Mac Musings

How About an 802.11g Card for the Original AirPort Card Slot?

Dan Knight - 2009.04.16 (updated) - Tip Jar

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When Apple introduced the original iBook in July 1999, it did for 802.11b wireless what the 1998 iMac had done for USB - it took an emerging technology and moved it to the forefront.

The iBook shipped in September 1999, the same month the 802.11b protocol was finalized. The standard has a raw data rate of 11 Mbps and real world throughput of approximately 4-5 Mbps. Apple's AirPort Card was a repackaged Orinoco Gold PC Card.

Over time, Apple brought AirPort to its entire product line - PowerBooks, Power Macs, and iMacs as well as iBooks. But by 2003, the 802.11g was replacing 802.11b. AirPort gave way to AirPort Extreme - and the two cards couldn't be swapped.

802.11g has almost five times the bandwidth, 4-5 times the throughput, better range, and much better security. It is giving way to 802.11n, which has nearly six time the bandwidth of 802.11g, five times the throughput, three times the range, and operates at two different frequencies: the same 2.4 GHz as 802.11b and 802.11g as well as 5 GHz, the frequency used by 802.11a. (Most 802.11n hardware also supports 802.11a, b, and g.)

Stuck in the Past

Only Apple has ever produced WiFi cards for the AirPort slot, and that card - the original AirPort Card - has long since been discontinued and tends to get a premium price on the used market.

UPDATE: After this article was posted, we learned that Apple's AirPort Card can be updated to support WPA encryption. The balance of this article has been updated in light of that. dk

The biggest drawback of 802.11b isn't speed, as it's as fast as many high-end broadband connections, but its range and limited security options. Although 802.11b is optimistically rated at 100', real world range tends to be quite a bit less. Worse, WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) encryption, part of the 802.11b standard, is weak and can be cracked within minutes using the right software.

In these days of ecommerce and identity theft, that's a dangerous risk. Yes, WEP encryption is better than no encryption at all, but if someone is looking to steal your credit card information and not just piggyback on your WiFi router, it's not strong enough to keep you safe.

WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) is a lot more secure, but it requires 802.11g or later hardware or an 802.11b card that can have its firmware updated. Fortunately, Apple's AirPort Card is one such card. If you are running Mac OS X 10.3.3 or later and AirPort Software 3.3 or later, you can use WPA. However, 802.11b hardware cannot support the newer WPA2 encryption.

802.11g Options

For G3 and Titanium PowerBooks, there are PC Card and CardBus 802.11g and 802.11n cards available. For Power Macs, there are PCI cards that hold an 802.11g/n CardBus card and antenna. And for any Mac with USB, there are 802.11g dongles for as little as US$20.

On the plus side, prices are reasonable. On the minus side, those older Macs only have USB 1.1 ports, which means they can't even use half of the bandwidth of 802.11g, and most of these Macs only have a couple built-in USB ports (the Clamshell iBooks have only one). Also, those USB dongles stick out a ways (3" is not uncommon), and while that might not be a big issue with a desktop Mac, it's simply awkward with a notebook.

Why No 802.11g AirPort Card?

The most simple and elegant solution would be for someone to produce an 802.11g card that would plug into the AirPort slot used on Macs from 1999 through 2002, particularly notebooks. Because 802.11b and 802.11g use the same 2.4 GHz frequency, the antennas in these Macs are already a match for 802.11g.

Ideally this 802.11g AirPort-replacement card would use the same chipset as Apple's AirPort Extreme so it could also use Apple's AirPort Extreme drivers.

On the plus side, this would give those with these old Macs an 802.11g/WPA2 option (which means better security, speed, and range) that doesn't use a PC Card/CardBus slot, a USB port, or a PCI slot. Another plus: 802.11g/n CardBus adapters generally sell for a lot less than used 802.11b AirPort Cards.

On the negative side, Apple's AirPort Card use a 16-bit PC Card connection, which limits throughput to either 8 Mbps (using 16-bit I/O transfers) or 20 Mbps (if it uses 16-bit memory transfers). Regardless, even if these Mac users are only getting a bit more speed than they do with 802.11b, the improved range and wireless security should provide sufficient reason for them to buy an 802.11g AirPort-substitute card.

If you wonder whether there's a viable market, follow this link to Alibaba.com. Shenzhen Time In Top Technology Co., Ltd. in China is somehow able to supply "Original, bran-new, in stock" Apple AirPort Cards - and in quantities up to 550 per month.

Authentic? Licensed? Authorized? Not likely, but I'll bet these AirPort Card clones work and sell in sufficient quantity for Shenzhen to keep producing them. And that bodes well for whatever company wants to step up to the plate and release an 802.11g card for the AirPort Card Slot. If anything, the market for an 802.11g card should be bigger than for a simple 802.11b replacement card.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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