MacBook Hardware Requirements for Wireless Networks

By Mark L. Chambers

Today’s MacBook laptops come complete with a built-in AirPort Extreme wireless card, so if you already have an AirPort Extreme or Express Base Station, you’re set to go. Otherwise, hold on tight. These are the hardware requirements for wireless networking.

The maximum signal range — and effectiveness — of any wireless network can be impeded by intervening walls or by electrical devices, such as microwave ovens and some wireless phones, all of which can generate interference.

If you decide that you want to build your own wireless network, you eschew cables, or you want to add wireless support to your existing wired network, you need a base station. (If you do have an existing wired network, the base station can act as a bridge between computers using wireless hardware and your wired network.) Such a wireless base station will have either

  • A port that can connect to your existing wired network’s switch

  • A full built-in switch for wired connectivity (which means you can sell your old wired Ethernet switch to your sister in Tucson)

And, of course, a base station can simply act as a central switch for your wireless network (with no support for a wired network).

You can use either a cool Apple Base Station or a boring 802.11n generic wireless base station; however, the Apple hardware requires less configuration and tweaking.

Apple Base Station models

Your MacBook can work with four Apple Base Station models for wireless networking:

  • AirPort Extreme: You should use AirPort Extreme if your network needs an enhanced antenna, which provides greater range.

  • Time Capsule: Apple’s Time Capsule unit (an external wireless backup unit) isn’t just a wireless remote hard drive. It can also act as a full AirPort Extreme Base Station. In fact, the wireless specifications for a Time Capsule unit and an AirPort Extreme Base Station are almost identical.

  • AirPort Express: Use AirPort Express if you want to

    • Carry your wireless base station with you. Express is much smaller than the other Apple Base Station models. (Think “party on the patio” or a LAN gaming get-together at a friend’s house.)

    • Extend the range of your existing wireless network. If your network signal fades by the pool or the potting shed, consider adding an AirPort Express at the edge of your current range to extend the reach of your wireless network.

    • Connect your home stereo or speakers for wireless music streaming using AirPlay. You can connect a pair of speakers to your AirPort Express and use AirPlay to play music from your MacBook’s iTunes library. (Heck, you’re not just limited to playing the music on your laptop — you can also stream music from your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch!)

  • AirPort (discontinued): You might find an original 802.11b or 802.11g AirPort Base Station on eBay or at a garage sale. Go ahead and pick it up if you want to save cash, unless you’re considering multiplayer gaming or using high-speed file transfers over your wireless network.

    The 802.11n standard used by the AirPort Extreme, Time Capsule, and AirPort Express Base Stations delivers a connection that’s several times faster than the old AirPort Base Station’s 802.11b/802.11g standards. 802.11n is also compatible with all the older standards — 802.11b/a/g — so it’s highly recommended that you stick with 802.11n in the future. It plays well with others, and at warp speed to boot!

The names of the Apple Base Stations are irritatingly similar; Apple usually does a better job of differentiating its product names. Jot down the name of your model on a Post-it note on your laptop’s desktop just so that you don’t get confused.

Installing an Apple Base Station is simple. Follow these steps:

  1. If you have a DSL or cable modem, connect it to the WAN (wide-area network) port on the base station with an Ethernet cable.

  2. If you have an existing wired Ethernet computer network with a switch or router, connect it to the Ethernet LAN port on the base station with an Ethernet cable.

  3. If you have a USB printer, connect it to the USB port on the base station.

    Older AirPort Base Stations didn’t have USB ports.

  4. Connect the power cable from the AC power adapter.

    The AirPort Express and Time Capsule units have a built-in AC adapter, so if you’re using one of these models, just plug the cord from the device itself into the wall.

  5. Switch on your base station.

  6. Run the installation software provided by Apple on your laptop.

Non-Apple base stations

If any company other than Apple manufactured your wireless base station, the installation procedure is almost certainly the same.

However, note that Apple wireless hardware uses a slightly different security encryption standard than most PC wireless hardware, which results in an extra hurdle to connecting to a non-Apple base station or access point with your laptop.