The MacBook's mysterious WiFi dropout problem is still unsolved

Summary:Despite Apple's recent spate of Airport updates, complaints on discussion boards keep climbing over long-standing problems with MacBooks and MacBook Pros holding their WiFi connection. While the WiFi technology chain is complex and problems can be transient, Apple is taking a quality-assurance beating on this issue.

The MacBook’s mysterious WiFi dropout problem is still unsolved
Despite Apple's recent spate of Airport updates, complaints on discussion boards keep climbing over long-standing problems with MacBooks and MacBook Pros holding their WiFi connection. While the WiFi technology chain is complex and problems can be transient, Apple is taking a quality-assurance beating on this issue.

Several readers pinged me following my report of problems following this week's release of Security Update 2008-002 and the fixing of AirDisk backups with the Airport Extreme Firmware 7.3.1 patch. The problem is happening with older MacBooks and MacBook Pros as well as the revised models that shipped this quarter.

The problem is that the notebooks can't maintain a connection. And sometimes the connection will drop even though the wireless signal icon remains full. It's maddening to persons affected. Some persons found that the problem started with the Mac OS X 10.5.2 Update, however, others reported the problem back in the fall with the Leopard release.

At the same time, some users running Tiger also report the same behavior.

Here's what a person with the handle Homer-O said in late February on Apple's Support Discussion Boards:

Same problems as above. New MacBook, bought 1 month ago. Downloaded 10.5.1 straight away and then 10.5.2. In brief, my downloads would hang intermittently ... download the first 50 percent or so of a page and then ... take ... forever.... to ... download ... the ..... remaining ... 50 percent.

When this happened my WiFi signal would drop to 3 bars (even though I was sitting 5 feet from my wireless router). Called Apple, they said it was my D-Link router. So I went out and bought a NetGear. Same problem. Ethernet works fine on the Mac, and PCs connected via wireless worked fine.

This poster is a switcher from Windows and ended his post with this evaluation of the brand:

This is my first Mac after having spent all my time with PCs (Tandy TSR-80 was my first). Unless something changes I can't imagine recommending Apple to a friend or ever buying it again, as I am just waiting for this one to crump out, leaving me stuck with crappy wireless.

As one might expect, there's also been a variety of experiences with Apple support over the issue. Some users are pointed to the router manufacturer and told that Apple has no knowledge of the issue, even though there are at least a half dozen long threads on its own support boards and many others around the Web.

On the Apple Support Boards, a user with the handle Caleb K. in Singapore was in rant mode.

In the first place, don't we all have a right to a working machine, considering we bloody well paid for it?! Why do we have to resort to finding workarounds and self-fixes for problems that should not even be present? Having wireless access (to your own home wireless network, mind you) is not a high expectation - on the contrary, it is BASIC!

Apple, I don't know what you are up to, and I don't know why so many of your loyal customers have ended up with what seem like lemons rather than apples. Please at least get back to us with some REAL news that you are working on a fix here. (And hopefully the fix won't be another case of 10.5.2 where the problem got worse.)

One problem with a technology like wireless is that it's very complicated and there are lots of places for trouble to hide in the techno-chain. This dropout issue could be on the wireless card or implementation in hardware on MacBook . Or it could be in Mac OS X. Or in the driver. Or it could be in the firmware on the router. Or it could even be someting in the environment — where you are computing. Or most likely, it could be in the interaction of some or all of these things.

I noticed several workarounds in the boards. Here are a few easy things to try:

Forget 802.11N. A number of posts suggested that moving backwards to 802.11G or 802.11B fixes the problem. Of course, it's not as fast as the N mode. You must set your wireless router to the slower mode.

Check the WiFi channel. Some users said that other wireless routers in the neighborhood appeared to be causing interference that can bother the MacBook.

Gedeon Maheux, a designer, reported the problem on his blog in late Feb.

Being at the end of a dead-end street, I always assumed we were pretty isolated from interference from other networks. When we first moved in, my Airport network was alone in the neighborhood. But sure enough, a quick check with AP Grapher this week revealed between 6 to 8 other WiFi networks. After a walk around the development, and chatting with neighbors, I was able to create a rough map of the wireless networks that surround our home.

After checking what channels his neighbors were on, he set his Airport network to broadcast on channel 9 and found that the problems stopped.

If you are able to manually set your wireless network channel to something that avoids the channels of those around you, this should do the trick. I foresee a time in the very near future however when the 11 channels currently used by WiFI in the United States just won’t be enough. Hopefully, refinements in 802.11 technology (or something completely new) will stay one step ahead of the problem and keep us all up and running. Case closed baby!

Check WiFi interference from other devices. Mark Hardee on the MacFixit Forums found a problem with his phone.

Had this happen the other night and FINALLY figured it was my wireless phones conflicting. Had signal - had my wife pick up and dial phone - signal gone! Hang up phone - signal back.

I reset the channel used on router and - problem gone.

Move from WPA security to WEP. Several posts suggested this worked. WEP isn't as good, but there you go.

Update your router firmware. This has improved things for some readers and not for others, and sometimes made things worse. Flip a coin here.

Change the fragmentation rate. One Jed02 in the Apple Support Boards said he changed the fragmentation threshold and the frame threshold (RTS) to 2306 on his wireless router and that did the trick. Others in the thread said that worked as well. And for others, it didn't.

There's no good answer here, just give these suggestions a try. Certainly, back up before installing any update on your machine. And some of these issues are good to check anyway, such as the channel your wireless router is on.

As I mentioned in a previous post on the AirDisk, Apple is continuing to work its way into some of the deeper, bad bugs in Leopard. Some of these involve networking and that's always tricky.

At the same time, Apple should own up to this problem and give customers some hope. There have been such problems in the past (for example, remember when FireWire hard drives broke) and they were fixed eventually, albeit after some pain.

The mixed messages from the gurus at the Apple Stores — or no message at all from phone support, e-mail support and on the discussion boards — is creating bad feelings in the community. Even if there's no date for a real fix in sight, Apple will find that no infomation is much more troubling to customers than some small scrap of acknowledgment.

BTW: Wired connections are more secure and support faster data throughput than any wireless currently available. This is especially true for file transfers and backups. Now, I have a wireless access point in my office but I rely on nice CAT6 wiring for my everyday computing.

Wire is retro but it still is better.

Topics: Apple, Hardware, Networking, Wi-Fi

About

David Morgenstern has covered the Mac market and other technology segments for 20 years. In the recent past, he founded Ziff-Davis' Storage Supersite, served as news editor for Ziff Davis Internet and held several executive editorial positions at eWEEK. In the 1990s, David was editor of Ziff Davis' award-winning MacWEEK news publication a... Full Bio

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