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Surfing Wirelessly on Old Macs

A Wireless network interface card with a USB i...

A Wireless network interface card with a USB interface and internal antenna (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I had an opportunity to restore wireless connectivity to a Pentium 4 HP tower running Windows XP Home recently and found myself comparing the Wi-Fi prospects of older computers such as those running XP and older versions of Mac OS X.

Windows XP is that rare, classic computer operating system that still has a very large installed user base. With that base comes the readily available abundance of Wi-Fi adapter choices for even the most ancient of PCs, along with support for much of the modern software out there today.

USB Wi-Fi sticks of some kind are available for many boxes running XP as many of these older PCs have USB 2.0 ports.

Pre G5 Macs like my G4 Tower came stock with USB 1.1. Unless you outfitted these Macs with limited choice and expensive (relative to Windows PC owners) USB 2.0 cards in one of the available PCI expansion slots, you were left with poor choices for Wi-Fi. Sometimes you could use one of these available slots for an internal solution. But again, these were expensive alternatives (I had a Motorola internal card with antenna, that although not “officially” Mac supported, worked—albeit slowly) that took up one of my precious few internal expansion slots.

The three choices for present day USB Wi-Fi for G4 Macs that I can personally vouch for are Netgear’s WG111v2 (that’s the version 2 model), Newer Technology’s MAXPower #NWTMXP2802GU2 and the Edimax EW-7811Un.

All of these solutions are USB sticks that plug in to available USB ports on either your G5 or G4 Macs. You can try them on a Blue & White G3, a Beige G3 or an iMac G3, but beware your mileage may vary as you are dealing with ancient, slower Macs as well as stock USB 1.1 ports. The Blue & White machines that are still in service require a processor upgrade card (a 1 GHz Model was popular back in the day and may still be available used on eBay), to even be remotely effective on the web today—unless you are using a text-based web browser or one that suppresses images and flash content.

For my highly upgraded G4 Sawtooth tower running Mac OS X Leopard 10.5.8, between the two Wi-Fi adapters with 802.11 b/g surfing speed compatibility (Netgear’s WG111v2 and Newer Technology’s MAX Power #NWTMXP2802GU2), I found Netgear’s WG111v2 provided the most reliable wireless connectivity.

Up until the time of my G4’s 1.8 GHz Sonnet Processor upgrade card installation, it never went to sleep on its own with the previously installed Sonnet 1 GHz processor upgrade card and flashed Geforce 6200 256 MB graphics card that gave me Core Image functionality. But much to my delight, upon installation of the 1.8 GHz Sonnet card recently, my Mac began sleeping of its own accord quite nicely once more.

The problems for my wireless USB sticks began once the Mac was awakened from sleep.

The Netgear WG111v2 (with Leopard compatible drivers) typically picked up the wireless signal upon resuming working on my Mac again. The  Newer Technology stick (also with Leopard compatible drivers), however, did not. Pulling the stick from its USB slot and reinserting sometimes restored the wireless connection. Many times, nothing short of a restart did the trick—an inconvenient situation.

The Edimax EW-7811Un is what I finally settled on. We have a Netgear router with wireless N capabilities and once I inserted the tiny Edimax Wi-Fi stick with 802.11 b/g/n capability, the Wireless Network Utility software saw it and immediately granted connectivity. Surfing the web was noticeably faster using the “N” wireless protocol, too, as were all our online devices, once using the Edimax device on the Mac; the router was finally able to offer consistently higher wireless protocol N speeds as all our devices on our home network now had N capability. Previously, surfing had been slower on our Windows laptops as the router dropped to the lower G protocol speeds that the Mac was using (the weakest link as it were) with either the Netgear or the Newer Technology USB Wi-Fi stick.

When using the Edimax, if wireless upon awaking from sleep was not working, usually removing the device from the four-port, non-powered USB 2.0 hub that is plugged in to an available port on my internal PCI USB 2.0 expansion card, and reinserting it, typically did the trick for restoring functionality upon wake from sleep. Very rarely do I have to restart the Mac to get the wireless functioning again with the Edimax.

In closing, even though solutions are more readily available for Windows XP users, when it comes to surfing wirelessly on your older PowerPC Macs, when combined with a USB 2.0 internal card, you at least have three decent products to choose from.

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