Wireless networking is certainly convenient, but is there a faster way of pushing bits through the home without stringing Ethernet cable? Kevin van Haaren explores Powerline networking, which zips data through his house using the electrical cables already in the walls. Also in this issue, Glenn Fleishman follows up last week’s iPhone coverage with specifics on AppleCare and service options, and Adam explains why the ChangeShortName utility is useful. Rounding out the news, we note the releases of Nisus Writer Pro, an Apple fix for Intel-based Macs that experienced popping sounds under Mac OS X 10.4.10, and the release candidate version of the virtualization software Fusion. And speaking of Fusion, please welcome the program’s developer VMware as the newest TidBITS sponsor!
We're pleased to welcome our latest long-term sponsor, VMware, the company that is not just the latest entrant into the virtualization market for Intel-based Macs, but also the overall market leader in virtualization
If you installed Mac OS X 10.4.10 before 02-Jul-07, you probably got version 1.0 of the update, which caused some Intel-based Macs with external speakers to experience “popping” sounds. PowerPC-based Macs weren’t affected. (For details on what was fixed in Mac OS X 10.4.10, see “Mac OS X 10.4.10 Released,” 2007-06-25.)
Apple has now released a variety of updates to address this annoying problem. If you haven’t yet installed the Mac OS X 10.4.10 Update on an Intel-based Mac, you’ll now see a fixed version 1.1 in Software Update; it’s also available as a standalone download in both delta (72 MB) and combo (297 MB) forms. Those who have already installed Mac OS X 10.4.10 will instead see Audio Update 2007-001 in Software Update; it too is available as a 660K standalone download.
Nisus Software has released Nisus Writer Pro, a new word processor based on their earlier product, Nisus Writer Express (which remains available). Nisus Writer Pro adds numerous features that appeared in Nisus Writer Classic but hadn’t yet been seen in a native Mac OS X version of the program. Nisus Writer Pro can perform attribute-sensitive find and replace operations (both manually and in macros) and expand glossary entries on the fly (somewhat like Word’s AutoCorrect feature). Other newly added (or “restored,” if you prefer) features include tables of contents, indexing, cross-references, bookmarks, text wrap around images, widow and orphan control, multi-page footnotes, line numbering, and an
expanded macro language.
Nisus Writer Pro costs $79, or $99 for a three-license Family Pack; single upgrades from Nisus Writer Express are $45. (Prices for Nisus Writer Express have been reduced to $45 for single users and $79 for Family Packs.) Nisus Writer Pro is a 103 MB download; a 15-day free trial version is available.
VMware last week posted the first release candidate for Fusion, their software for running Windows on Intel-based Macs. This version includes improvements to Unity, a mode in which Windows applications can run side-by-side with Mac applications, rather than in a separate Windows window. Unity now supports drag-and-drop, offers a menu of Windows applications in the Fusion Dock icon, works with more versions of Windows, and features several other improvements. Release Candidate 1 also provides better keyboard support, including the option to use Control-click with a one-button mouse to produce a right click in Windows. Other improvements include better performance for Boot Camp-based
virtual machines, new memory optimization options, and a variety of bug fixes. Fusion RC 1 is a 160 MB download.
VMware has announced that Fusion will retail for $79.99 when it ships by the end of August. Customers who pre-order it before the final release get a 50 percent discount.
Unsatisfied with your identity in Mac OS X? Bothered that the person being asked to provide an administrator password isn’t really you? You can always open the Accounts pane of System Preferences and change the Name field that holds your full name. But the Short Name field below it remains frustratingly immutable, even after you click the lock icon, making you think, perhaps, that Mac OS X is being unnecessarily over-protective.
This is backwards. Your full name is what you can’t escape, the one inscribed on your birth certificate. But short names, whether they’re chosen, assigned, or merely accidental, are more malleable. My late grandfather Orville was known to his friends as Barb, a seemingly inexplicable nickname for a powerfully built farmer who could fix electric fences without turning off the heat. It was finally explained to me that it was short for “barbarian,” a reference to his football and boxing prowess at Cornell University in the 1930s.
Had Grandpa accidentally set his short name in Mac OS X to “orville” when he would have preferred “barb”, the ChangeShortName utility from James Bucanek and Dan Frakes would have come in handy. It is possible to change a short name in Mac OS X with appropriate incantations at the command line and gestures in Apple’s NetInfo Manager, along with edits to configuration files. But it’s a tedious process involving so many steps that not even Apple’s official instructions are complete. It’s also prone to errors: if you mess up, you’re looking at significant recovery efforts.
