Apple's 802.11n software now available

The $1.99 software needed to unlock fast Wi-Fi chips shipped with Macs last year is released, along with a new access point.

Apple on Tuesday released the software needed to unlock the fast Wi-Fi chips inside almost every one of its new Macs.

At Macworld earlier this month, CEO Steve Jobs revealed that certain Macs were shipped with a fast 802.11n chip inside, but the chip was disabled until the standard was more complete. The company subsequently said it would charge $1.99 to unlock that capability, or Mac users could buy a new 802.11n Airport Extreme Base Station with the needed software.

Both products are now available, because the industry is more comfortable with the current draft of the standard, said David Moody, vice president of worldwide Mac product marketing. The software enabler can be purchased from the Apple Store, and the $179 base station is also available online. It should show up in Apple stores over the next few days, the company said.

Based on Apple's tests, the 802.11n standard should allow connection speeds five times faster than 802.11g networks with twice the range, said Jai Chulani, senior product manager at Apple. The company tested the performance of its notebooks connected to its Airport Extreme base station to come up with those numbers, so results may vary in mixed environments. But as long as you have 802.11n on both sides of the connection, any vendor's products will deliver better results than 802.11g networks because of the MIMO (multiple in, multiple out) antenna technology used by the standard.

Apple's 802.11n upgrade fee provoked a controversy after the company claimed it was required by accounting rules to charge users for the software enabler. Accounting experts later clarified that Apple was forced to surprise users with the charge because it booked all the revenue upfront from sales of the Macs with the 802.11n chips, and because it didn't tell users at the time of purchase that they would need to spend $1.99 to unlock that chip.

The company is getting the software out a little earlier than promised, however. Jobs said at Macworld that the software would ship in February. All Mac notebooks with Intel's Core 2 Duo chip have the 802.11n chip. Mac Pro desktops with the Airport Extreme option and all the iMac models--except for the entry-level iMac with a 1.83GHz Core 2 Duo chip--also come with the faster Wi-Fi chip. The enabling software can be used on more than one Mac inside a home network, Moody said.

Other companies have released notebooks with 802.11n chips, such as Lenovo, Dell and Gateway, but Apple has the technology inside all of its notebooks available now, a company representative said.

The Wi-Fi Alliance is expected to start certifying products based on the 802.11n draft standard relatively soon. A final version of the standard is expected to become available later this year, and current products will likely--but not definitely--only require a software update to comply with the final standard, Chulani said.

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