Mon 01 Sep
After bringing home a DVR on Saturday, I made a second significant technological upgrade to our household on Sunday in the form of wireless 802.11b networking — finally. Our cable modem connection, which sits in the bedroom, now broadcasts a clean 802.11b signal throughout the apartment, thanks to a new Netgear MR814v2 wireless router which I managed to buy for a remarkable US$40, after rebates.
It astounds me that the price point for wireless networking has dropped so quickly, but it makes sense now that the slower 802.11b standard is rapidly being superseded by the faster 802.11g standard. At forty bucks, an 802.11b router is an incredible bargain, as most home networking needs will almost never exceed its 11Mbps limit. Even if, through some dramatic and unforseen alteration in my computing habits, my home network traffic demands 802.11g within a few months, then I’ll be able to comfortably discard this Netgear router knowing that it provided me a very economical entryway into the wireless world.
The whole downside of doing this on the cheap is that one really does get what one pays for in terms of the device’s administrative software and support. To put it succinctly, the Netgear’s support is terrible, especially for the Macintosh; I spent a good six hours on Saturday trying to undo the damage done by a single attempt at establishing WEP encryption. I consider myself very lucky that my girlfriend hunted down this technical note and that I had a Windows laptop handy in order to upgrade the router’s firmware, otherwise I would have never got the whole thing working.
The administrative interface, which is available via Web browser, is so counter-intuitive that the designers found it necessary to integrate lengthy paragraphs of explanatory text into every screen, and of course the technical writing is obscure and unhelpful. This is really a case of caveat emptor, and the principal reason I considered paying the premium for Apple’s AirPort Extreme product. By a strict commercial measure, paying the Apple markup is far more economical than investing six hours into troubleshooting a poorly documented product, but it was Labor Day weekend after all, and I had plenty of free time with which to to allow Netgear’s poor practices to frustrate me.
Notwithstanding the trouble that I went through to get the wireless router working, my experiences with Netgear were still pretty miserable this weekend. I had also bought a Netgear WG511T wireless PC card for my PowerBook, which did not work at all. The specs printed on the side of the box didn’t indicate Macintosh support, but neither did the specs printed on the box for the Belkin F5D7010, which worked like a charm as soon as I popped it in. Apparently, the Belkin model shares the same Broadcom chipset as the Apple AirPort Extreme PC cards, and Apple added support for all cards based on that chipset in its 3.1 update to the AirPort software.
How hard can it be for a major networking company like Netgear to write some simple Mac OS X drivers for their products? I’m sure it’s less a matter of technical difficulty than one of institutional will. Certainly, Mac users should be accustomed to this kind of situation — it’s not my first run-in with poor support for my preferred platform. What’s frustrating is that there’s really no good reason for this, as far as hardware is concerned.
Where Macintosh peripherals were once based on proprietary standards such as NuBus and ADB, they are now, by and large, based on well-acknowledged industry standards. That means the PC cards, routers, hubs etc. that work with Windows machines are generally only incompatible with Macs by virtue of the fact that no software drivers have been written for them.
I’m not discounting the challenge of writing drivers here, but as software development goes, they are not particularly formidable projects, in my understanding, and writing them for the relatively predictable terrain of the Mac platform has got to be easier than writing them for the wild unpredictability of Windows hardware. Not only is it unfair, it just doesn’t make a lot of sense… which is another reason living in a Windows world feels a lot like being sentenced to a reformatory school for teenagers.