ChangeShortName makes this process far easier and more foolproof by encapsulating all the steps necessary to change an account’s short name. All you have to do is select an existing name, enter the new name, and click a button. Plus, if you’ve tried and failed to change a short name on your own, it can also repair some of the damage. It requires Mac OS X 10.3 or later, and is free, though donations are requested. Even with ChangeShortName, changing your short name isn’t the sort of thing to do lightly, so be sure to read the included documentation before using it. It’s a 424K download.
The costs of extending your iPhone’s warranty, replacing its battery, and having it otherwise repaired are now available. I mistakenly wrote last week in “My First Days with the iPhone” (2007-07-02) that Apple hadn’t yet provided details on its AppleCare plan; in fact, those were apparently available for at least a day on the Apple Store’s ordering page for the iPhone (click the Warranty button in the bottom right). Other repair information appears to have shown up on or around 02-Jul-07.
The warranty included with the iPhone covers defects for one year and technical support for two years; the latter is tied in with the usual policy of cellular operators providing phone support during a contract period. AppleCare costs $69 per phone and extends the warranty against defects to two years. It may be purchased any time during the first year of ownership, but it’s not yet available for sale. Apple is promising AppleCare availability in July, as store employees at an Apple Store told me at the iPhone launch.
Accidents and loss aren’t covered, which is consistent with Apple’s other warranty programs. However, most cell companies also offer what is generally overpriced, but mostly inclusive, insurance against loss and accidental damage to supplement free coverage for defect repairs. These plans cost $30 to $60 per year, billed monthly, and have a deductible of $35 to $50 or even more, depending on the phone. You can get your phone replaced or repaired only a limited number of times, and the insurer can choose to provide a comparable phone. Apple is having none of that.
Cell carriers, by the way, often do a terrible job of repairing phones that have warranty-covered defects within a reasonable time, while Apple’s computer repair service typically gets top ratings by consumer publications. AT&T and Apple are handling repairs and returns through Apple Stores and mail order; AT&T Stores won’t handle hardware after it’s sold.
According to Apple’s iPhone service FAQ, the price for servicing an iPhone with a repair that falls outside either the covered warranty terms or the warranty period is $199 for a 4 GB model and $249 for an 8 GB model. If just the battery needs to be replaced, that’s a separate program that costs $85.95 ($79 plus $6.95 shipping). Battery replacement and other services take about three business days. I expect Apple will send out a lot of refurbished iPhones in favor of repairing purchased iPhones given the amount of soldering on the iPhone; see iFixIt’s tear-down.
Most people can’t be without a phone for three working days (which might mean five or six over a long weekend). Apple has a deal for you: the Apple Service Phone, a $29 rental that lasts until a few days after your iPhone is repaired.
The rental phone must be returned 7 days after you receive a repaired phone back by shipping service, 5 days after your phone is ready for pickup at an Apple Store, or 10 days after it’s sent if you fail to send your broken iPhone in at all. There’s an extra $50 charge if you return it late, and a $600 reserve placed on your credit card that’s turned into a charge if you fail to return it within 10 days of the end of the loan.
The SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) card that’s used to identify your account uniquely can be removed from the iPhone by poking a paper clip into a hole at the top of the iPhone. That SIM card can be swapped into the rental phone before you send back your own model for repair. If you send the SIM card in when you return a rental phone, you have to contact AT&T to get a new one.
Apple also offers a page of tips on conserving and extending battery life.
After my PowerBook G4’s CPU destroyed itself, I replaced it with a much cheaper, but less portable, Mac mini in my living room. When I made this change my wireless network became just a way to bridge the computers in my home office with the computers in the living room.
Although 802.11g wireless networking works adequately for this purpose, I always have my eye out for something faster. My iTunes library is stored on a machine in my computer room and is almost 100 GB in size. Synchronizing my video iPod from the Mac mini in my living room could do with a bit of a speed boost.
Upgrading to 802.11n, with its significantly faster performance, is not really an option. Apple doesn’t offer an upgrade for older Macs that lack the 802.11n hardware. USB adapters may be available for other companies’ 802.11n implementations, but I’d need to purchase an adapter for each device I wanted to add to the network.
While wandering around the computer store recently (a habit I really should try to stop) I found that HomePlug adapters had recently received a boost in throughput. For many years the HomePlug Powerline Alliance has promulgated a standard for Ethernet over electrical wires called HomePlug 1.0. Unfortunately this standard maxes out at around 14 Mbps, which is hardly fast enough for home users accustomed to (theoretical) 100 Mbps wired connections and 54 Mbps wireless connections.
Two competing standards have arisen to provide the next generation in Ethernet over home electrical systems. The first is the HomePlug AV standard produced by the HomePlug Powerline Alliance. The second, called Powerline HD, is from the Universal Powerline Association.
