By Graham K. Rogers
I had a satisfying weekend as far as technology is concerned with the discovery of new applications that allowed me to draw on the Mac in a variety of programs, while working on the iPad. What was particularly impressive with Astropod was the way in which input on the iPad would appear immediately on the screen of the MacBook Pro I use.
I took both the iPad and the Mac to the office in my backpack when I went on Monday morning, so gave it a run there, with disappointing results. The connection screen did not appear right away and, once the link had been made, it was like working in treacle.
A brush stroke on the iPad screen, only showed me a red input line and then a second or so later the input would appear on the Mac, then after a further delay (albeit brief) the same brush line would appear on the iPad. While I described my initial experiences at the weekend as "impressive" this was now far from the case.
A clue came not long after when a colleague told me about his successful weekend when he had set up a network in a new electronics lab. He had bought a used switch (perhaps on eBay). He discovered that, although there was a superfast Cisco gigabit router available, most connections were being made via a much older 10/100 router. The penny dropped. The relative speeds of the wifi connections at home and at the office were slowing down the transfer of data.
It has been clear to many that Apple is moving to a completely wifi-connected environment with device synchronisation, cloud connections and the way data can be transferred within a home or office environment. I have several devices that link: iPad, iPhone, MacBook Pro and AppleTV. Of these, only the AppleTV uses the older 802.11n wifi standard: the rest connect via the latest 802.11ac, which is why I bought the Apple wifi router.
When I returned to my office with my colleague, we looked at the various networks that were available, using the more-detailed display that appeared when I clicked on the wifi icon in the menubar of the Mac while pressing the Option key. The wifi router I was connected to was at the top of the menu and that showed 802.11g.
As I held the mouse over the other networks listed, only two were shown as connecting via 802.11n. The rest were 802.11g, including a network that had been installed a few days earlier using a ToT optical link: the pipeline was being throttled. Whoever set up that network had connected the fast link via a Forth router that wheezed along with the g standard.
There are three standards currently in use in Thailand (although older, slower routers may still be around):
- 802.11g ratified by IEEE in June 2003, almost 12 years ago, yet many of the routers still supplied by local carriers use this outmoded standard, which is not only restricted to the 2.4 GHz band, but also transfers data at a maximum
rate of 54 Mbit/s
- The more recent 802.11n standard was ratified in October 2009, some 5 years ago and had the advantages of working in the 5GHz band as well as 2.4GHz. The range of transmissions indoors was up to 70m from the 38m of the earlier 802.11g standard. External range was increased from 140m to 250m.
- Like 802.11n the 802.11ac standard includes wider 5 GHz band channels: 40 MHz for 802.11n; 80 or 160 MHz for the later standard. It also allows 8 MIMO streams (multiple-input and multiple-output) as opposed to 4 for 802.11n.
[The technical input here came in part from the useful Wikipedia entries on the 802.11 wifi standards.]
It is not that the 802.11ac standard can carry data faster, but it is like a pipe with a greater carrying capacity, so more users (or more devices) on the same network can transfer larger chucks of data within a network at the same time.
A year or so ago, I bought an Apple wifi router that uses the 802.11ac standard. Devices being announced by Apple at that time were able to use the connection speeds, although the iPhone 5 could not and it was another year before the iPhone 6 would use these faster speeds.
I later checked the networks that were visible to my Mac while at home. I was already aware that the condominium has many residents with their own systems and that the condo also has routers available for residents without their own links. Apart from my own connection, there were up to another 10 visible (the number fluctuates). 50% were 802.11g while the others were 802.11n.
Of these, I could identify 3 as True wireless and these were all 802.11g routers. A single ToT wireless connection was via 802.11n, while similarly a 3BB link was also 802.11n. One of the True routers I could identify was mine, although I never use this: I connect the Apple router to the True device via an Ethernet cable. This also solves a problem with ports that Apple devices need to be open to synchronise: True technicians had been unable to grasp the concept.
A local writer on technology has a similar solution: he connects via an Asus dual-core with 802.11ac which he claims makes a difference with VPN use.
All of the routers visible to my Mac were secured by passwords, except for the single condominium-provided router. Of the identifiable True routers all used the less secure WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) protocol. The TOT device used WPA2, as does my own Apple router. All of the routers apart from the Apple device (5GHz, 80 MHz) were using the 2.4GHz band (at 20MHz and 40 MHz): pretty crowded down there.
Although some internet providers do have more recent routers for their paying customers, it appears that True (there may be others) are supplying their customers with technology that is some 12 years old.
In my home environment with a single user but multiple devices, the capacity to transfer files and other data - for example streaming a movie from the iPad or Mac to AppleTV - is greater and there are fewer bottlenecks. At the office, with several users and a slower network, it was like trying to pour a tank of water into the ocean via a 10mm funnel.
Local users deserve better than cheap outdated routers if they want to use their modern devices to the full.
Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand where he is also Assistant Dean. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs. He is now continuing that in the Bangkok Post supplement, Life.