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Connecting PCs to Apple's Wireless Airport

by Derrick Story

In recent years, Apple Computer has moved away from its strange fixation on proprietary hardware/software into the world of standardized components. The once funky monitor jack on legacy Macs has been replaced by the common VGA plug, and even the finicky ADB outlet for mice and keyboards is now a hot-swappable USB port.

While I was researching Apple's Airport wireless protocol for my home network, I was delighted to read that the Lucent-developed system was IEEE 802.11 compliant. Yes, yet another standard. In the first article of this series, Affordable Wireless LAN Using Airport, I outlined how to set up an Airport network for Macs. In this article, I'll explore the possibility of adding a Windows PC to the clan.

Choosing the right PC card

I figured that if I wanted half a chance to make this thing work, I'd have to choose the right network card for my Windows 98 ThinkPad. The Apple cards are the "silver" variety of the Lucent offerings, so I settled on the "WaveLAN" Turbo 11 MB Silver card for my PC. It's a clever little gizmo that slides into your PC slot with the rectangular antenna protruding outside the computer. The antenna has a green activity indicator that flashes when the card is in communication with another source.

I simply inserted the card in the PC slot, put the bundled CD in the drive, and proceeded to install the drivers. After donating the required pound of flesh for having the audacity to actually try to add another hardware device to my PC, I successfully rebooted and was ready to move on to the next step.

Network configuration

Most likely you're better versed than I in configuring the network settings for a PC, so I'll touch only on the highlights and won't bore you with the common details. My first stop was the Network Control Panel where I scrolled down to the "WaveLAN/IEEE PC Card (5 volt)" option and selected it. I clicked the "Properties" button and was presented with a screen for the "Basic" tab.

Figure 1. Type ANY in the Network Name field to connect to any compatible wireless network.

Figure 1. Type "ANY" in the Network Name field to connect to any compatible wireless network.

Here I simply entered "ANY" (uppercase is important) in the "WaveLAN Network Name" field, and the name of my Airport base station in the "Station Name" field. This is an important step, because by entering "ANY," the WaveLAN card will look for any compatible transmissions and try to connect. It's a great feature.

I didn't have to worry about any of the other settings because the defaults were the best choices anyway. I closed the "Properties" dialog box, double-checked that all my personal information was correct in the "Identification" field (such as computer name, etc), then closed the Control Panel and restarted.

The Airport base station

I chose my Apple PowerBook to serve as the software base station for this test. Since I can only use one notebook at a time, I figured this would be a handy configuration for work or on the road too -- letting the PowerBook beam a wireless transmission while I roam the office with the ThinkPad.

If you haven't read my previous article, I'll mention again that you have an option under Airport 1.2 or later to configure any Mac with an Airport card to serve as a "Software Base Station." This saves you the $299 investment for the cute little Hardware Base Station and is a particularly handy option for setting up a wireless network on the fly. This is how I configured the PowerBook to serve as a software base station.

Figure 2. Apple's Software Base Station dialogue box.

Figure 2. Apple's Software Base Station dialogue box.

I'm now broadcasting my Internet connection to anyone within 150 feet of the PowerBook. I can also browse with the PowerBook while serving the connection to others, as well as check my e-mail and use Instant Messaging.

Establishing a connection with the ThinkPad

Here's where I crossed my fingers and held my breath. The green activity light on the WaveLAN card was blinking steadily, so I figured that I was at least in the game. I opened a browser window and logged on to the O'Reilly Network. Bingo! The page appeared. Just to make sure I wasn't displaying a cached page, I went to a distant corner of O'Reilly that I rarely visit. Within seconds the page loaded. I had established a wireless connection to the Internet with my ThinkPad.

Figure 3. WaveMANAGER provides many different views of your network activity.

Figure 3. WaveMANAGER provides many different views of your network activity.

Just to see what was actually going on, I opened the WaveMANAGER IEEE Client application that came with the WaveLAN card (Start: Programs: WaveLAN: WaveMANAGER). Unlike the Airport application that shows you only the very basic connection information, the WaveMANAGER provides you with a variety of displays to help you examine every aspect of your connection. It's fun at first, but then I found myself relying only on the basic "good connection/bad connection" display to monitor the strength of the WaveLAN signal.

Figure 4. Ultimately, I stuck with the simple view.

Figure 4. Ultimately, I stuck with the simple view.

Bumps and bruises

The joy of Apple's Airport for Mac users is that the hardware and software are beautifully integrated, and it's easy to switch back and forth from hardwire Ethernet to wireless Airport. You don't need to restart or fiddle with numerous dialog boxes -- especially if you use Location Manager to change your settings.

I had more difficulty switching the PC to the WaveLAN connection, and it always seemed to require a restart. The good news is, once I got a few reboots under my belt, I became proficient at making the reconfigurations quickly. Worst-case scenarios involved the PC hanging during the boot, then restarting in Safe mode, then restarting again for wireless browsing. Fortunately, this was the rarer experience.

PC-practical or just play?

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If I were configuring a serious wireless network for PCs only, I most likely wouldn't go the Airport/WaveLAN route. WaveLAN markets an excellent transmitter that certainly will get the job done -- albeit at a higher price than the Airport solution.

On the other hand, I'm pleased to learn that the IEEE 802.11 standard is really a standard that can transcend platform xenophobia. And I'm further encouraged to know that I can roam into an Airport network with my ThinkPad and log on to the Internet (much to the chagrin of iBook-toting Mac fanatics).

The ThinkPad/PowerBook tandem gives me a tremendous amount of power and portability -- and for a reasonable price (notebooks not included!). Airport cards are $99, and I found the WaveLAN card for $169: a total of $268 for the set-up.

Basically, I can go anywhere that has an open phone jack and establish a wireless network within minutes. This capability transcends "just playing" and brings me one step closer to the better world I've dreamed of for years ... where I can choose the best client machine for the job, regardless of platform.

If you've played with Airport or a PC equivalent, drop by the Wireless Forum and share your experiences.

Derrick Story is the author of The Photoshop CS4 Companion for Photographers, The Digital Photography Companion, and Digital Photography Hacks, and coauthor of iPhoto: The Missing Manual, with David Pogue. You can follow him on Twitter or visit www.thedigitalstory.com.

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