The two standards offer similar functionality. Both claim a theoretical maximum throughput of 200 Mbps. Both offer improved encryption and quality-of-service (QoS) options over the older specification. The specifics of the standards differ enough that you can’t use a Powerline HD adapter to connect to a HomePlug AV adapter. Unfortunately, like Betamax versus VHS and Blu-ray versus HD-DVD, having multiple competing standards will hurt adoption of the technology by consumers.
At the store, there were no HomePlug AV adapters in stock, but Powerline HD adapters from both D-Link and Netgear were available. I chose the D-Link Powerline HD adapters based on price ($180 for the two-adapter starter kit versus $200 for the Netgear starter kit).
Installation — Installation was extremely simple; all I had to do was plug the Powerline adapters straight into a wall jack (it’s important to plug directly into a wall outlet, and not to use a surge protector or UPS). Neither HomePlug nor Powerline signals will cross a transformer, which is seldom an issue in residential construction.
You may wish to use a simple circuit tester to verify your plugs are wired correctly. In my testing, Powerline adapters worked plugged in either way (the adapters aren’t polarized), which means they’ll work with incorrectly wired circuits, but circuits with reversed wiring are a safety hazard, so it wouldn’t hurt to test anyway. A weird effect appeared in my testing, however. I saw the fastest file transfers with one adapter plugged in normally and the other plugged in reversed.
The D-Link Powerline adapter has three lights: one shows that it is receiving power, another indicates it has detected another Powerline adapter, and a final light indicates when a live Ethernet connection has been established. The adapters will work in the default configuration, but on the default D-Link network and without encryption. If you live in an apartment building, or if your house shares a transformer with other houses, your signal could be available at their power outlets. (And I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my neighbor’s blender to be able to snoop on my email!)
Configuration — Setting up your own network name and turning on encryption requires that you configure the adapters, which, unfortunately, requires a Windows computer. (Every HomePlug AV and Powerline HD adapter I’ve found has this same requirement.) Configuration certainly should work from Windows running under Boot Camp and will probably also work from Windows running under Parallels Desktop or VMware Fusion. However, I’ve not tested any of these options myself.
To get started with configuration, you plug the adapters into the wall jacks (preferably in their final locations, but that’s not necessary). Both adapters should indicate they see another Powerline adapter.
Next, using an Ethernet cable, plug your Windows computer directly into one of the adapters and launch the configuration software that comes with the adapters. It automatically detects both adapters, showing one as ETH and the other as PLC. The ETH (short for Ethernet?) adapter is the one directly connected to the computer and the PLC (“Powerline Connected” perhaps?) adapter is the remote one.
First configure the remote (PLC) node. If you first set up the node you are plugged into (ETH), the adapters will no longer be able to see each other and the configuration software will not be able to talk to the remote adapter.
Basic configuration consists of assigning a Net-ID (similar to an SSID on a wireless network) and encryption key (just like the encryption key on a wireless network). Plus, you can give each adapter a more identifiable name – I named mine for their physical locations – and you can set a configuration password to prevent other users from changing your configuration. Once you’ve done the PLC adapter, repeat the process with the ETH adapter.
Advanced configuration lets you set two rules for quality-of-service, which enables you to prioritize your traffic. For example, you can give Skype packets a higher priority than other packets. This would help keep the voice quality of your Skype communications high, while an FTP file transfer going on at the same time would be slowed down. Gamers may wish to set certain game traffic higher than regular traffic to keep their games from lagging behind other players. Since I have no need for QoS on my setup, however, I stuck with the basic configuration.
Real World File Transfer Tests — To get a feel for how fast the adapters operate in the real world, I ran several tests, first over the wireless network, next over the Powerline connection, and then comparing to wired Ethernet. To keep the configurations as similar as possible, both networks used encryption (WPA for the wireless) and had no QoS rules in place. I repeated the tests over a couple of days to verify the reliability of the numbers.
Initially, I transferred a 1.4 GB file via FTP from my Linux server using pure-ftpd to the Mac running Interarchy. According to Interarchy’s transcript, the wireless transfer of 1,472,156.9 kilobytes took 1,797 seconds (just under 30 minutes) or 6.4 megabits per second (Mbps). (Remember that 802.11g has a theoretical bandwidth maximum of 54 Mbps.)
The Powerline adapters demonstrated quite a bit of variation in transfer rates. The worst transfer took 1,210 seconds (a hair over 20 minutes) or 9.52 Mbps. The best clocked in at 948 seconds (almost 16 minutes), or 12.16 Mbps. Most transfers ran at around 10 Mbps, putting the Powerline adapters at 50 to 100 percent faster than my 802.11g wireless network, if nowhere near the 200 Mbps theoretical maximum. I can’t really account for variation in the rates, although noise on the power lines, such as from an air conditioner, compact fluorescent lights, or washing machines, may be involved.
