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How to Build a Mac Home Network

How to Build a Mac Home Network

Apple users who want to network their homes with Mac products have plenty of options at their disposal. An Airport Extreme can serve as the wireless hub, or a Time Capsule can act as both a router and a repository of backup data. From there, you can add Macs, an Apple TV, an Airport Express, an iPhone, an iPod touch, and plenty of cross-device functionality for slinging media and data from room to room.

Most home networks are cobbled together without a lot of forethought about which devices are used to create it. For most, the decision is basically to use whatever their service provider shipped in a cardboard box. Whether they're going for wireless or wired, homeowners often haven't thought through their options. For Mac-using homes, however, the options for a home network are pretty easy, though not exactly always straightforward. So what if someone wanted to build an all-Apple home wireless network from the ground up?

What are the pieces and parts? Where are the choices? And how do all the devices in the Apple universe talk to each other?

Start With the Router

First of all, you should know that the initial cost of an Apple home network isn't the cheapest way to go. Whenever there's an Apple product, you can usually find a similar product that costs quite a bit less. Why Apple, then? Apple products come with legendary ease-of-use and tend to be very reliable.

So, starting with the router: Newer Internet service contracts come with the option to get a wireless router sold or rented by the service provider to the homeowner. Cable comes with a cable modem, DSL with a DSL modem, etc., and newer technologies like Verizon's FiOS or ClearWire's WiMax come with their own built-in router systems that will broadcast an 802.11-based wireless network.

This is the cheapest way to go, and they pretty much all let you create an 802.11g (fast and new) or 802.11n (faster and newer, up to 5 times faster than 802.11g) wireless network. 802.11b or 802.11a, by the way, are older wireless network specs, but they are still used often.

Almost all the WiFi routers supplied by ISPs let you attach a different WiFi router to it, letting you simply run the ISP's unit as a wired router. The point is, in setting up your all-Apple network, you'll keep this initial router and use it as your front-line connection to the service provider's Internet pipe. You just won't bother using the built-in WiFi function.

In the Apple world, the WiFi decision really comes down to two base units: an AirPort Extreme or a Time Capsule.

The Extreme vs. Time Capsule

The AirPort Extreme is basically an 802.11n router that's also compatible with 802.11a/b/g networks. The Time Capsule is essentially the same thing, but it includes a built-in hard drive that's created specifically to be used with Apple's Mac OS X-based Time Machine backup solution. But first, the benefits of both units:

Either choice will let you attach an external USB hard drive that anyone on your home network will be able to connect to. This is handy for sharing, storing and backing up files, as well as storing shared iPhoto libraries and the like. If you attach a printer to either unit, you can also enable each Mac in your house to wirelessly connect to the printer and use it for printing. The security and setup is very similar, and the key difference is in setting up Time Machine to use the Time Capsule's disk. (Of course, there are some workarounds and networking gymnastics that experienced pros can implement, but this article is geared for home network newbies that want to stay on the beaten path.)

The Airport Extreme and Time Capsules are also compatible with PCs, so just because you're going all-Apple, it doesn't mean you've got to be an Apple bigot to your PC-lovin' friends.

What's really nice about Apple's "WiFi-plus-external-hard-drive-plus-external-printer" set of options is the series' easy-to-understand walkthrough screens that Apple directs users through as they set up their home networks. A program called "AirPort Disk Utility" gives you the setup options. For instance, you can make a connected hard drive available whenever you connect to your network, or set up password-protected accounts, or allow read-only access to specific files or folders. One word of caution, though: Some USB hard drives (sold by third parties) will power down and go to sleep. What's this mean? Occasionally a drive won't appear to be available ... but it's just sleeping. This isn't exactly Apple's fault, and while it saves on power and drive life, it can be irritating. Some drives will require you to push a button to wake it up. This is one reason, by the way, that the AirPort Extreme doesn't immediately support wireless Time Machine backups. The Time Capsule, for instance, can wake up its internal hard drive all by itself.

Enter the Airport Express

As if two primary WiFi choices weren't enough, Apple also offers the AirPort Express. This little 802.11n WiFi wonder fits in the palm of your hand and has enough power to run a home network, but it also excels on the road -- take it to a hotel or friend's house, and you can use it to create or extend a wireless network. It's quite handy, but it's also largely unnecessary for most Mac-based households.

