AirPort Utility 6 lets you see your wireless network
The visualization feature in the new version of Airport Utility makes it easier to deal with your network.
Special to The Seattle Times
A new version of AirPort Utility makes it easier to visualize your Wi-Fi network, so long as all of your base stations were purchased in 2007 or later and are all made by Apple.
The latest release, version 6, launches with a graphical depiction of your network layout, whether you have just a single base station connected to a broadband modem, or many devices connected to each other wirelessly or via Ethernet..
The new release works only under Lion (Mac OS X 10.7), and only with Apple's 802.11n hardware, which the company started shipping in 2007. Apple pulled a number of advanced configuration options and a few legacy alternatives — items needed only for the older 802.11g or even 802.11b models — from this latest release.
But in an interesting move, Apple is still supporting the previous version of AirPort Utility. After installing version 6 in Lion, you can download version 5.6 and have it installed as well. Version 5.6 was updated for Lion, and version 5.5.3 also remains active for Leopard (10.5) and Snow Leopard (10.6) users. Even though Apple also put out firmware updates for all its 802.11n devices (to add iCloud support for remote access), the version 5 releases can still configure updated base stations.
If you need features found in version 5, you can stick with it indefinitely; if you don't, and you'd like the benefit of a network visualization, switch to 6. You also need version 6 if you want to link your base station using an Apple ID registered to use the free iCloud service to access your router or any files on an internal or external drive attached to the router.
iCloud, launched last fall, includes Back to My Mac support. With a Lion system using an iCloud account with Back to My Mac enabled, you can reach the base station outside the local network with little fuss. Some Internet providers are set up in a way that blocks this access, but seemingly very few these days. (MobileMe is still supported in AirPort Utility 5, but MobileMe shuts down on June 30, and you can't sign up for new MobileMe accounts.)
When you launch AirPort Utility 6, the program sorts out the relationships between the various parts that comprise your network. On my home network, I have three base stations. One is connected to the broadband modem, and two are connected via Ethernet to that main base station. Wired links are shown as solid lines, and wireless ones are dotted.
Each base station has a virtual status light in the program, which lets you see at a glance if there's a problem. The Internet, shown as a globe, also has status information. Click any icon in the display, and the program reveals basic information to help with troubleshooting, devices connected to a base station, or the IP address and DNS server addresses set for your Internet connection. (For a full walk-through of the new utility, I recorded a 15-minute screencast that you can youtu.be/8gKG0oa8Cp0">view on YouTube at youtu.be/8gKG0oa8Cp0 or search for AirPort Utility 6.0 Walkthrough.)
The graphical display should also help sort out a thorny problem I hear about constantly from readers. Apple lets you connect base stations via Ethernet, as I have done on my home network. Ethernet is the most reliable way to connect network devices, but requires that you run wire around your home or office, or have it installed in the walls with outlet plates.
That's why wireless hookups between base stations are popular. Apple's supports something known as Wireless Distribution System (WDS), although it removed that three-letter abbreviation from AirPort Utility years ago. Before 2007, Apple required that you enter the unique number associated with each base station's Wi-Fi radio on every base station that was part of a WDS network. It was tedious.
With 802.11n, Apple adopted a dynamic method of WDS in which each base station "hears" the others and starts talking. You set one base station to "create a wireless network" (now in the utility's Wireless view in the Network Mode pop-up menu). The rest are set to "extend a wireless network," choosing the network name of the main base station. That's all you have to do.
The graphical display in AirPort Utility 6 can't fix the physical side of the equation, but it does provide visual feedback as to whether each base station has formed a connection with the other. If not, you need to move base stations closer together or around obstructions.
Not everyone loves AirPort Utility 6, because they think Apple took away necessary features, even if they can't recall whether they used those options. For most people, the graphical display more than makes up the difference.
Glenn Fleishman writes the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to email@example.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists