MacBook: Fantastic AirPort range

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
May 26th, 2006 • 3:13 pm

Well, I knew that would happen, but it’s still a bit of a shock. This is only our second laptop. The first laptop that we ever bought was a PowerBook G4 Titanium (very first TiBook model), and, as is well known now—but was not known at the time—the TiBook’s AirPort range is simply abysmal.

Our single-storey house is L-shaped and the office with the Base Station is (unfortunately) located at one end of the L shape. The house is fairly big (approximately 2500 square feet, not counting the two-car garage).

The advertised range of the original AirPort Base Station (Graphite), which is the one I am still using, was 150 feet. That was, of course, a theoretical maximum, and I never expected to achieve that.

But with the TiBook, we never even achieved 50 feet! In the center part of the house (the corner of the L, where the main living room is located), it was pretty much impossible to achieve a stable connection. The signal would come and go, depending on the orientation of the laptop and the Base Station and of whatever obstacles might be in the way.

Needless to say, back in 2001 when we first got the machine, I immediately decided that this unacceptable and actually went through a lengthy process of testing and machine exchanges with AppleCare. For some reason, the Apple engineers assigned to my case were in denial about the whole thing, and kept insisting that this range of only 50 feet was not normal, and that something was wrong with the laptop.

We actually went through three different laptops. The first replacement they sent was a laptop with a US keyboard layout, while our machine was supposed to have a Canadian CSA keyboard layout. I still took the laptop out and tested it, and it had the same abysmal range. The third machine we got had the exact same problem as the first two.

To me, this was a clear indication that there was a design flaw with the TiBook itself. (I also borrowed an old PowerBook G3 from a friend which had an AirPort card, and its range was much better in our house, which ruled out any problems with the rest of the hardware or with the house itself.)

Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do about design flaws. There’s no point in getting your machine replaced, and the people you talk to cannot afford to admit that there is a flaw (which would have to be publicly admitted by the company). So you end up going around in circles, and at some point you just give up, which is what we did. (I supposed that we could have returned the machine altogether and asked for a refund, and then bought an iBook instead, but we never really considered that option at the time, especially in light of what we managed to achieve with a second base station, as explained below.)

Out of the whole ordeal, I got a free replacement battery for the TiBook, which is the one we are using now, after the original battery finally gave up the ghost last year (i.e. became unable to hold any charge at all).

At my request, I was also sent, at some point, for “testing purposes,” a second AirPort Base Station, so that I could try the “roaming” capabilities of the AirPort hardware and use that second base station as a relay in the middle of the house. With the original AirPort technology, you had to run an Ethernet cable between the two base stations, which is what we did. (We had—and still have—a long cable running in the attic.)

This worked and did help create an AirPort network that would actually cover about two thirds of the house, including the main living room. I reported this back to the AppleCare people that I was dealing with, and somehow they neglected to ask me to send the second AirPort base station back, so I never did and I kept it.

At the time (in 2001), I actually wrote a lengthy article about the whole adventure, which can still be found here and provides further details, as well as a truer reflection of my actual level of frustration at the time… (Over the years, we’ve just have to learn to live with the problem, I am afraid.)

For a couple of years, we did actually enjoy the use of the TiBook with the two AirPort base stations, and it worked reasonably OK. The TiBook’s range was still lousy and we still couldn’t use it in some sections of the house, but at least it was usable in most of the areas where we wanted to be able to use it.

But then Apple released system software updates that managed to break the “roaming” functionality of the original AirPort base station, at least when the Internet connection you are trying to share is a dial-up connection by modem. That’s the conclusion I reached after things ceased to work properly at some point, and more specifically my conclusion was that the software at fault was Mac OS X 10.3 itself.

Needless to say, I never really considered reverting to 10.2 on the TiBook. So we ended up having to live with the limited range of the single AirPort Base Station in the office at one end of the L shape.

(I am still not entirely sure whether this failure didn’t also coincide with the actual death of our second AirPort Base Station, which I only discovered later on. I still have that dead base station, and its lights still come on normally as expected, but it looks like its wireless capabilities are completely gone—which is slightly problematic for a base station, obviously. I can still access it and configure it via Ethernet, but that’s all I can do with it. As soon as I unplug the Ethernet connection, no AirPort-equipped computer can see it, no matter how close it is. It is possible that this failure coincided with the failure of the “roaming” option, but I was never able to establish this for sure. I am not going to try and buy another old graphite AirPort Base Station to try and find out.)

