Stable WiFi Connections With Mac OS X

I’ve been digging into Mac OS X’s sometimes unstable WiFi connections for a while now, and have come to the conclusion that the Broadcom drivers in Mac OS X 10.6+ are either too fussy or just buggy in particular when dealing with 802.11n.

Apple’s iOS drivers seem to be different as few people see the same issues across Mac OS X and iOS. On the hardware side, the iPad 3 and iPhone 4S use a Broadcom BCM4330, while the slightly older iPhone 4 uses a BCM4750. MacBook, MacBook Pro, Air use a Broadcom BCM4331 these days. Some older ones (pre-2010 I believe) used Atheros AR5008. As you can see the hardware is pretty similar suggesting software as the discrepancy. Despite using a Darwin based OS it makes sense to have slightly different drivers. These devices have very different needs in terms of data usage patterns and power consumption. iOS devices seem to use less power than their OS X based counterparts. That makes perfect sense. The question is how does this impact connectivity and what can we do about it?

Apple has recommendations for iOS. For the most part these are universally good recommendations, however I’ve found a few things to be different:

  • 802.11 a/b/g/n – If you’ve got a broad set of clients, without question seek out a simultaneous dual-band wireless router. Not dual-band, simultaneous dual-band. This will save you a lot of headache and ensure good performance. Two radio’s are better than one.
  • Channel – Apple says to set it to “auto”, however I’ve found if there are several access points on other channels nearby this can be troublesome for OS X based clients on 802.11n in the 5 GHz spectrum. You’re best off setting it to the most open frequency and leaving it if you experience problems. This alone will likely resolve many (if not all) connectivity issues in my experience. 2.4 GHz seems to do better in auto channel. I’m not entirely sure why this is, however I suspect it has to do with power saving strategies employed by the driver. This seems to be even more problematic with 40 MHz channel width, which sort of makes sense given they are related.
  • Set 5 GHz channel width to 20/40… maybe – Apple says to set the 5 GHz channel width to 20/40 MHz if supported because not all devices support 40 MHz, and this is most compatible. If you’ve got simultaneous dual band, you can consider setting it to 5 GHz 802.11n only with 40 MHz channel width and set the other radio set to 802.11b/g 2.4 GHz / 20 MHz serve as adequate backwards compatibility for non-40 MHz devices. I’ve run things both ways, and IMHO either will serve most needs well. Just depends what devices you are supporting.

This is pretty obvious in retrospect. The 5 GHz spectrum seems to have some funny business with channel selection and this can be solved by just being more strategic about your usage. If you’ve got an Apple device being fussy with network connections, this is the first thing to play with.

MacBook Pro Sleeps When Lid Closes

The MacBook Pro still has a quirk that has always bothered me. It’s not a hardware issue, it’s a software issue. Power users with laptops know about “closed clamshell” or “closed display” mode. That’s when you use a laptop with a desktop keyboard and mouse and the laptop remains closed. I don’t think any OS I’ve used totally gets this totally right, they all have their quirks. The MacBook Pro just has this one quirk that gets to me.

The problem with the MacBook Pro is when you have the computer open and on and you connect another display you’re given the option to mirror or use the display as a second display. If you mirror and close the laptop it goes to sleep. That’s completely illogical. There seems to be no way to disable going to sleep in this situation that I can find. I can’t imagine why anyone would want another behavior when closing a laptop while having a display and input device connected. When no display is connected and the laptop is closed, it should obviously sleep.

Searching on Google returns numerous forum threads with people who also have this gripe. Even a check box in the Energy Saver pref panel to facilitate this would do nicely.

For the record Windows is no saint either. It’s handling of monitor resolutions, especially if your desktop display is a different resolution is abhorrent. It can result in anything from reshuffling icons to putting windows out of the display area. I’ve never even bothered with such functionality in Linux, at least not yet so I can’t speak to its competency in this area.

iPhone Apps On Your Desktop

Apple should let users purchase iPhone apps and run them on their desktop similar to Dashboard widgets.