Next, I decided to compare the results to a direct Ethernet connection. I don’t have a long enough network cable to test this in my current setup, so I moved the Mac mini to my computer room and connected it via 100 Mbps Ethernet. With this setup, transferring the 1.4 GB file via Interarchy showed a significantly faster result of nearly 87 Mbps, or almost 9 times better than the Powerline adapters. Clearly, if performance is key and you can run real Ethernet cable, it’s the preferred way to bridge two locations.
Network and Ideal Situation Performance Tests — In addition to testing with Interarchy, I used the network performance tool Iperf to measure pure network throughput. Testing with file transfers involves the operating system, file system, and hard drives. It’s a good benchmark for expected real world operations but doesn’t isolate just the network component. Iperf measures just the network.
Since I had already moved the Mac mini to my computer room for the Ethernet test, I also decided to do some additional tests of wireless and Powerline connections in an ideal setup. My wireless router is in the computer room, so I tested a wireless connection with the Mac mini just a few feet from the router. Iperf recorded a throughput of 12.8 Mbps, but the Interarchy test dropped back down to 7.0 Mbps, just a touch faster than when the Mac mini was in the living room.
For the ideal Powerline test, I plugged the two adapters into the same electrical outlet. It doesn’t get more ideal than that for Powerline adapters – no circuit breakers or fuses to cross, and less noise on the line from other devices. In this ideal configuration, Iperf reported a throughput of 69 Mbps, and Interarchy reported 65 Mbps, nearly 7 times faster than my real world configuration. This result suggests that I should try to find two outlets that share the same circuit breaker. Unfortunately, the builder of my house neglected to label my circuit panel, so until I can get a wire tracer I’ll have to just move the adapters around and see if I get better results with different outlets.
For comparison, with the 100 Mbps wired Ethernet connection, Iperf reported a throughput of 91.1 Mbps, which is a huge increase over both the wireless and Powerline connections. Ethernet really is the way to go for maximum performance, assuming it’s feasible to run cable to the necessary locations.
Latency Tests — I made one other test of the adapters: latency. Network latency is a measure of how long it takes packets to travel through a network. Although the file transfer measurements above are typically referred to as “speeds,” they’re really a measurement of bandwidth. Think of a pipe with water coming out at a rate of one liter per minute. To get water faster – say, two liters per minute – I have two options: I could push the water molecules through the pipe faster, or I could make the pipe larger. Although individual water molecules in the larger pipe still take the same amount of time to travel, more of them are traveling in the same amount of time, making the rate appear faster. Networks can do
the same thing. Bits can travel through the system faster, or more of them can be transferred at the same time.
To measure the round-trip latency of each connection, I used the ping command, which sends an “Are you there?” packet to a device. The device, if present and active, responds with a “Yes.” The sending computer can time how long it takes to receive the answering packet, which is the round-trip latency of the network.
I used Mac OS X’s built-in ping command in Terminal to ping my Linux server 100 times. Over the 802.11g wireless network the ping command reported a minimum transit time of 1.5 ms (milliseconds), an average of 1.8 ms, and a maximum time of 4.8 ms.
Like the transfer rates, the latency when using the Powerline adapters changed over several days. The worst was a minimum time of 1.5 ms, an average of 9.1 ms, and a maximum of 121.7 ms. Most of the tests came out to a minimum of 1.5 ms, with an average of 3.5 ms and a max of 27 ms. Although they push a lot of packets through, the D-Link Powerline adapters seem to have a very high (and variable) latency. This means that, even with the QoS features, the Powerline adapters may be less suitable than other network types for VoIP (Voice over IP) applications such as Skype and iChat.
Summary — On price it doesn’t appear the D-Link adapters can be beat. Both other Powerline HD and HomePlug AV adapters appear to be more expensive than the D-Link adapters, and they’re also cheaper than outfitting multiple Macs with new wireless gear, and are likely cheaper (or at least easier) than running Ethernet cable inside walls. The downside is that because of the competing Powerline HD and HomePlug AV standards, I may be locked into purchasing D-Link adapters to expand my network.
In terms of performance, the D-Link adapters are good, but not stunning. They seem to have a high network latency, but since my network needs to bridge only two locations, and since my use is mainly downloading files, either through Web browsing or moving TiVo movie or iPod music files around, the 50 to 100 percent increase in throughput over 802.11g is certainly welcome.
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