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

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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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