The MacBook's mysterious WiFi dropout problem is still unsolved

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.

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The MacBook’s mysterious WiFi dropout problem is still unsolvedDespite 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

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73 comments
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  • You forgot one solution

    Switch back to Windows.

    [i]Unless something changes I can?t imagine recommending Apple to a friend or ever buying it again[/i]

    You were lied to my friend by the very people who are going to reply to this blog with apology after apology and blaming you for all the troubles you face when you go with Apple. None of my wireless computers, running Linux, XP, and Vista have any wireless issues. I could buy the argument that Apple is a premium (expensive) closed system that controls the hardware and the software if they actually took responsibility for all the problems. I would be getting my money's worth if I could call Apple and say "My wireless isn't working, come to my house and fix it" and they did, all included in the hefty price tag I'm expected to pay for their products. I wouldn't expect them to blame my neighbors, my router, or my Windows background. If I'm not getting that for the extra money that Macs cost then I'm not getting value for my money.

    And for all of you who say that Windows also has problems with wireless, again, I'll say that [b]you[/b] set the bar to be higher for Apple. [b]You[/b] said that Apple provides for a better experience since they control the hardware and the software. [b]You[/b] said that Apple wouldn't pass the blame. Yet here we are, being told [i]Move from WPA security to WEP[/i] because there is a cure that is worse than the disease considering how unsecure WEP is. We are told [i]Update your router firmware[/i] because with Apple, it is [b]always[/b] someone else's fault. It won't matter that the router works perfectly well with Linux and Windows because when it won't work with OS X, that is the router's fault, right? Hehe, even worse, it probably worked with 10.5.1 but I'm sure it is still the router's fault that it won't work with 10.5.2! Whenever stories are told of wireless issues with Windows, the response is always the same: [i]Switch to Macs, they just work![/i] Uh huh, where are you now?
    NonZealot
    • Easily forgotten

      Why do you bother?

      That being said, I guess the Vista capable fiasco didn't happen, Vista SP1 doesn't break, and Microsoft didn't fail to deliver what was promised was going to appear in Vista.
      zkiwi
    • Odd that you should mention Linux

      [i]None of my wireless computers, running Linux, XP, and Vista have any wireless issues.[/i]

      I've been having problems with my wireless dropping out under Ubuntu (using wicd, not Network Manager). I think I'm going to ask for my money back... Oh, wait... :)
      Real World
    • Interesting

      May father has issues with his Wireless connection. He maintains wireless connectivity, but loses connectivity from his base station to RoadRunner. He only runs Windows. Guess MS should come out and troubleshoot his networking issues all of the way from his laptop back to Time Warner's infrastructure.

      If you re-read the article, man of the fixes had to do with overcoming interference from outside sources. While Apple could probably improve their implementation, to hold them responsible for every single one of these problems to the degree you do is absolutely asinine.

      Report back when you have something sonctructive and "vitriol free."
      philpenn
    • Switch Back to Windows

      "Switch back to Windows."

      So, have the manufacturers finally written 64-bit Windows drivers for N-class wireless? Because last time I checked (admittedly a few months ago), nobody had 64-bit drivers. And it would be ridiculous to have to downgrade to an OS designed for 32-bit single-core CPUs just to get decent wireless speed. That's a bit like taking your Ferrari and dropping a Yugo engine and transmission into it.
      UserLand
      • HMMM

        My D-Link wireless N adapter seems to be working pretty well with Vista Home Premium 64 Bi. But maybe I'm just lucky.
        Controlr
        • I've noticed this trend

          [i]But maybe I'm just lucky.[/i]

          100% of the time when something works with Windows, it is just "luck". 100% of the time when something doesn't work with OS X, it is because it is someone else's fault, usually Microsoft's although this time it seems to be the fault of WPA, the router, and the neighbor. :)
          NonZealot
          • That's right, blame the other guy. It's 'easy'

            [i]100% of the time when something doesn't work with OS X, it is because it is someone else's fault, usually Microsoft's although this time it seems to be the fault of WPA, the router, and the neighbor.[/i]

            Naww, say it ain't so!

            :D

            ~

            When Apple breaks something, blame Windoze. Didn't you know that? That's one of the primary tenants of SJ's RDF lesson

            C'mon, get with the fanbui program, dude....

