AirPort: More weirdness with Apple’s unpredictable software

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
June 10th, 2004 • 2:42 am

My AirPort problems have been on-going. I’ve reported extensively on them (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here!), I’ve sent bug reports to Apple, and I am not done yet. It seems that there is always a new twist to be discovered.

Today, for example, I went to my wife’s PowerBook to try and extract an audio file from a CD that would work properly in my G4’s internal drives. (The extraction would stall about 2 thirds of the way on one specific track, regardless of the drive I used, and regardless of the software used for extracting it. I took a look at the surface of the CD, and didn’t notice anything abnormal. But there’s obviously something on that CD that disagrees with my CD drives. Anyway… The extraction worked just fine on my wife’s PowerBook using the built-in DVD-ROM drive.) It was an 80 MB file and I wanted to transfer it back to my G4 over the AirPort network. (I should probably have used a FireWire drive instead, but I wasn’t in a hurry, so I thought I would use the network.)

I mounted my G4’s volume on the PowerBook and dragged the file to it. The copying in the Finder started just fine, with an estimated time of approximately 20 minutes. Fine, I thought. But then my wife started receiving a large e-mail in the background (also through the AirPort network). And all of a sudden the AirPort status display in the menu bar started acting up. We are accustomed — unfortunately — to variations in the signal level. But this time it was the time display (connection time) next to the signal level that kept disappearing and reappearing again! Very weird.

I then went to my G4, and checked the network transfer rates with MenuMeters. They were around 50 KB/s, which looked normal (if low) to me. But then the time display on my AirPort status in the menu bar started acting up to! Same thing: the time kept disappearing and reappearing again.

The signal level stayed the same, i.e. full (the Base Station sits in my office). But the time display kept disappearing and reappearing. What is that supposed to mean? The time display is obviously related to the connection to the Internet. It indicates how long the modem connection inside the Base Station has been on. So the fact that the time is disappearing seems to indicate that the AirPort software on the G4 (and on the PowerBook) is losing, not the connection to the network created by the Base Station itself, but the connection to the Internet inside the Base Station. And indeed, if I go to Internet Connect and check the detailed status display, I see two lines:

Internet Connect status

The first line (“Connected to ‘Maison’“) is the status of the network connection itself (my network is called “Maison”), while the second one is the status of the modem connection to the Internet inside the Base Station. And the disappearance of the time display in the menu bar coincides with the disappearance of the second status line in the Internet Connect window.

The thing is that this only happens because there is a large file transfer going on over the network between the two computers, which has nothing to do with the connection to the Internet.

This is absurd.

The very irritating thing is that these problems have been with us ever since we upgraded to Panther, back in November 2003. I remember seeing similar fluctuations back then.

So obviously, whatever the root of the problem is, Apple has yet to fix it. And it can’t be due to a lack of reporting. I know I am not the only one. I know that there are enough reports on this in Apple’s own Discussions forums. Somehow, however, it seems that Apple is unable to fix the problem once and for all. (I have religiously installed all the AirPort software updates, of course.) What is it going to take? Mac OS X 10.4?

I know what some people might say: Just throw away that Apple hardware and get some third-party wireless router that works. But it’s not so simple. First of all, the hardware is just fine as far as I know. (It worked fine under Jaguar.) It could very well be that it’s a problem with the system software itself that would not go away with different hardware. In addition, most routers are designed for cable or DSL connections, not modem connections. (There are some signs that we might eventually get cable down our way, but there is no confirmation yet.) And it’s not exactly like the third-party products are all trouble-free either, based on the reports at MacInTouch and elsewhere.

So, what to make of all this? Wireless is flaky, especially in Panther, and Apple doesn’t seem to be putting much effort into solving the problem. Given the important role that the Internet plays in today’s society, it’s a very unfortunate and frustrating situation.

7 Responses to “AirPort: More weirdness with Apple’s unpredictable software”

  1. ssp says:

    Not exactly on topic, but I’ll ask this anyway as it is Airport related.

    I wanted to change the name of our wireless network (non Airport but some D-Link router) to include a non-ASCII character (»). This seemed to work using Safari to set it up.

    After this I didn’t see any wireless network (neither ours nor our neighbours) and had to restart. Airport sometimes seems to break in this particular way. After restarting I saw our network again but the name contained a superscript a instead of the character I entered. Ironically, on my flatmate’s Windows machine everything looked correct.

    Any experience with non-ASCII characters in network names and how the Airport software deals with them? Could there be need for a bug report? How does the Aiport base station handle such names?

  2. Pierre Igot says:

    This would definitely qualify as a bug, and warrant a bug report. We need to make sure that Mac OS X’s support for Unicode works at all levels, including this situation. (OTOH, the wireless standard might not be based on Unicode, which would complicate the situation.)

    I have no experience with this myself, as I carefully stay away from any character that might be a source of disruption. Plain ASCII is the only 100% safe route in this situation at the present time, and I’d stick to that until the use of other characters has been thoroughly tested.

  3. ssp says:

    OTOH, the wireless standard might not be based on Unicode, which would complicate the situation.

    That’s what I fear (just because this is the 21st century doesn’t mean the companies get it right…). I had hoped that you might have some experience from French Network name s or so.

    Sticking to ASCII only is not acceptable.

  4. Neil says:

    Can I just add that my Airport status in the menu bar does the time disapearing act all the time. It’s very annoying!
    I’m on Panther 10.3.4 on an iBook.
    Is there any way to fix this???

  5. Pierre Igot says:

    Neil: Unfortunately, I have seen this behaviour on my own laptop. Signal suddenly dropping, or time disappearing (indicating that the laptop sees the base station, but not that the base station is connected to the net), etc.

    As far as I can tell, AirPort under Panther with Apple’s older hardware is simply crappy. I’ve been struggling with this for ages, with no solution in sight! Very annoying indeed.

    I suspect Apple just wants us to buy new machines and new base stations. Nice attitude.

  6. J.B. Moreno says:

    Sounds like one of the machines “updated” the software on the base station to a previous version. Simply update to the newest software via the 2 airport utilities, and things ought to go back to normal.

  7. Pierre Igot says:

    J.B.: When I fire up the AirPort Admin Utility software and click on “upload” to upload the latest software to the base station, the BS simply restarts and the firmware version listed afterwards is the same as before (V3.84). So I don’t think it’s the problem.

Leave a Reply

Comments are closed.