Apple introduced AirPort wireless technology, aka WiFi, to the masses at the 1999 Macworld Expo in New York City. Since then, there have been many advances in the WiFi technology, which started with a modest throughput of 11 Mbps using 802.11b, then 54 Mbps using 802.11g, and 240 Mbps and beyond with 802.11n. One area that hasn’t seen much advancement, however, is the distance between the base station and your devices, which is typically 300 feet or less. Part of this is due to power limitations, antenna and location of your base, but the WiFi antenna in your machine also has an impact on range. The WiFi antenna in portable devices and computers are little more than a short piece of wire, or metal trace on a circuit board. Enter the 3rd generation Wi-Fire, a directional, amplified WiFi antenna that works on Mac, PC and Linux.
We tested the Wi-Fire on a MacBook Pro 15” (Early 2008) running Mac OS X 10.6.3, and used a Time Capsule (1TB) model A1254 as our wireless base. We connected to the Time Capsule using WPA2 encryption. A PowerMac G5 2GHz x 2 was set up as a file server and connected to the Time Capsule via Gigabit Ethernet.
Old Wi-Fire Connection Manager
The new Wi-Fire comes with the Wi-Fire Connection Manager 2.0. Both the media and instructions state that you should installed the software BEFORE connecting the device, and we strongly suggest you do so. We decided to give it a shot by not following the instructions, and suffice to say the Wi-Fire will not function smoothly, in that your system may not even detect that it’s there. When we did follow the directions, everything went much more smoothly. The installer placed the Wi-Fire Connection Manager in your applications folder, as well as items in LaunchDaemons, PriviledgedHelperTools and Extensions. Since you shouldn’t normally muck around with items in the latter locations, hField kindly provides an uninstaller if you want to remove all traces of the software from your Mac. Once the install is complete, you’ll need to restart your system.
New Improved Wi-Fire Connection Manager 2.0
The Wi-Fire 3rd generation device improves on the design of the earlier version that we’ve used in several ways. The base is constructed of softer plastic, and has two flaps that can be turned to enable either mounting on a flat surface, or on the lip of your laptop screen. Rather than the larger USB connector, the Wi-Fire 2.0 has a mini-USB connector. The antenna, being directional, can be fully rotated around a vertical axis, and limited rotation in a horizontal axis. We did find rotation somewhat awkward when mounted on the lip of our MacBook Pro, since the USB cable would be blocked by the screen. Perhaps a USB cable with a right-angle connector would solve this problem.
Old Wi-Fire (left) versus Third Generation Wi-Fire (right)
After you reboot your system, you can then plug the Wi-Fire into an available USB port. It will show up as an additional device named Wi-Fire in your Network System Preference. You will also note an hField logo icon in your menu bar, which provides both a summary of detected base stations, similar to the AirPort menu, and also let’s you launch the Wi-Fire Connection Manager 2.0. This version of the software, much like the hardware, has been improved since we last looked at it. The list of available base stations and their corresponding signal strength in The Connection Manager are no longer constrained to a small window you must scroll through. Both the Status of the connection, as well as information use to connect to a base, are now in the same window. The old version would require you to click on a button and then submit your login information. When we tried to connect to our Time Capsule, which was in WPA/WPA2 Personal security mode, the Connection Manager would continually try to connect and time out. When we switched the Time Capsule to WPA2 Personal security mode, the Connection Manager connected successfully. For each network detected, the Connection Manager shows the BSSID, channel, Wi-Fi protocol, WPA support and WPA2 support. If a base is secured, a small lock will be next to it.
We then dove into testing the performance of the Wi-Fire versus the built-in antenna on our MacBook Pro. When testing with the MacBook Pro, we would put the Time Capsule into 802.11n mode and then 802.11g mode, when testing with the Wi-Fire (which is a 802.11b/g device) we’d put the Time Capsule into 802.11g mode.
Test 1 - 15 Feet (Indoors)
MacBook Pro 802.11n
7.0 MB/sec (56 Mb/sec) throughput
MacBook Pro 802.11g
1.7 MB/sec (13.6 Mb/sec) throughput
1.5 MB/sec (12 Mb/sec) throughput
MacBook Pro visible base stations : 5
Wi-Fire visible base stations : 16
At first, these results may seen surprising, since one would assume the Wi-Fire would be at least as fast as the MacBook pro built-in antenna. But keep in mind that the purpose of the device, which is to offer extended range far beyond what can be achieved with the built-in antenna. Note that If you are very close to a wireless base, you’ll get better performance with the built-in antenna. However, one can already see the benefit of the device, in that over 3 times as many base stations were detected versus the built-in antenna.
Test 2 - 50 Feet (Outdoors)
MacBook Pro 802.11n
1.6 MB/sec (12.8 Mb/sec) throughput
MacBook Pro 802.11g
0.8 MB/sec (6.4 Mb/sec) throughput
1.75 MB/sec (14 Mb/sec) throughput
MacBook Pro visible base stations : 10
Wi-Fire visible base stations : 26
This test demonstrates the benefit of the Wi-Fire at a moderate distance from the access point. Although the Mac was in 802.11n mode, which in theory is about four times faster than 802.11g, the Wi-Fire was actually a little faster, showing how the Wi-Fire’s directional, amplified antenna can make a big difference when compared to the omnidirectional antenna in the MacBook Pro. Also note the 802.11g performance of the MacBook suffered. Although it did reach about 1.6MB a second, the duty cycle was about 50%, resulting in an effective throughput of 800K/sec.
Test 3 - 300 Feet (Outdoors)
MacBook pro 802.11n
MacBook pro 802.11g
20 KB/sec (160 Kb/sec) throughput
MacBook Pro visible base stations : 14
Wi-Fire visible base stations : 39
This scenario shows the clear benefit of the Wi-Fire. Our test base station was not visible in the AirPort menu, but the Wi-Fire was able to see it with a reported Signal Strength of 10%. Throughput for transferring our test file wasn’t spectacular, but other network tasks such as Email, Twitter were possible, as well as surfing, although slowly.
Test 4 - 450 Feet (Outdoors)
At a distance of 450 feet, we were able to connect to our base, but the signal was very weak (3% according to the Wi-Fire Connection Manager) and while we were unable to do a file transfer throughput test (the copy operation in the Finder would give us a spinning beach ball) we were able to use Email and Twitter.
The Bottom Line
We can confidently recommend the Wi-Fire for anyone who needs to connect to WiFi access points which are more than a few feet away from your computer. Although the performance of the Mac’s built-in 802.11n trumps the Wi-Fire at very close range, at distances of 50 feet and greater, the Wi-Fire, despite being a 802.11b/g device, provided greater throughput than the Mac in 802.11n mode. Plus, the Wi-Fire would consistently detect two to three more times base stations than the built-in AirPort. This, combined with the updated hardware design, Connection Manager 2.0, and new lower price of $49, makes the Wi-Fire a must-have accessory for anyone that needs to make the most of their WiFi connection.