Over the years, I kept an eye on the reports regarding the AirPort range of subsequent revisions of the TiBook and then the aluminium PowerBook G4, as well as the new MacBook Pro. Based on what I read, Apple never did manage to build a laptop with a metal-based enclosure that actually had a good AirPort range. Even the latest MacBook Pro laptops still seem to suffer from a limited range compared to their plastic-based counterparts. To me, this reflects one simple fact, which is that the metal-based enclosure acts as some kind of shield and obviously limits the range of the machines.

It is quite possible that this is a case of style winning over function, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple’s engineers were fully aware of this, but were simply unwilling to stop using metal in their enclosures because of the slick looks. Obviously, this has not prevented many people from buying PowerBook G4 and MacBook Pro laptops over the years, so Apple have no real incentive to change their approach here.

But as far as I was concerned, there was simply no way that I was ever going to buy another laptop with a metal-based enclosure. The house we live in is our own house, and we are not planning on going anywhere. So we had to have a laptop with a range that was compatible with our house.

To me, this meant a laptop with a plastic enclosure. So I was waiting to see what Apple would come up with to replace the venerable white iBooks. When the MacBook was announced a couple of weeks ago, I decided that this was the machine we had been waiting for. As indicated in a previous post, this machine is primarily for my wife, and she doesn’t necessarily need the latest and the fastest. In any case, the MacBook seems to be a pretty powerful “low-end” machine, and my wife did like the idea of an all-black laptop, so that’s what we ordered.

Well, the machine was shipped from China on May 19th, and we finally received it at work yesterday, on May 25th. I went to get it this morning, and fired it up this afternoon. And the first thing I checked (after making sure that it was working properly) was the AirPort range of the new beast.

Well, all I can say is: What an amazing difference! From the central living room mentioned above, we still get a full signal. (Remember that the TiBook would already lose its signal altogether in that room.) And I really have to go all the way to the other end of the L to start seeing the signal drop. But even there, I don’t seem to be able to lose it completely. It drops down a few notches, and if I turn the MacBook a certain way, I occasionally see the connection drop altogether, but only for very brief periods.

In other words, the Internet connection on the laptop might turn out to be usable everywhere in the house. Fantastic! I was prepared to see a significant improvement, but this is really astounding.

Now, I have read enough about AirPort under Mac OS X, especially with the latest system revisions, to know that the AirPort signal strength indicator in Mac OS X is not necessarily an accurate reflection of the actual strength of the signal. It seems that, with 10.4, Apple changed the algorithm used to calculate and display the signal level, and that it is also based on speed rather than just signal strength (which seems completely absurd to me, but apparently that’s what they did). So I am not naive enough to believe that the signal is necessarily as strong as the MacBook reports it to be.

But the fact remains that it looks like we’ll be able to use the MacBook pretty much anywhere in the house—even if we have to be a bit careful about its orientation in relation to the position of the base station when we are at the other end of the house.

So, the conclusion here is quite obvious: The MacBook’s AirPort range is terrific, and the TiBook’s range was absymal by design. And the MacBook Pro’s range probably still lags significantly behind the MacBook’s range because of the same design decision that was made five years ago to use metal for the enclosure of the pro Apple laptops.

Of course, there are many people who live in multi-storey houses and will never encounter the problems that we have, even with a pro Mac laptop, simply because they don’t need such a wide range. But our single-storey house is the way it is, and we quite like it that way. And I am glad that we finally have a laptop that appears to be compatible with it.

(I know that Apple’s AirPort Extreme base stations now let you set up a roaming network without an Ethernet connection, but I am not going to purchase several hundred dollars’ worth of new equipment just to find out if this is true and if this work for sharing a dial-up connection. When we finally get access to a broadband connection—it has to happen eventually, even in our little corner of the world—then I might consider upgrading our wireless hardware. But for now I have no incentive to do so. And certainly the range of the MacBook makes it possible to continue to live with the hardware that we currently have for many more years.

As for other aspects of the new MacBook, I will discuss them in other posts later on.

Comments are closed.

Leave a Reply

Comments are closed.