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#750: Wireless Networking Standards, TotW: Forgotten Passwords, RotW: Non-functional Backlit Keyboard


Happy Tuesday,

With snow forecast all this week and single digit temperatures yesterday, it’s starting to look and feel like winter here in the Mad River Valley. My car reported -12 degrees on Monday morning on the way to work, and the temperature didn’t rise much at all throughout the day. The large flakes of moist snow are piling up quickly this morning, and I’m sure Owen looks forward to our lunchtime walk through the fresh powder.

You may have heard that Steve Jobs is once again on medical leave from Apple. He’s left the day-to-day decisions to Tim Cook, who led the company through a period of unparalleled profitability and innovation during Steve’s last absence. I do feel that Apple will be just fine without Jobs. There’s a brilliant team of people leading the way with a brilliant team turning ideas into reality. Here’s hoping to a speedy recovery.

As always, thanks for reading, and keep in touch.


  Making Sense of Wireless Networking Standards  

Given the prevalence of Wi-Fi compatible devices such as the iPad, iPod touch, and Apple TV, it’s easy to take wireless internet access for granted. One integral piece of the Wi-Fi puzzle that many people overlook is their router.

In many cases a router—which generates the Wi-Fi these devices rely on—can make or break a user experience. For example, my family had an older Netgear router which we never bothered to upgrade. It had never failed, so we fell back on the mantra: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” However, this past Christmas, we began to experience Wi-Fi problems, so we upgraded to an AirPort Extreme.

Our collection of Wi-Fi compatible devices had grown significantly since we purchased the Netgear and we needed a sturdy router to support the constant use. Many of our devices aren’t made by Apple, or are older, and don’t support 802.11n. As I researched the different items, I began to see 802.11a/b/g in addition to n. Suddenly it hit me: what do all these letters mean?

After doing some very nerdy research, I found a great article that put things into layman’s terms. Essentially, the differences between networking standards come down to three major points:

1. Data Transfer Rate:
This is the amount of data that can be transferred between your device and router and is usually measured in Mbit/s (megabits per second). This number is important for many reasons, but especially when streaming. For instance, a higher transfer rate will enable you to effortlessly stream movies from Netflix, or music from Pandora.

2. Frequency:
There are two standards of wireless frequency: 5GHz and 2.4GHz, and different devices typically run on different frequencies. If your device is 802.11n compatible, it can run on the 5GHz frequency, meaning less interference from other frequencies being produced throughout the house. For instance, some higher end wireless phones operate on a 2.4GHz frequency which may interrupt your Wi-Fi connection.

3. Range:
A router’s range indicates how far it can broadcast. The average range for 802.11a/b/g is about 115ft-125ft, and for 802.1n is 230ft. Wireless ‘n’ clearly makes a big difference, and it means that a network’s range can easily cover an entire home or small office.

So now that we’ve demystified wireless terminology, which standard do you want? 802.11n of course!

Not only does it have the highest average transfer rate at 74 Mbit/s, but it broadcasts at both 2.4GHz and 5GHz. This means some 802.11n routers, such as the AirPort Extreme, have dual band technology allowing 2.4GHz and 5GHz devices to run in harmony. Prior to this technology, introducing anything slower than ‘n’ would bog down the whole network to 2.4GHz. Dual band means that non 802.11n devices can connect to the router without affecting the overall speed.

For example, in our home we run a Logitech Squeeze Box, several Macs, an Apple TV, a Wii, and a PS3. All of these devices run on a different wireless standard, meaning before we updated to the AirPort Extreme, they were all on a slow, 802.11g network. This was fine for the old iBook, game consoles, and Logitech Squeeze Box, but every time the MacBook Pro joined the network, it would crash.

After swapping out the Netgear for the AirPort Extreme, “WOW!” was all I had to say. The speed difference is incredible, and everything has been working smoothly ever since. 802.11g devices connect at 2.4GHz, while our new Apple TV connects at 5GHz, providing us with very little to no buffer time on Netflix and iTunes rentals.

It is worth noting that a lot of this speed still relies on your internet service provider. An AirPort Extreme will not magically make your internet faster. If your ISP has slow service, or you subscribe to an economy plan, it’s still going to be slow. However, if an old router is the weakest link in your wireless setup, consider upgrading to an AirPort Extreme or an AirPort Express. I bet you’ll notice a big difference. I know I did!

Feel free to email me by clicking here (or at the top of the article) or click through to our blog to comment with your thoughts or questions!

  Tip of the Week: Forgotten Passwords  

Every so often I find myself in a situation where I can’t remember a password. Instead of trying each and every one (of perhaps twenty passwords I use in various places), I can just open up Keychain Access from the Utilities folder and find what I need quickly and easily.

I like to select the “All Items” category on the left side of the screen, and then use the Spotlight-style search box on the top right of the screen. For example, if I needed to log into an AirPort base station I haven’t accessed in a year, I would search “base station” and Keychain Access would then display all the AirPort base stations I’ve ever accessed. The nice thing about this program (which is found on every single Mac made in the last several years or so) is that it requires only one password to give you access to all the others.

Another great feature of Keychain Access is the Secure Notes section. This allows you to jot down confidential information that’s protected behind a password.

  Repair of the Week: Non-functional Backlit Keyboard  

I picked up a 13-inch MacBook Pro late last week whose backlit keyboard wasn’t working. After discussing the failure with the owner and getting the exact details I needed to properly diagnose the machine, I opened up the unit and checked the LCI (liquid contact indicator) for any evidence of liquid or liquid residue. Not finding any liquid, I took the next step in troubleshooting—resetting the PRAM and SMC.

You might notice that your Apple laptop’s screen brightness seems to change in reaction to changing light conditions. I notice this more dramatically on my unibody laptop in a dark room while watching television. The television is a dominant and constantly changing source of light, so the computer’s screen changes brightness all the time. It’s more prominent in unibody computers because the ambient light sensor is located to the left of the iSight camera on top of the screen—its position makes it more prone than the old-style laptops, whose ambient light sensor was under the speaker grills.

Why is this relevant to this week’s repair? Both the screen brightness and keyboard backlight were non-functional. There are three likely culprits in this repair: main logic board, top case (with integrated keyboard), and ambient light sensor. Because both keyboard backlight and screen brightness are controlled by the ambient light sensor, it made more sense to replace that.

Interestingly, the entire display assembly must be replaced if the ambient light sensor goes bad! It’s an officially non-serviceable module, but Small Dog does offer replacement of some parts inside. If the glass covering your display or LCD is cracked, we can fix that for many hundreds less than Apple pricing.

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