Turn Your PowerBook Into The Wifi Lone Ranger

It seems that a lot of the decisions Apple makes are not just made by Steve Jobs and his eccentric (and usually brilliant) design team; more and more they seem to rely on surveys (like when they recently polled PowerBook users to see how many used the modem port and decided to ax it from the MacBook Pro. They likely didn’t ask when people *do* use it, how important it was, otherwise they might have been left in for another revision).

My guess is that Apple asked people how they use their wireless and 90% said in their home or office or said they paid to use the internet at a Starbucks or similar — therefore reducing the need for a sensitive, powerful wireless antenna.

So this works for most — the artists and fashionistas and those in the suburbs with paper-thin walls. Those in the city, those who travel a lot and those who are of a technical bent (read: power users, network admins, Unix heads, etc.) need something a little more robust but may not realize there are very workable options.

Say you want to keep the sex appeal to your laptop while you’re at home/work (and use the built-in AirPort Extreme card) but need some extra range when traveling, you can do it with the purchase of 2-4 parts:

1, MANDATORY: A PCMCIA wireless card that uses a chipset other than the Broadcom chipset (which Apple Airport cards, Buffalo cards, and others use) like the Orinoco Gold:

2, MANDATORY: The Wireless Driver For Mac by OrangeWare which controls these non-Broadcom wireless cards and integrates seamlessly into the system preferences allowing you to flip back-and-forth between your built-in AirPort Extreme card and your “power user” card of choice. Here is where to find the driver and the list of cards they support:

3, OPTIONAL: If you purchased a card with an antenna jack (like the Orinoco Gold) you can buy a 5DB antenna to affix to your laptop screen for big gains (see list below):

If you want to be “crafty” you can do the following “fashion upgrades” to your antenna setup:

  • buy some clear/white velcro from your local hardware store (the antenna only comes with black)
  • spray paint your triangular antenna fixture silver (the standard mount, too, only comes in black)


Velcro attachments for the antenna mount


Antenna mount spray-painted silver to match the Aluminum finish of PowerBook

Installation is very straightforward:

    1. Download and install Wireless Driver For Mac (you get 10 minutes at a time to test — if you like how it works you can register through the System Prefs pane)
    2. Plug in your wireless card
    3. Open system preferences and click on Wireless Driver and go through the tabs to get set up — free networks can simply be selected, other networks will require a key.
      NOTE: If your AirPort Base Station is using 128-bit encryption and you set your password as an actual human-readable word you will need to open Airport Admin Utility (in Applications/Utilities), connect to the base station, and select the menu “Base Station/ Equivalent Network Password” — this is what PCs would have to enter to join your network and what you will have to type when using the Wireless Driver for Mac.


The Driver in System Preferences

  1. Click on the “Network” System pref and you will be notified of a new port being available. Give it a try!

Tests:

I live in a “railroad style” apartment and as such I have three “zones” in my apartment where the signal goes from strong to completely non-existant which makes it the perfect testing ground for this new setup. Green denotes strongest signal.

ZONE ONE: LIVING ROOM (NEAREST TO BROADCASTING BASE STATION):
Airport Card: 54
Buffalo AirStation: 55
Orinoco (low-power 10mW setting): 82
Orinoco with antenna: 100

 

ZONE TWO: KITCHEN (ONE WALL AND A MICROWAVE AND SOME PIPES FOR INTERFERENCE):
Airport Card: 37
Buffalo AirStation: 53
Orinoco (low-power 10mW setting): 50
Orinoco Antenna: 79

 

ZONE THREE: BEDROOM (THREE ROOMS WITH ALL KINDS OF APPLIANCES AND METAL IN THE WAY):
Airport: 10 (though no web pages load)
Orinoco (full power): 0
Orinoco Antenna: 55 (usable)

 


The Orange Wireless Driver allows you to control the power usage for battery savings. I did not notice any tangible difference between performance on any setting until you hit 10mW, where web pages loaded slightly slower even if the signal strength was high.


Antenna jack in use


Even in the living room where the Airport Extreme has “4 bars” the Orinoco with antenna does feel tangibly faster when loading pages — nearing that “snap” of PCs


View of PowerBook with 5.5DB gain antenna

PowerBook with 100% connection, user view

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