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Using Apple's mobile AirPort Utility

For more than a decade, the only reasonable way to configure Apple’s AirPort Wi-Fi equipment was through a software package the company provided for Mac OS X (and, several years ago, for Windows). Unlike other wireless base stations, Apple chose to avoid a Web-based interface as an option for configuration. That’s a perfectly fine approach, though it can prove problematic if the only way to get to the Internet to download said utility would be by configuring a base station.

That limitation is no more, however. As part of the outburst of cord cutting that came with last week’s release of iOS 5, Lion 10.7.2, and iCloud, Apple also pushed out an iOS version of AirPort Utility that has nearly the same functionality as the desktop flavor. The mobile app is missing just some advanced configuration options and diagnostics that are typically required only by system administrators and early adopters.

While it’s unlikely you would have a home or office without a single computer, the app still makes it possible to configure a network without having to install AirPort Utility anywhere. You can also use AirPort Utility for iOS to set up and manage a network for someone else—such as my senior-citizen next-door neighbor, who has an iPad and a Wi-Fi network, but not a computer.

You can launch the app directly, or access via the Settings app, where you’ll find it below any active Wi-Fi connection’s configuration details in the Wi-Fi Networks section. Just tap the Manage This Network button.

Graphic Depictions

The first thing you see when you launch AirPort Utility for iOS on an existing network with multiple base stations is what I’ve been wanting in the desktop version for years: a graphical schematic (with accurate icons for each variety of hardware) that shows network topology. Topology defines the connections among devices, and as the author of books about Wi-Fi and AirPort since 2002, having a program present a visualization of your network before you even dive into troubleshooting or extending it is a godsend.

The app shows the correct hierarchy and differentiates between wired and wireless links. My home network is currently set up with three base stations, all of which obtain private addresses via DHCP from a cable modem to which they are connected via Ethernet. This is neatly depicted as a giant globe for the Internet, with solid lines linking it to the three base stations. Note that a green dot appears next to the Internet if it’s available, and next to each properly configured base station. That dot turns yellow with errors and red with show-stopping problems, such as a dead Internet feed.

On more complicated networks, the illustration becomes much more useful. In a screen capture provided by Apple in the App Store, a network is shown in which a main base station connected to broadband in turn provides network access (and DHCP-assigned addresses) via a wireless link, shown as a dotted line, and a wired Ethernet connection. The illustration is hierarchical, with the Internet on the top layer, followed by the coordinating base station, and then the others. I’m dying to see what a network with 50 base stations looks like—you can pinch and expand to pan around the network graphic.

Tap any icon to reveal information. Tap the Internet, and it shows the current network status, IP address, DNS servers, and the domain name if one’s assigned. Tap a base station and you’re prompted for a password, which is stored in the app. (On the iPhone, this is a subsequent screen. On the iPad, a pop-over menu is used instead.) Once the password is accepted, you can get into reviewing or changing the device settings in earnest.

The main screen for a base station shows its IP address, serial number (useful for AppleCare service or questions), the current firmware release installed, its network name, and the number of attached wireless clients if any are connected. Tap the firmware’s version number, and you can update the access point to a newer release or revert it to a previous one. Tap the network name and a further screen reveals the network encryption method (such as WPA/WPA2 Personal), and the channel or channels over which Wi-Fi is in use.

The Wireless Clients section is useful only for the exceedingly gearheaded. Tap once, and you'll see a list of clients. On a base station that's providing addresses via DHCP to wireless clients, you'll see either the internal IP address or DHCP Client ID. Base stations that are bridging address assignments from an ISP or from another base station on the network will see a list of clients by hexadecimal dotted-sextet MAC (Media Access Control) address. (That's a series of numbers and letters assigned to Wi-Fi and Ethernet adapters; they reveal little on their own.)

Tap a client in the list, and you see a connection label that describes the connection with words like Average or Excellent. Tap that description—we’re in deep now, boys—and the technical values for the data rate, noise factor, and 802.11 protocol employed are revealed. Like I said—for gearheads. (In Mac OS X, launch the Network preference pane, select the Wi-Fi adapter, and click Advanced, and its MAC address is shown as Wi-Fi Address at the bottom. On an iOS device, open Settings, tap General -> About, and scroll down to Wi-Fi Address.)

That’s all the prelude to the real meat. Back up at the top level of a base station, after you select it in the graphical view, tap Edit, and you may configure at will. The app divides configuration into four parts: Base Station, Network, Internet Connection, and Advanced, and we shall review each in turn. These divisions don’t precisely match up with the desktop utility’s organization, and omit many settings.

