Last week’s release of new iBook, PowerBook, and eMac models (see the coverage earlier in this issue) garnered most of the Apple-related attention, but a few significant updates to the company’s wireless networking efforts – both software and hardware – are worth mentioning.
Power over Ethernet Base Station — Apple has quietly released a third model of its AirPort Extreme Base Station designed for the education and corporate markets (model M9397LL/A). The new model supports Power over Ethernet (PoE), a way of providing electrical power to the base station without a separate AC power cable. PoE was "exactly what our education customers were asking us for," said an Apple spokesperson. "They unwire the campuses and they want to put the base stations up in the ceiling area." The unit also has a Plenum rating, which conforms to a building code standard that reduces dangerous offgassing during fires.
With Power over Ethernet, also known as IEEE 802.3af, you can power a base station entirely through an Ethernet cable. The DC power is fed over wires in the cable that aren’t used for data. Increasingly, Ethernet switches come equipped with Power over Ethernet as an option: you plug in the Ethernet cable, and it automatically powers the unit. With more sophisticated switches, you can power-cycle a device through the switch’s interface instead of having to find it and manually unplug its power adapter.
The new model costs $250, and includes an external antenna jack but no modem. The other $250 model lacks the Plenum rating and PoE support, but includes both modem and external jack. The cheapest model, at $200, lacks modem, PoE, Plenum, and jack. (Once again, I long for coherent model numbers.) The AirPort Extreme Base Station with PoE is also available in packages of five for $1,000 to the education market only, a savings of $51 per gateway, or substantially more than the existing educational discount for single-unit purchases. Currently, however, the new base station is not available for sale at Apple’s online store.
AirPort 3.4 and AirPort Management Tools 1.0 — Apple also released AirPort Software 3.4 for Mac OS X 10.3, which includes new AirPort Extreme Firmware 5.4 for the base station. This release adds some monitoring and logging options to the base station and apparently improves some Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) issues, as well as offering options to control the signal gain of external antennas. Unfortunately, we can’t recommend AirPort 3.4, as we’ve seen reduced performance and reception (even with a PowerBook located six feet from an upgraded base station). As we were putting this issue to bed, Apple released AirPort 3.4.1, which – on a very quick look – seems to resolve the performance and reception problems introduced by 3.4.
Apple also briefly released AirPort Management Tools 1.0, a pair of utilities that let you monitor and configure the settings of many base stations simultaneously and monitor live performance feedback. However, the tools were removed from Apple’s site later the same day.
Bluetooth Firmware Updater 1.1 — Lastly, Apple updated its implementation of the other prominent wireless networking technology by releasing Bluetooth Firmware Updater 1.1. The update improves Bluetooth keyboard and mouse support by initializing the Bluetooth driver earlier in the startup process so that you can press keys that control how startup completes from the Apple wireless keyboard. It’s also supposed to improve Bluetooth connectivity; although the release notes aren’t specific, I’m guessing that could mean improvements in how the adapter supports Bluetooth 1.2, which mitigates interference between AirPort Extreme and Bluetooth which work over the same frequency range. Apple says that applying the update to a D-Link USB adapter will "make it incompatible with non-Macintosh systems."