Mb/s (2013 model) and 170 Mb/s (upgraded 2012 model).
At 2 m, these figures dropped very slightly to 152 and 154 Mb/s for 2013 and upgraded 2012 models.
And at 10 m, with an additional plaster wall between AirPort and MacBook, we recorded speeds of 155 and 139 Mb/s, respectively.
Turning to the all-important 802.11ac capability, the numbers were again closely aligned. At 1 m the 2013 MacBook averaged 638 Mb/s while the upgraded 2012 model reached the experiment’s maximum, 646 Mb/s. It’s also worth noting that the CtS figure here was a recorded maximum of 699 Mb/s.
At 2 m, the 2013 notebook averaged 625 Mb/s against the upgraded version’s 535 Mb/s. And at the longer-range 10 m test, we saw data throughput average 303 and 351 Mb/s, respectively.
Our conclusion from these tests is that the QuickerTek card installed into a 2012 MacBook could unlock wireless data speeds at least as good as a 2013 MacBook with its Apple-supplied card inside.
For around £100 you can upgrade mid-2012 and early-2013 model MacBooks to gain 802.11ac Wi-Fi connectivity. The installation is quite simple if you’re confident with simple repairs and upgrades, and it does not require any special third-party kernel extensions to be maintained, since the new card uses Apple’s regular wireless drivers. It won’t make up for the loss of a proper ethernet port, but 11ac wireless sure speeds up data transfers on the local network.