You should be able to purchase through iTunes just like users do already and then be able to run them on your iPhone, iPod touch, or on your desktop. Apple already has the technology to do this on x86 based Macs already (proof being the iPhone Simulator). By doing so they would open up the market to a wider set of users who don’t use iPhones but wouldn’t mind some addictive games/utilities and other toys. Most of the applications would actually translate very well. The presentation could be similar to that of the Dashboard Widgets. Same size, same functionality. Controlled via a mouse. Gestures would be slightly more difficult to handle but could be managed with an appropriate human inteface API.

Bonus points if they copied the Kindle’s iPhone app’s sync ability so that developers could let their applications stay in sync via WiFi or MobileMe (remotely). Keep your high scores intact between your phone and your computer.

The Next Generation Of Computing

I got my current laptop in Oct 2005, though the model was released in spring/summer of that year. My Mac mini is an 1st Gen (G4 1.4GHz) from Jan 2005. Needless to say my hardware at home is getting close to the point of needing an upgrade. Due to my laptop being replaced unexpectedly I have two computers getting to that magic point at almost the same time. Not much I can do about that. I’ve been thinking about the next generation and what I want to do. Ideally I’d like to simplify my setup, and hopefully in that process get more bang for the buck. In some ways I think I will, in others I won’t.

My initial though is to eventually get a MacBook Pro once it’s truly 64bit and supports at least 8GB RAM. GPU accelerated video decoding would also be nice. I like my computers expandable and to last a while. In 3-4 years time I think I’ll want more than 3GB of RAM considering I think 2GB is the minimum today. Yes the hardware they ship today technically supports this, but Apple’s firmware doesn’t for reasons unknown. I’d also like one or more USB 3 ports, but we’ll see if that happens in the 2nd half of 2009 or not. I don’t think the lack of would be a deal killer though. I think it will take quite a while for USB 3.0 speeds to be necessary to the point of widespread adoption.

Laptops are great since they can be moved around which is handy from time to time (though I use my laptop more at my desk than anywhere else), but they do lack the power that I sometimes want. The Mac mini obviously never delivered what I really needed in that department. My thought is to build a desktop rig composed of a multi core CPU (whatever makes sense at the moment), min 4GB RAM, at least two SATA drives (primary/backup) and dual boot Windows and Linux. This beast would be pretty much for when I need some real horsepower. By building it myself I could invest a little wiser in a good case, power supply, etc. and upgrade this thing through several revisions for years to come rather than throw it all away after a few years. I can also target my $ towards components I care about.

My primary (day to day) computer would be the MacBook Pro and would likely have Parallels installed so I can run Windows if/when necessary (mainly since Quicken for Mac sucks last I checked and so I can test web pages in Windows). When I need to do something that laptops suck for due to small slow disks or just being slower, I would have the desktop rig available.

One of the downsides here is that while my current display is VGA/DVI, both of these systems would be DVI. I could either degrade the signal to VGA and use my current KVM, or upgrade to a DVI capable KVM switch which isn’t cheap (I haven’t seen less than $250 for something like a IOGEAR GCS1782). The DVI switches don’t support dual displays unless you drop some serious cash, so that’s pretty much out of the question. This adds to the complexity. Is building a KVM for DVI really that much more difficult to warrant the price difference? Or is it simply there aren’t enough in the market to drive the price down?

When should I start this? What system should I target first? Which should that system replace? Who the hell knows. I’m thinking later next year. It’s not so much a “plan” as an idea. I know I need to upgrade to more modern hardware since I won’t be able to run Mac OS X 10.6, and XP is getting to me. Both use 2.5″ ATA/100 drives which are becoming hard to find, and even when you find them are pretty small. Both are maxed out in RAM.

