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Buyers Guide for Airport Antennas and 3rd Party PC cards

This page will attempt to give you good buying advice with respect to the cards and antennas that are currently available for your Apple. I'm not affiliated with any vendor besides being (perhaps) a customer. Thus, any feedback regarding your experiences would be appreciated.

Antennas and Amplifiers

For antenna recommendations see the two following guides for Omni-Directional and Directional antennas. The Amplifier Guide is for Power-Users.

You should also take a closer look at what works specifically with your base station - they differ quite a bit in the details. I have extension guides for the Graphite, Snow, and Extreme base stations. There are no enhancements available for the Airport Express...

As stated before, my favorite current online vendor for antennas and amplifiers is Fab-Corp. Their prices are fair and they seem to allow returns. RFLinx also appears to be hobbyist-friendly. JEFA Tech also seems to sell quality antennas and adapters - their returns policy also seems reasonable. MacWireless is good for Power-over-Ethernet, PCI adapters, and USB-based wireless solutions. If you have any good vendor experience, please e-mail and I'll update the list.

Apple Hardware

As has been covered elsewhere, Apple has discontinued selling Airport cards to anyone but repair centers. Naturally, this is a huge inconvenience for folks who bought equipment with Airport-slots but without the Airport cards. Besides buying the cards from resellers and/or auction sites, it is also possible to extract them from "Snow" base stations or other Apple equipment of that vintage (if fitted).

Another option is to buy a Sony Vaio card (model PCWA-C150S), removing the external antenna and installing it just like a traditional Apple-branded Airport card. According to several sites (here and here), the cards work beautifully under OS9 and are recognized as genuine Apple hardware. Pricing is unlcear at this point but is likely to be less than ridiculous. Note: the cards are not recognized if used in the external PC-card slot, they have to be used in the Airport slot.

Third Party Hardware

There can be many good reasons to not use the Airport hardware that Apple advocates. For instance, the reception problems of Titanium G4 Powerbooks are legendary. Since Apple does not seem willing to offer an upgrade path to 802.11g, adding an external PC or PCI card may be the way to go if you really need the marginal increase in performance. The below table summarizes some of the cards and devices that appear to be Mac compatible. However, some may only support OS X, and may require the use of 3rd party drivers.

To gain a better understanding of what receiver sensivitiy, transmitter power and all that really mean, have a look at my Antenna guide, which provides a list of definitions.

CardTransmitter PowerReceiver Sensitivity at different Data RatesOS CompatibilityComments at Seattlewireless?
802.11b Laptop cards Lucent WaveLAN32mW15dbmN/A-82db-87db-91db-94dbnative Airport3rd PartyHere
Demarctech Reliawave200mW23dbmN/A-91db-93db-95db-96db3rd Party3rd Party
SMC SMC2532W-B200mW23dbmN/A-91db-93db-95db-96db3rd Party3rd PartyHere
Senao SL2511, Engenius EL2511, Macsense WPE700100mW20dbmN/A-83db-86db-89db-91dbMacsense or 3rd PartyMacsense or 3rd PartyHere
802.11b&g Laptop cards Sonnet Aria Extreme15.5dbm-80dbNonative Airport
Asante AL5402-XG15.5dbm-67dbNonative Airport
MacSense WPE80035mW15dbmNonative Airport
Desktop choices MacWireless 802.11b&g PCI Card14dbmnative Airport
MacWireless 802.11b USB adapterMacW.native Airport
D-Link DWL G810 Wireless Bridge32mW15dbm-68db-82db-85db-86db-89dbN/AN/A

While the table looks intimidating, the data is relatively simple to interpret. For maximum range, you want a card with a strong transmitter (higher output is better) and very good reception (lower is better). However, if you don't need the transmitter power, go with a lower output card and just focus on receiver sensitivity. To add to the confusion, some cards require Cardbus slots, while others adhere to the older PC-Card and PCMCIA standards. Most modern Apple Laptops (G3 & G4) are Cardbus-compatible, but check first before you buy a card. Furthermore, only machines running OS 10.3 that have cards with native Airport compatibility and a 802.11g chip-set should allow WPA-security.

If a 802.11b card is "good enough" for you, the SMC SMC2532W-B offers a high-power transmitter and excellent receiver sensitivity - for just $60. While you will have to go through the added trouble of installing a 3rd party driver, you can chose between the free SourceForge OS X drivers or the OS9 or OSX drivers available for $20 from IOXperts.com. I happen to use the IOXperts OSX software because it supports AppleTalk (the free driver does not). Furthermore, the IOXperts driver does not yet support WPA security.

For the folks looking for a 802.11b&g card, any card based on the Broadcom chip-set is natively Airport compatible. Thus, unless Apple intentionally "breaks" OSX to make the cards incompatible, you should be able to enjoy all the benefits of a "Airport Extreme" card with your system (i.e. WPA security, 802.11g speeds, etc.). Any knowledge about what works, what doesn't, and what the underlying chip-sets are would be greatly appreciated. Please send me e-mail.

With the release of the OrangeWare 802.11a/b/g driver, Mac OS X users can finally start using PC-Cards based on the Atheros chip-set. According to Orangeware, they include cards from "D-Link, Netgear, Aztec, Elecom, Fujitsu, IBM, Linksys, NEC, Samsung and Sony". The Orangeware solution is also the only one to allow connections to 802.11a networks for Mac users. Naturally, your PC Card must be 802.11a capable to connect in the first place. The OrangeWare driver does not support WPA security but AppleTalk "should be fine". Lastly, the Orangeware solution is included free with every wireless 3Com card.

Please Note: Before you buy a driver, please look through the list published on Orangeware's and IOXperts' web-site to be sure your card will be supported.

In the Desktop arena, three devices offer themselves. One is the 802.11b&g compatible PCI card from MacWireless, which appears to offer native OSX support. For folks with no PCI slots or older Macs with USB ports, the USB 802.11b adapter offers itself. However, MacWireless seems to differentiate between the OS9 and OSX version of the USB adapter, so you may not be able to use it if you upgrade your operating system later on. I would avoid USB-based solutions for several reasons. For one, driver support has been reported as flaky in the Apple Discussion boards. Secondly, a change in the OS can break your driver unexpectedly. Third, if you use your USB connections for anything else (like a scanner, printer, etc.) then the internet speed will most likely be affected by the high amounts of data that such applications push across the USB bus.

The best external solution to hook up a Desktop Mac may be a wireless bridge like the 802.11g compliant and OS-agnostic D-Link DWL G810. While its receiver sensitivity is pretty weak, it can be hooked up to any ethernet port and is relatively inexpensive (~$100). Allegedly, it even offers WPA support. Lower-priced 802.11b and WEP-only bridges like the DWL-810 (~$65) also exist. After configuring the bridge, simply hook up your desktop to it via an ethernet cable, then tell your desktop to connect via ethernet - it will not know the difference. Even better, you can continue to use this bridge for a network printer, etc. long after your desktop was put out to pasture. The only downside: Configuring the bridge via a web browser may not be for the weak of heart. However, tech support has been said to be very responsive and effective.

Naturally, I'd be delighted to add further data to this chart if anyone has any - just e-mail it and I'll take it from there. Cheers!