The promise behind this new peripheral is simple: Instead of tripping over cables running across their living rooms, iMac and iBook owners can use this silver, UFO-shaped transmitter to tie their computers and their Internet connections together wirelessly.
Just plug the AirPort base station into the wall (it includes a modem jack and an ethernet port for use with both dial-up and high-speed connections), stick a special AirPort card into your Mac, broadcast your connection information to the base station and you can browse the Web from your balcony--or anywhere else within 150 feet of that base station. With compatible "IEEE 802.11" hardware, you'll be able to network with Windows computers this way, too.
Sounds like another neat, innovative device from Apple, in other words. Except that hooking this gadget up can be a maddening hassle, the sort of headache that Windows users are used to and that Apple users like to be smug about avoiding.
After I plugged in the AirPort card and uploaded my dial-up information to the base station, it simply refused to work. I installed and uninstalled the software twice in my attempt to connect to the Web before giving up, calling tech support and eventually spending more than five hours on the line. I learned more about the inside of the Mac operating system than I ever knew or had reason to know and lost a critical day of holiday shopping time in the process.
It actually took two Internet accounts to get AirPort working. After flailing away with the unresponsive base station, I was told that my Internet provider of choice, a small company based in Bethesda, might not be compatible with the AirPort, even though I've been connecting to it on Macs for years. (Note that America Online and CompuServe are definitely incompatible with AirPort; neither provider runs on the Internet standards this hardware uses.) A second attempt, using a new account with Earthlink--Apple's own provider of choice--required a few more hours of troubleshooting to get hooked up properly.
The AirPort base station is a beautifully simple device, but that simplicity worked against debugging these problems. When an iBook or an iMac is having trouble connecting to a regular dial-up account, it's usually easy to tell what the problem is by observing error messages (which, in retrospect, now seem a lot more useful than they did at the time) or by simply hearing a busy signal instead of the normal modem screech. With AirPort, all you get is a simple, unhelpful "did not connect" alert.
Eventually, after multiple, Windows-esque uninstall-and-reinstall cycles, I did get connected and life was good again; connections were seamless, with no lagging or other screwy behavior. Setting up a wireless network between an iBook and an AirPort-equipped iMac was much less troublesome than setting up the Web connection. But file transfers ran much slower than the AirPort's advertised 11 million bits per second, even with both machines and the base station sitting a few feet apart in the same room: One seven-megabyte file took about two minutes to transfer from computer to computer--less than 500,000 bits per second. QuickTime movies stored on the iMac's hard drive played back on the iBook's screen, but stalled and paused if the iMac was interrupted by even minor tasks, such as switching from one application to another.
The AirPort is supposed to be one of those gadgets that recede into the background, but right now it's stuck in the frustrating foreground. You might be better off waiting for an update of this product's installation software--one is due next month, according to Apple--unless you really do like long conversations with tech-support folks.
AirPort base station, $299
AirPort card, $99 (available for current iMacs, iBooks and G4 desktops)
CAPTION: Apple's AirPort promises wireless networking, but you can still trip over it.