To borrow from a lamentable final chapter in a movie trilogy,1 every time I get out, they pull me right back in again.
They being, in this case, general nerdish tendencies.
Followers of this blog will know by now that I’ve restarted my usage of Linux, in Ubuntu form. I can’t begin to describe what a vast improvement Linux has enjoyed since the last time I used it, back in the Red Hat days. Prior to that, as I’ve mentioned, was Slackware — and for those of you familiar with JR “Bob” Dobbs, you’ll know what I mean when I say that ’ware gave everything except slack.
But this is about Mac, not Linux, and specifically making the Mac Mini work with non-Apple wireless networks. I’m posting it because I’ve seen, firsthand, the kinds of questions that come up in a lot of user forums, and I’m hoping it might help others who are Googling around for answers about getting their Minis — or their Macs in general — working with certain Belkin wireless networking products, especially their USB wireless transceivers. Typical questions are “Why won’t my Mac Mini work with wireless?” and “Mac and Belkin USB wireless — how?” and “Belkin wireless USB drivers for Mac?”
Okay. Many years ago, I bought an AirPort wireless modem/base station — the Graphite model, immediately prior to Apple’s release of Extreme.2 It’s actually still working just fine, but it’s 802.11B, which in non-nerd terms means pretty damn slow, all other things being equal, about 2 MB/second maximum transfer rate. Since my net connection is capable of up to 5 MB/sec download, well, it was choking.
My Intel dual-core 2 GHz Mini can handle G series, which is much faster, and between that and the periodic connect problems I was having with the AirPort — plus the fact that AirPort Graphite hasn’t been supported by Apple (surprise!) since about 2005 — I thought maybe I’d be better off with a new wireless router.
I skipped over the AirPort idea, though. I’m sure it’s just a matter of time — probably 3 to 6 months, knowing my general luck in these matters — before Apple releases something even better than an N-compliant unit; and besides, third parties make N-speed routers that cost much less than an AirPort Extreme, to the tune of $100 less. Faster and cheaper.
So I scooped up a Belkin, which has a Mac OS installation CD, and while the setup appeared to work fine — I got my Linux netbook and WinMo 6.1 smartphone talking to it without a hitch, though I had to use the Web interface rather than their install wizard for arcane reasons that few others will probably ever encounter — I had no connectivity at all from my Mini.
Well, that’s not totally accurate; I did get some connection, sometimes, but it was extremely sporadic and tended to fail a lot more often than not.3 Those of you who have Minis and have experienced this probably already know what’s coming, so you can skip ahead a little if you want.
Turns out that the Mini’s AirPort Extreme networking, while theoretically capable of G-class speed, is limited by an internal antenna that has been described as “postage-stamp sized”. In addition its location in the Mini’s case — back-righthand corner as you face the machine, and on the top — leaves it all but totally shielded to any signal coming in from the side or bottom.
If my wireless router were above the Mini, this wouldn’t have been a problem; I wouldn’t have even noticed it. But my Mini is upstairs, and the router is on the ground floor. Furthermore, the router and Mini are basically at opposite corners of my place. I pretty much literally couldn’t get them farther apart from each other unless I went outside. 40 or so feet of space, with all the usual stuff you have between floor levels (ducts, wiring, plumbing, etc.) conspired to flatline the Belkin’s signal. At least I had a better understanding of why the AirPort had periodic connect failures.
Moving the router was out of the question; my Xbox takes an ethernet feed directly off it. Moving the Mini was also not an option, since it’s in my study/library. Running ethernet cable — hey. I rent. Come on.
This effectively left me the options of a wireless ethernet bridge, or a USB wireless dongle. The ethernet bridge was pretty pricey, and there was no guarantee it would work with my Mac anyway; there doesn’t seem to be a lot of non-Apple Mac OS support for wireless products in general.
I eventually ended up picking up a Belkin N-class USB wireless connector, and the reason I did that was because there actually are Mac OS drivers available for it, but not from Belkin.4 I knew that before I made the purchase, because I was standing right in front of the sales display at Staples while I surfed for compatibility information on USB wireless connectors with my smartphone.
A few minutes of intense hand-held Googling (stop smirking) led me eventually to the site operated by the manufacturers of the Belkin’s wireless chipset. My dongle, a Belkin F5D8053, uses the RT2870 chipset manufactured by RaLink Technology, and the drivers for it may be downloaded from here. They appear to have drivers for Linux and Windows as well.
That’s right. This USB wireless networking transceiver, officially unsupported for Mac or Linux by Belkin, is supported by the manufacturer of the internal chips that make it work. And work it most certainly does; behold:
In theory the connector can handle more signal than my cable modem is actually capable of producing. Mac OSX.5.8 treats it as an ethernet connection:
One has to wonder what the hell is wrong with Belkin, seeing as how they make all manner of accessories for iPod and iPhone. The hard work is already done! All they need to do is license the software.
But at least I got it functioning, in a manner that sort of reminds me of the Bad Old Days with oldschool Linux — though with considerably more satisfactory results this time around.
If you’d rather not go through much of this, you could consider buying a USB wireless adapter from AfterTheMac. They seem to have rave reviews for their products, but to my mind they seem a little too much like nicheware. Remember Orange Micro.5
1. Godfather Part III. Egregiously unnecessary. Think of it as a test balloon for the entire Star Wars I — III franchise.
2. I have a long history of buying Apple products about three to six months before they’re obsoleted. The AirPort was one example. The iBook G3’s (two!) that I went through are another example. Also got a First Generation iPod (post click-wheel) just before the Video; it’s essentially a 10 GB FireWire drive now. Got an iPod Video about a year before Touch.
And the most recent example is the work G5 tower I have: Dual-core, 4.5 GB RAM, a PPC machine purchased about three months before Apple switched to Intel. As of Snow Leopard (OSX.6), it is now officially not supported by the mothership. It’s only three years old, rock-solid, lightning-fast, and effectively dead. Thanks, Steve.
As a programmer I know why they did it; I know why they made the change. But I don’t like it, and I don’t like how arbitrary the decision is to just cut off a box that, frankly, kicks ass. Between the hardware and the software, that’s a US$5000 investment that amortizes hideously on a 36-month curve.
As intimated above, I do not have an iPhone; I have an HTC 6800 smartphone with Windows Mobile 6.1 on it. It multitasks, unlike the iPhone, has a standard mini USB connection for syncing, unlike the iPhone, and has user-interchangeable batteries, unlike the … you get the idea. For syncing my phone to the Mac, I use Eltima’s SyncMate; for cloud-computing backup I have Microsoft’s MyPhone.
I won’t have an iPhone until (a) it’s supported by carriers other than AT&T; (b) Apple slows down on the hardware release/obsolescence cycle; and © it has user-replaceable batts and a standard USB connector.
As I commented in another forum, you don’t buy equipment from Apple; you lease it.
3. When I was finally able to get a connection by the Mini’s AirPort — this required turning the Mini on its side with the antenna facing the router — my pings to the router took anywhere from 5 to 1000+ ms, with an overall packet loss at 50%. Umm, no.
4. You can use your Belkin F5D8053 N-class wireless USB transceiver with Mac OS X.3, X.4 or X.5, even. The installer DMG comes with software for all three OS releases. And it’s, you know, free. Not as in pirateware free, not as in BitTorrent free; actually free and totally legal. RaLink is doing this for no charge.
5. Who? Exactly.
UPDATE: The drivers also work with OSX.6.2, Snow Leopard.
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