I’ll likely retire the Thinkpad to just for travel and other silliness, and perhaps save the G4 mac mini for some diabolical scheme. Apple even alludes to some of the possibilities on it’s site (see “Big Ideas” on the right rail of the Mac mini page).

It gets surprisingly complicated when you want it all and have it fit on your desk.

Jared Lives

Jared - Butcherer Of SongsI didn’t even realize that this is still around. Back in the mid 90’s Jared was iconic for Mac users, distributed through the crazy folks at Freeverse. Apparently they kept it going for a decade. There’s a Mac OS X version, a Dashboard widget, and even a new iPhone Application.

That brought back some memories. The iPhone’s CPU even underclocked to 412Mhz is way faster than the PPC 603e @ 75MHz I used when I first damaged my ear drums listening to Jared. And that was a full desktop.

To see something this silly last so long is funny itself. I hope Jared has a job that’s not in the music industry. I wonder if he served as insporation for William Hung?

Bonus: You can find the lyrics, english translation, and a brief history of the song Luna de Xelajú on wikipedia!

WWDC 2008 Predictions

And the a tradition continues. Here’s my predictions for WWDC 2008. Steve Jobs will announce the following:

iPhone 3G

Well duh. At this point if it’s not at least announced, Apple’s stock is going to tank. There’s a ton of stuff to back this up including AT&T telling employees not to take vacation in the near future. And mystery shipments of presumed iPhones. I’ve got a good idea what the technical specs will likely be.

AT&T Subsidy

AT&T will likely subsidy the new iPhone when purchased with a 2 year contract to help lower the price and encourage more people to buy it. This is looking even more likely as the economy declines and potential buyers may now be more hesitant.

.mac to become me.com and mobileme.com

.mac will finally die and be replaced with me.com and mobileme.com. I suspect mobileme.com will be free for iPhone users. me.com may be paid if Apple does it in-house, or free if they contract the functionality out to someone like Google (which is likely).

Mac OS X 10.6 Insights

I don’t think we’ll see it until at least late 2009, more likely early 2010, and I doubt Steve will suggest any faster of a timeline. Remember after 10.3 the plan was slower OS releases. I suspect it will stay that way. I don’t think Apple likes the idea of two Mac OS X branches, the mobile and desktop one. I suspect 10.6 will be an effort to “unify” the platform at least from a marketing perspective. Starting from WWDC 2008 onwards I suspect a “Mac OS X powered phone” will be more common branding. Again Apple’s goal is to sell computers. Using the iPhone as a method to sell the desktop experience is pretty obvious. But what does that mean for the OS? Likely a lot of focus on things like Sync, the future of tech (64bit, multi-core, intel) and blurring the distinction between phone and computer. I don’t think we’ll see much more than a little eye candy and some buzz words considering we’re not far from Leopards release. Just enough to get the press talking about it.

New Desktops / Laptops

I don’t think Apple plans any desktop/laptop announcements just yet, I suspect they will hold off until August as tradition. At that point pretty much all of Apple’s computer lines are due for a major overhaul. I suspect the MacBook Pro may be the first to experience a major design change. Apple desperately needs a mid-range tower to build more market share as the Mac mini is under powered and the Mac Pro is very expensive. If anything is announced I suspect it will be just that.

Special Guests

No idea who the special guests will be. If the new iPhone is based on Atom, I suspect an Intel Exec. Other than that, really don’t know. Likely an iPhone developer or two will make an appearance during the iPhone Apps part. No clue on musical guest.

So there you have it. We’ll see Monday what I got right.

ANSI Color In Mac OS X 10.4

By default when connecting over ssh to my Mac OS X 10.4 box (using bash shell), there’s no ANSI color. Sometimes it’s pretty handy to have. I keep forgetting how to turn it on.

To add, put the following in the .profile file in your home directory:

TERM=xterm-color; export TERM

Now when I ssh in, I get ANSI color goodness.

Hopefully next time I’ll just look for this post.