Connecting Wirelessly with Mac OS X

One of the more common questions I hear is how complicated it is to connect a computer wirelessly, but “connecting wirelessly” can mean a variety of different things. Most wireless technologies use radio waves of some sort, and almost all can be used with Mac OS X.
Wireless connections

Different Wireless Connections

Just as there are different kinds of cables and wired connections, so there are different kinds of wireless connections. Some are used to connect devices to your computer, and some can be used for Internet connectivity. None is as fast as the wired alternatives, and all are prone to security concerns, range problems or interference.

Infrared Connections

The earliest form of wireless connections for most Macs was infrared, and this is still used by the iPod-style Apple Remote, which can be used to control your Mac at a distance for viewing media through the Front Row application or to work with slide presentations in Keynote. Infrared is the same technology used by most television remote controls and connections are limited in range and line-of-sight. Before the introduction of Bluetooth, infrared was also used to “tether” some cellular telephones to laptops, allowing for mobile Internet, but this technique is rarely used today.

Short-Range Wireless before Bluetooth

Some wireless keyboards and mice will use a special “USB dongle” that communicates only with those devices.

Bluetooth “Personal Wireless Networks”

Bluetooth is an open standard intended primarily for peripherals and mobile devices within a “personal wireless network.” All current Macs ship with bluetooth built in and bluetooth is used for short-range wireless peripherals such as Apple’s wireless mice and keyboards. Bluetooth is also commonly used for headsets and telephones, and some new automobiles have bluetooth integration built in. Bluetooth is less commonly used to connect printers and PDA’s, with effective range for most bluetooth devices twenty feet or less.

For security and to avoid confusion and interference, many bluetooth devices must be “paired” with each other, and Mac OS X includes a “bluetooth setup assistant” which can be accessed through the system preferences for “network” and small local area networks can be configured for file sharing.

802.11 Airport or “Wi-Fi” Wireless Area Networks

For Internet connectivity, the most widely-used type of network is 802.11 “wi-fi,” referred to as Airport within the Apple brand. Wi-fi is commonly used in offices and public “hot spots” where the wi-fi “base station” or “wireless sharing hub” is connected to an existing high-speed Internet connection. Although early versions of the Airport base station included a modem port for connecting to an ISP, this is almost never used today. The analogy I usually make is to a wireless telephone, as compared to a cell phone. Just as a wireless telephone does no good without a telephone line to connect it to, so a wifi connection cannot be used without another ISP of some sort.

Every Mac for the past several years has shipped with Airport built-in, and so can be used to create an ad-hoc network or to share an Internet connection from one Mac to other computers through wi-fi. This feature is turned on or off in the Mac OS 10.5 preference pane for “sharing.”

Cellular Networks, Such as Edge or 3G

Since cellular phones are telephones, they have long been usable as telephone modems, although early cell-phone connections were so slow that this was often painful. Using a cell-phone as an Internet connection for the computer is commonly called “tethering” and can be done with a physical cable or over bluetooth, depending on the telephone. Other options include built-in Internet connections such as those on “smart phones” such as the Palm Pre, Blackberry or iPhone. The fastest among these is currently the third-generation “3G” networks for the latest iPhone, which in the Portland area are available through AT&T or T-Mobile’s Edge networks.

For those who wish to connect to cellular networks directly from their computers, AT&T and T-Mobile both offer small USB “dongles” which plug into the USB port on a computer, effectively functioning as USB modems. Usually these require a separate “data plan” with the mobile phone company, such plans usually starting at around $25 per month, and can be much more. High-speed connections are usually only available in urban areas, but slower connections are available in most areas where there is cell-phone coverage.

WiMax (sold as Clear in the Portland area)

“WiMax” is a microwave technology, heavily marketed in Portland under the brand-name “Clear.” One signs up for it as one would for cell-phone service, either using a fixed receiver or a portable USB dongle that plugs into one’s computer. WiMax speeds are comparable to DSL and prices start at around $35 per month.

First available in January of 2009, WiMax is sometimes called “4G” and is appreciably faster than 3G. USB dongles for the Mac became available in summer of 2009 for approximately $50 and Sprint has announced plans to tap into this network, which is only available within the core urban area.

Satellite Internet

The most expensive option for wireless Internet is satellite Internet, with much faster “download” than upload speeds, which begin at around $60 per month, primarily in rural areas or for recreational vehicles.

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