I'm one of those people who considers Internet access to be a basic function of any computer. My laptop is not always near my home network, but the AirPort card is advertised work only with a 150-foot (50m) range, and I often find myself farther from a network than that. So I began the search for ways to boost the range of my new 15-inch MacBook Pro.
I briefly considered the "cantenna," which is an antenna made from a tin can. From what I've read, it can significantly improve wireless reception range (though it's rather directional, and would need to be adjusted constantly to point at the desired network). I will probably build one of these at home just for fun, but as I will mostly be using my MacBook for work, the cantenna looks a bit too funky.
Enter QuickerTek, a small company that specializes in "wireless performance products," according to its Web site. In addition to antennas, it sells transceivers that can boost your Mac's wireless range by a factor of two or better. My first question was, what's the difference between an antenna and a transceiver? The basic difference is this: Antennas are passive devices that concentrate the signal in specific directions, both when sending and receiving. Transceivers are active devices that provide a high-power transmitter and a receiver that amplifies the incoming signal.
QuickerTek makes transceivers for the MacBook Pro, 17-inch iMac, Power Mac G3 and G4, and other models. I called QuickerTek to learn more and asked whether I should buy the transceiver or an antenna. I was connected to a human being without spending endless time on hold or having to navigate a labyrinthine menu system. The fellow I spoke with was very knowledgeable and spoke candidly with me about the pros and cons of their offerings. One thing he stressed was that the MacBook Pro transceiver requires you to open the laptop to attach a lead to the internal AirPort card. QuickerTek can do this for you if you aren't comfortable opening your laptop.
I ordered the MacBook Pro model, the $200 27dBm MacBook Pro Transceiver. Four days later, my heart all a-flutter, I tore open the box. I was delighted to discover that it included all necessary tools, including a real size 0 Phillips screwdriver instead of one of those cheap, handle-less things that come with so many "do it yourself" kits. It also contained a good set of detailed instructions, including readable photos with arrows pointing accurately to the items I would soon be working with. I should add that while the pictures were an invaluable guide, the text was less so. Most of the description was fairly accurate, but some was just plain vague. The pictures were the lifesaver.
Another nice touch was the piece of paper with circles on it, neatly labelled to keep track of each of the seven sets of screws I would be removing. This saved me the trouble of having to find seven bowls and either label them or try to remember which screws went where.
Following the directions, it took me all of about 10 minutes to remove the keyboard cover and expose the guts of the MacBook Pro. I disconnected one of the AirPort leads and replaced it with the lead from the QuickerTek transceiver, then closed up the MacBook Pro. Total elapsed time: under 20 minutes!
A small wire now protrudes from the laptop and connects to another small cable that in turn connects to the transceiver itself, which snaps onto the top of the screen.
The transceiver can take power from either the MacBook Pro's USB port or wall current. I planned to wander around the house with it for a bit and test reception, so I used the USB connector. When I powered up, the little green lights flicked on, and lo! My network's signal strength numbers in iStumbler jumped from a fairly weak (but stable) 14 to a robust 38. In graphic terms, the signal level in Internet Connect went from about half to fully filled, and the AirPort signal icon in the menu bar went from three bars to completely full.
Before installing the transceiver, I could see only our home network. Occasionally, if I wandered way over to one side of the house, I could see a neighbor's network. With the transceiver, I could pull in the neighbor's network from anywhere in the house, as well as three others I had never seen before. Then I took my newly augmented MacBook Pro to work in downtown Seattle, where plenty of wireless networks overlap. Without the transceiver, I could see about 10 networks from my office. With the transceiver I can routinely pull in about 25, with much stronger signals than before.
I would offer only one caution: the two cables running between the transceiver and the AirPort card are slender and probably fragile. A nice metal connector with solid construction joins the cables, and I don't expect that to break. The length of cable from the transceiver is easy to care for, since when I travel I remove the transceiver and stow it securely. But the short length of cable running from the AirPort card and exiting the side of the MacBook Pro can't be removed. It is important to store that securely so that it does not wiggle or pull loose from the AirPort card inside. I have taken to using a piece of tape to secure it to the side of the laptop.
Other than this single, fairly minor storage issue I can recommend the QuickerTek transceiver for anyone needing a more robust wireless signal. It was easy to install (given that I am not afraid to open up my Mac) and works at least as well as advertised.
[Brady Johnson is a Seattle-area Mac user who loves any excuse to open the Mac and poke around.]