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A Mac-Friendly Fix for Wimpy WiFi

By John P. Mello Jr. MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Feb 15, 2010 5:00 AM PT

Tired of "dead spots" in your WiFi coverage? How about a wireless Internet connection with crawling performance? hField Technologies has a solution it calls "Wi-Fire," and the Mac version of its software has recently been overhauled.

A Mac-Friendly Fix for Wimpy WiFi

(click image to enlarge)

Wi-Fire (US$59) is a gadget that plugs into the USB port of a computer and, according to hField, increases the range and speed of WiFi connections.

Although the gizmo works with other platforms, like Window and Linux, it has proven to be very popular in the Mac market, maintained hField Marketing Manager Blake Kleintop. "We were surprised at how overwhelmingly Mac users have adopted the Wi-Fire," he told MacNewsWorld. "People just loved it."

Mac-Like Software Needed

He acknowledged, however, that the Mac version of the software packaged with the device previously left something to be desired. "We needed to make some improvements," he admitted. "There were some isolated areas where people would use the software, and it wasn't performing as well as the hardware."

In addition, the initial software offering wasn't as Mac-like as it should have been, Kleintop confessed. "So we started from the ground up and put together something that we felt was up to the standard of our hardware and the high design standards of OS X," he explained.

The new software more closely emulates the interface for Apple's wireless technology, AirPort. "We wanted to make it familiar to anyone who's used AirPort," Kleintop observed. "If you were used to using AirPort, you could switch over and use the Wi-Fire, and you could get the benefits of that advanced hardware without a learning curve."

Triples WiFi Range

The device uses a combination of components to out-perform WiFi adapters built into computers. It has a powerful directional antenna -- built-in adapters have omnidirectional antennas -- as well as a highly sensitive receiver and proprietary software for Windows, OS X and Linux computers.

Those components translate into better range and faster speeds over internal WiFi adapters, according to hField. Typically, an internal adaptor's reception fades between 900 to 1,000 feet from an access point. By comparison, WiFire's reception extends beyond 3,000 feet before petering out.

Better range means faster speeds, hField maintains. At 200 feet from an access point, the throughput for typical internal adapters is around 14 megabits per second (Mbps), while for Wi-Fire, it's nearly twice as fast, close to 28 Mbps. At 900 feet, the discrepancy is starker, with an internal adaptor's speed at below 3.5 Mbps and Wi-Fire's at about 24 Mbps.

"The Wi-Fire is a directional adapter," Kleintop explained. "It looks in a very limited beamed width, so you're not picking up extraneous signals in the area. You can focus in on the ones you want."

Omnidirectional antennas, like those used by internal adapters, listen in a 360-degree radius, he noted. That forces the radio in the adapter to work harder to identify the appropriate information packets during a wireless session. With a directional antenna, like the one in the WiFire, you can direct your listening to the most powerful source of a WiFi signal. "Then you're not listening to as much noise and maintain a stronger signal," Kleintop observed.

Low Power Overhead

Although Wi-Fire provides better WiFi performance, he asserted that it does so without significantly affecting battery life. "It draws nominally more power than an internal adapter," he said.

Predicting WiFi ranges is tricky, he admitted, because it's subject to a number of variables. If you're in an open field -- not a common condition -- the range is very good; in a building with steel walls, not so good.

"I've got a MacBook Pro," he said. "It's beautiful, but it's made out of aluminum. Radio antennas tend to not to work well when they're encased in aluminum, which is another reason the Wi-Fire is nice to have if you have a Mac."

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