Base Station and Internet

These two areas of the app are the simplest to use. A base station has its own name separate from that of the network, and access to its configuration is protected by a password. Tap Base Station to change its name or password. If you’re setting up a new base station, I recommend picking something distinctive, such as “Downstairs Express” so that you can easily identify the router by name.

The Internet section is likewise straightforward. You pick among DHCP, Static, or PPPoE for the way in which the base station obtains an address or talks to a broadband router. This is typically DHCP for home users.

Network and Guest Network

Network contains most of the wireless options available in the app; most of the settings here are found in the AirPort view of the Mac version of the utility. From the Network screen, you can set the Wi-Fi mode, change security methods, name the network, change its encryption (access) password, and opt to hide the network in a somewhat useless way.

For most networks, the Wi-Fi Mode is set to Create a Wireless Network. You choose Extend a Wireless Network when you’re connecting multiple base stations via Wi-Fi instead of Ethernet. The Security item lets you choose the form of encryption you want to use to restrict connections to this base station (or—not recommended—no encryption at all). If you choose a method that requires a password, you must enter that once in the Password field and then identically in the Verify field for the app to accept it. The general recommendation is to use WPA2 Personal for networks involving hardware from 2003 and later, and WPA/WPA2 Personal if you have any older devices.

The Hide Network switch prevents the base station from broadcasting its name—a so-called “closed network”—although in practice this provides nearly no additional security.

The Guest Network switch in the main Edit screen appears only if the base station is set to provide IP addresses to clients, but it will not appear if either DHCP or NAT are turned off—Apple relies on these two (related) address-handling features to make guest networking work. Tap the Guest Network button, and then on the next screen, tap the Guess Network switch to turn it on. You may modify the default network name for the guest network, and set a password that guests need to use to join it. Users of the guest network can access only the Internet—they don't have access to the rest of your network.

Advanced

Options from various parts of the desktop utility are consolidated in this part of the mobile app. As a guide to those that know the desktop software well, these are (referring to the desktop utility):

  • Some of the Wireless tab’s settings in the AirPort view, including options found via the Wireless Network Options button
  • The Access Control tab of the AirPort view
  • The DHCP and NAT tabs of the Internet view
  • The Printers and Disks views (but not all options)
  • The Port Mapping tab in the Advanced view

The most likely option you’ll want to set is found by tapping DHCP and NAT. If the Provide Addresses switch is se to On, the Reservations item lets you force the base station to assign a particular IP address to each hardware client on the network, instead of allowing the base station to assign any address that’s available.

To set up a fixed address, tap Reservations, then tap New Reservation at the bottom of the list. Enter a Description, like “Glenn’s Mac Pro,” and then tap Reserve Address by. You can either enter the device's MAC address, found on a computer or iOS device as described earlier, or use a Client ID. (The Client ID is entered in Mac OS X in the Network preference pane by selecting an adapter from the list on the left, clicking the Advanced button, and then clicking the TCP/IP tab—you enter the ID text into the Client ID field. On an iOS device, the Client ID can be set via the Settings app: Tap Wi-Fi, then tap the blue details triangle next to a connected Wi-Fi network. Scroll down to the Client ID field and enter the name you wish to assign.) You then enter the specific IP address you want the base station to assign to the device.

Also in the Advanced screen, those who need to tweak radio settings when configuring a simultaneous dual-band base station will be happy to find the capability to choose a Radio Mode (for which 802.11 standards will be used); choose the channel for one or two bands, as available; and name the 5 GHz network differently from the 2.4GHz network.

Less useful is the File Sharing and Disks section, which only lets you turn file sharing on and off, but not erase a disk or archive a Time Capsule volume. And entirely missing are controls to associate MobileMe or iCloud accounts with Back to My Mac for remote access.

Neckbearded suspenders wearers may further be peeved that IPv6, system logs, and time zone configuration require use of the desktop program.

The last word

For the majority of purposes, the free AirPort Utility app will make it simpler to set up base stations and fix problems without requiring you to have a Mac with the right software handy at your fingertips. This is especially useful when a router is in an inconvenient location where hauling a laptop may be hazardous to its well being and yours, such as in the rafters or crawl space of your house or business.

Glenn Fleishman is a senior contributor to Macworld, and author of numerous books on wireless networking. The most recent is Take Control of Your 802.11 AirPort Network, updated for Lion, including advice on AirDrop.


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