Last week we published a guide to "Mac-friendly" wireless routers. Rather than addressing reliability or performance concerns, the article attempted to discern which wireless router manufacturers offer comprehensive or at least minimal support for Mac users, including setup documentation and phone or e-mail based customer service.
We'd now like to begin identifying routers that offer compatibility with Macs on three important fronts:
- Ability to access AppleTalk devices, including printers, that are connected either via wired Ethernet or WiFi.
- Ability to maintain connections with AirPort-branded internal wireless cards
- Support for WDS (wireless distribution system) in conjunction with AirPort Base stations -- allowing interconnection of wireless access points for amplified or extended signals and other benefits.
AppleTalk compatibility First we'll discuss the most common issue with third-party wireless routers, an inability for wirelessly connected clients to access AppleTalk devices on the same network.
This issue should never appear with Apple's AirPort base stations. If you are experiencing this issue with an AirPort unit, make sure that both your AirPort card and base station firmware (Dual-Ethernet, Express, Extreme) are up-to-date. Also, make sure you are running Mac OS X 10.4.7 or later.
The reason this problem manifests with some third-party wireless routers is that certain Ethernet packets (the individual units of data sent over the network) including IP-over-Ethernet use a specific format: 12 bytes of destination and source addresses, plus a two byte "type" field. AppleTalk packets, however, use a "SNAP" frame, which is a slightly different format.
All wireless 802.11 packets, those used by WiFi hardware, are actually SNAP frames.
So, when you have a device connected via wire -- a printer connected via an Ethernet cable, for instance, it is sending regular Ethernet packets. The wireless router then has to translate the packets into SNAP format. In reverse, it has to change SNAP packets back into regular Ethernet packets.
The problem, as they say, is a loss in translation. Some SNAP packets need to be specially handled, or else they will end up mangled and unable to be transferred. Some wireless hardware has problems with this translation process, causing the inability to access wired AppleTalk devices over the wireless network.
We'd like to hear which third-party wireless routers you've found to work well with AppleTalk devices -- particularly printers. Please let us know.
If you already have a third-party wireless router that doesn't seem to support AppleTalk, there's still hope for accessing the device(s) through IP access.
For printers (the most commonly accessed AppleTalk devices), determine your device's IP address (check the owner's manual for information on how to do so -- usually you can print out a test page by holding a specific button that will tell you the IP address, or you can go to your routers configuration page and look for a way to list connected devices) then use IP printing. This can be accomplished through the following process:
- Open Printer Setup Utility (located in Applications/Utilities)
- Choose "Add" tool and select "IP printer,"
- Enter the address of the desired device.
AirPort hardware compatibility A less common issue with third-party wireless devices is inability to receive/send throughput with built-in AirPort hardware, or persistent dropping of connections with AirPort hardware. Most third-part wireless routers will work well with Apple's largely standards-compliant networking hardware, but if you'd like to report a problematic unit, please let us know).
WDS support Linking wireless routers through WDS can provide a number of benefits, including extended signal range and an increased number of simultaneously connected devices on the same network. A number of third-party routers have issues when configured to use WDS with AirPort Base stations, however.
In general, third party wireless routers need to be set as the main router -- the unit that connects directly to an Ethernet network source then distributes to AirPort Base stations. For instructions on configuring the AirPort Base station as such, see Knowledge Base document #107454.
Among the routers that do support connectivity to AirPort base stations via WDS:
Linksys WRT54G and WRT54G Though LinkSys scores low marks for Mac documentation and support, a few of the companies routers are compatible with the WDS scheme used by Apple. Frank Canzolino has posted some excellent instructions for configuring these routers with AirPort-compatible WDS.
Belkin F5D7230-4 and F5D723 Belkin scores high marks for Mac documentation and support as well as offering AirPort-compatible WDS connectivity through some of its routers. The company offers some basic setup instructions online.
Buffalo WGR-G54 Buffalo also offers excellent Mac documentation and support while also supporting AiPort-compatibble WDS. Setup instructions can be found here.
If you know of other routers that can accept WDS connections from AirPort Base stations, please drop us a line at email@example.com.