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Article: AirPort Security

by on January 2, 2012

A few days ago I helped out a family friend with his home network—he had a recently-purchased iPad 2 and the Wi-Fi signal didn’t reach throughout the entire house. His existing router was a recent Linksys model and there were a number of options to extend the signal. We settled on just creating another network on the other end of the house. In about two days, I got to really learn how most consumer-grade routers are in need of a makeover.

Complaints and Frustrations

I’ve set up a few routers over the years, including an Apple AirPort Extreme—well, at least a UFO-style one and the Mac-only setup software. It was like many other Apple products as far as design and simplicity goes, but at that time, you needed a Mac to set it up and it was much more expensive that the competition. My current model is a Netgear, and that’s what another family member of mine uses. They work pretty well, and I’ve gotten used to the web interface enough that I can set one up exactly how I want without any real effort.

But that’s me and not the average person. For people who have the modem/router combo from their cable or phone company, this is a non-issue. Everything is set up and works about as good as the service. Still, many other people have just the modem provided, so they must set up their own router. Most models have a web interface, like the Netgear models, while others have a dumbed-down piece of software that walks you through the steps, but offers no real customization. The fact that I couldn’t run the setup from the CD, keep those settings, and then tweak them from the web interface was one reason why a Linksys router I purchased was exchanged for the Netgear I currently use. Personally, I haven’t messed with D-Link or Belkin models, but have had to help others with them, and there are similar frustrations.

Back to the Trouble

Anyway, after about 20 minutes, I had the new Netgear router working on the other side of the house, and it was broadcasting an N network perfect for his iPad 2 (and soon to be purchased iPhone 4S). A few tests with FaceTime and web browsing verified everything was working at a reasonable speed and reliability. Two days later I got a phone call—something weird was going on—the router was broadcasting a Wi-Fi network, but it wasn’t connecting to anything. The other computers (running Windows) were working just fine on the original router, so I knew the issue wasn’t related to the Linksys router or the cable modem.

Since I knew that something wasn’t going from router to router, I had to walk him through the web interface of the Netgear router (mostly from memory and looking off the settings of mine). While this was fine, it just wasn’t getting an IP address from the Linksys model. I had him double-check the cabling, the settings, and so on, and nothing made sense. Eventually, I had him disconnect everything and add each piece back step-by-step. Once everything was put back together (in the exact same setup, mind you), he was able to connect with the iPad. This took about 45 minutes of repeating settings, waiting for the router to restart after changing settings, and trying to put the network-engineer-friendly jargon into plain English.

Where Apple Comes In

This experience made me realize that Apple really needs to get in on this business more than they are now. Although a number of tech pundits love saying where Apple needs to go, there really isn’t a wireless router as good (from a can-operate-techology-but-isn’t-a-geek setup standpoint) as the current AirPort models. The fact that you can set them up without even a computer (there’s an iOS app) is great. We had to connect a computer directly to either of those other routers for initial setup and, if you turn off DHCP, you may not be able to reconnect through the web interface. Poor form.

The only problem is that Apple’s AirPort line is expensive. Again, a number of tech pundits say that Apple products are expensive, but it’s hard to justify $100 for an AirPort Express for someone when they can get something “similar” for $40 and have multiple 10/100 Ethernet ports (although you lose the audio and USB functions). The AirPort Extreme sells for $179, and is more in line with some of the higher-end models (some of those features are available in $100-$150 products from competitors). However, it’s hard to justify the extra premium for people who are purely comparing specs. Worse yet, the lesson of Apple’s software being key may never be realized if someone just accepts the poorly designed software in other products or has someone else set it up.

What we need is Apple to offer a product in the AirPort family for about $50 that is as slick, simple, and impulse-purchase-y as the Apple TV is. I think the Apple TV form factor would be great, but with maybe two or three Ethernet ports (one can be uplink, while the other can be used for things that aren’t wireless—older computers, game consoles, DVRs). Throw in the great software and that’s it. You buy it, set it up with your Mac, PC, iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch, and it’s fairly well explained, simple to maintain, and is as transparent as most people assume routers should be.

Then again, this could just be a problem that people haven’t really gotten to worried about yet, and those who have already purchased the Apple product or are geeky enough to put up with all the settings and options.

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