Still, it does let you connect to an AirPort Extreme or Time Capsule to stream music from your iTunes-based playlist, which is sitting somewhere on your Mac in your home but is not directly connected to your stereo or speaker system. Say you've got an iMac in your kitchen, and you want to listen to music in your garage. Simply place an AirPort Express in your garage and plug in some speakers. Now the playlists on your iMac can stream to the garage -- or bathroom or wherever you want to put the AirPort Express.

But Wait, It's Way Cooler Than That

If you've got an iPhone or iPod touch -- and odds are, if you want an Apple-based network, you do have one of these touchscreen devices -- you can download a free Remote application from the Apple iTunes App Store. The Remote app lets you choose which iTunes-based library you want to play songs from, and it then lets you choose which speakers you want to stream songs to. The Remote app lets you browse music and movies in Apple's "coverflow" menu system, as well as control the volume of the songs.

But can you just connect your iPod or iPhone to external speakers around your house? You bet. While an AirPort Express is sort of portable, it's not as portable as an iPhone or iPod touch -- and you can't take an AirPort Express to the beach (unless you're home is on beach front property). Still, you've got the option to use it as a streaming music device or extender for a shared wireless printer.

More Decisions?

Apple's three WiFi products will also broadcast in 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz frequencies. Why is this important? If a close neighbor already has a WiFi network running on one of those frequencies -- or you have phones or baby monitors running on those frequencies -- you can direct your primary WiFi traffic to the unused frequency. It can get even more complicated. What if you have an old Mac laptop that has an old and slow 802.11b wireless card, but you also have newer Macs or PCs that run with 802.11g or 802.11n wireless cards?

The AirPort Extreme and Time Capsule will let you run in mixed modes that accept all traffic, but it can also limit you to the least common denominator of traffic, meaning your Time Capsule might be limited to slower speeds. For most Internet browsing, this doesn't matter, but when your Time Capsule is backing up your Macs via Time Machine and downloading a movie via iTunes, you want your wireless traffic flying invisibly through your home at the fast 802.11n speeds.

Fortunately, Apple provides a PDF-based guide, "Designing AirPort Networks Using AirPort Utility," that can help novices set up more complicated networks that, for example, help you keep a faster WiFi signal for newer Macs while running a slower channel for older Macs or PCs.

Enter the Apple TV

To extend your Mac experience to the living room's HDTV, the Apple TV is the device of choice. It's basically a souped-up media extender. It connects to a Mac (or PC) via iTunes, which is the application that lets you choose which movies, television shows, podcasts, songs, and photos you want to either store directly on your Apple TV's built-in hard drive or stream over your wireless network from a connected Mac to the Apple TV ... and onto your HDTV's glorious screen.

So how do you connect the Apple TV?

It's easy. Connect it via HDMI or component cables to your television, then plug the power cord in. There's no on or off switch, so it just starts up. Follow the on-screen prompts to connect to your AirPort Extreme or Time Capsule -- you need your network name and password -- and boom, you're off and running. The next step is to pair the Apple TV with an iTunes library on your Mac or PC, and that basically entails opening iTunes and running back and forth through your house from your Mac to your living room while you fetch and input a code number. It's not hard, but it does prevent your Apple TV from attaching to your neighbor's iTunes library.

While you're at it, if you're an Apple fan, you can input your iTunes account information and use your Apple TV to buy or rent movies and TV shows -- no getting off the couch required.

As previously mentioned, the iPod touch and iPhone can run the free Apple Remote application. This cool app can also be used with an Apple TV -- and it uses your wireless home network to communicate.

The iPod touch and iPhone, however, don't communicate wirelessly with your Mac or PC ... syncing is still done via a USB cord. Still, you can download apps from Apple's app store, using your WiFi network, without going through a Mac first.

Back to Time Machine

Once your Time Capsule is set up and you connect to your wireless network, Mac OS X will prompt you to set up Time Machine to use the Time Capsule and start backing up.

Generally, you'll want to set up the first backup to run overnight, and while you can do it wirelessly, some people choose to string an Ethernet cord between the Mac and the Time Capsule for optimum speed. Any way you cut it, it takes hours to move 200 GB of data. Once you complete the initial backup, Time Machine automatically reaches out to the Time Capsule and sends over any new or changed data from your Mac.


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