Why MacBooks suck for Internet

Dan Warne
7 January, 2008
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The MacBook range is second-rate for internet access, and it’s high time Apple did something about it.

OK, perhaps that’s a bit unfair. On WiFi or Ethernet, the MacBook is a fine internet access device — Draft 802.11n and all that — but what if you’re out on the road?

In an era when just about every notebook manufacturer offers several models with inbuilt mobile broadband capabilities, Apple’s notebooks are notably devoid of this handy option.

Sure, you can get a variety of USB devices from all the mobile networks, but the driver issues with these are usually a bit of a nightmare, not to mention the fact that having a fat, ugly dongle sticking out from one of your USB ports (or, worse, a soap-on-a-rope type lozenge hanging from the side) is just not Mac-like.

The argument that mobile broadband is only for the rich corporate exec with a black American Express card doesn’t hold up any more. With Three currently offering 1GB usage a month for $14.50 and Vodafone and Optus offering 5GB for $40, mobile broadband is not only a good option for people who need access out and about, but actually a good alternative to a home ADSL connection, if it’s just your own laptop that you need connected.

Apple could make life so much easier for customers if it offered an integrated HSDPA module as a BTO option for people ordering MacBooks.

The MacBook Pro is marginally better since it comes with an ExpressCard slot, and there are actually some mobile broadband ExpressCards that work well on Mac. For example, OS X natively supports the Merlin XU870 (sold in Australia by Three), and if you download the latest Sierra Wireless drivers, the Sierra Wireless Aircard 880E (sold in Australia by BigPond Wireless).

However, configuring the cards requires a PhD in massaging the Mac OS X dialup networking configuration to connect to mobile networks. And you still have the problem of having to plug something in to the notebook every time you want to get internet access through your mobile ISP. It’s just a sucky, un-Mac-like experience.

Yes, Apple does face the problem that different countries use different sorts of mobile networks. For example, while Australia uses the world’s fastest mobile broadband technology — HSDPA — much of the US is still using the old EV-DO system which is based on CDMA technology. To access HSDPA or EV-DO, you need totally different hardware for each network. However, this challenge is one faced by every PC maker, and Intel has made it easy to deal with via its Mini-PCI architecture for notebooks, which allows broadband components to be easily swapped depending on the country a notebook is being shipped into.

With integrated mobile hardware that would be natively supported by OS X (let’s call it AirPort Mobile), Apple could provide the software setup ease-of-use it is famous for.

My only hope is that if Apple does see the light and add this to its range, it won’t lock the hardware to a certain carrier in each country. It’s one thing to sell the iPhone cheaply and lock it to a certain carrier to pay off the true cost of the device, but it’s another thing to force a laptop owner to subscribe to a certain service.

Apple’s nemesis, Dell, has worked out a reasonable compromise here: it still strikes deals with networks, but offers customers a choice of network when they order the notebook. Apple should, at very least, consider this model too, or better, ship the notebook "unlocked", to be used on a network of the user’s choice.

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