            :D
            hasta la Vista, bah-bie
      • Switch to a working os

        make your own drivers on a real linux based system or wait
        for quirky ones on your pc from the vendor or trustworthy
        microsoft... or wait for some guy to write it in linux and have
        Apple port it fix it and use it.. and charge you for it with
        practically no ovehead cuz of why oh yeah "open-
        soure"...Have fun with your Vista or your Xp thats as old as
        playstation 2. sounds fun...Dont forget to run your avg
        antivirus anitispyware and antiroot kit PC doctor and your
        oem MacAfee
        DoSeR?
    • Bwaaaaaahhhhhaaaaaa

      "Switch back to Windows"

      Now THAT was funny!
      An Apple a Day
    • BWHAW HAW HAW HAW ... ... :D

      [i]Switch back to Windows.[/i]

      I hope it's not Vista. Even I can't defend that.

      :D
      hasta la Vista, bah-bie
    • It's possibly

      except so many people have hatred in their hearts, they'd never consider your suggestion of Windows, they'd hate you, and they already hate most other Window users for not having switched to a Mac over a decade ago. You will be flamed, and some will not want some flames throw at a Windows commentary/news story, yet it will happen. Happy Weekend.
      Boot_Agnostic
    • I'm right here! If the shoe fits.... Mac

      A Mac user here and was looking to pick up a Macbook. I will not unless this is fixed and soon. NonZealot is right on this one. So, NZ, I'm here. I want Apple to live up to their image just like you do. There is _no excuse_ for this and I'm watching to see how well Apple does. I expect it to just work... like Macs have so many times in the past for my colleagues and I.
      BTW, I still use XP as littles as possible.
      GSavage777
      • Message has been deleted.

        ýlysdexia
  • It just what?

    I still enjoy using my first Mac, a MacBook Pro, and I think that Leopard is a great operating system. But Apple couldn?t have done a better job in convincing me that ?it just works? is a slogan without merit. I spent months having to close and open by MBP every few minutes to reconnect to my home network and I have not been able to use my Air Tunes reliably since replacing my Linksys router with an AirPort Extreme until this week?s firmware update. This company doesn?t acknowledge the widespread issues with its products or react fast enough to solve them. Am I to assume that the people I have spent the past few months discussing the dropout issue with on various Mac forums and even on Apple?s own support forum have only themselves to blame? This experience has really soured me and I no longer see Apple through rose-colored glasses.
    bsvee
    • Very sorry to hear of your negative experience

      [i]This experience has really soured me and I no longer see Apple through rose-colored glasses.[/i]

      However, this is probably better for you in the long run. Of course, as you can see from all the other posters, this is somehow your fault, probably because you used a Microsoft product at some point in your life.

      Apple gets away with this because of the people who apologize for them. We need more people like you who [b]refuse[/b] to see Apple through rose-colored glasses. When (if) Apple realizes that they can't get away with this type of behavior and still have people apologize for them, Apple [b]will[/b] get better. And who wins? Funnily enough, the first people to win will be the people who are apologizing for Apple right now, right here. What irony! :)
      NonZealot
      • Funny - in a good way

        Your response is one of those "it's funny because it's true."
        I've enjoyed my recent Mac and iPhone and have had
        problems and find they have canned responses, so your reply
        gave me an immediate chuckle.

        I do hope Apple can figure out a better way to fix issues.
        They cannot allow themselves to fall into the Microsoft trap
        of making support out of solid onobtanium.
        007baf
        • right

          I think that is unobtanium though. We have recently purchased 3 MB pros for staff, one of them being my son-in-law the pastor. I am thankful for this post because I was racking my brains to try and figure out why we were having so much touble with connectivity. Obviously it's my fault even though the Vista machines work flawlessly (after driver updates of course) and we have never had problems with the XPs. My son-in-law's was very confusing. He brought it to me and I connected to my network here at the house without even a hiccup. He took it home and could not for the life of him get it to work on his network. Same ISP, Same router, same WEP (yes I said WEP) same everything except for location. I took my XP laptop down and it connected first time, no problems. After futzing around with airport for a considerable amount of time we finally got it to connect and stay connected. Don't ask me how...
          The funny thing is the older MBPro, which we bought when they came out with 10.4 never gave me any problems either, even after upgrading the OS. I think it is a hardware thing.
          Keywalker4God
      • If

        If you used a Mac, which your vitriolic diatribes against them would argue against, your posts might carry more credence. Since, however, you use every opportunity available to spew bile filled rhetoric about Mac that borders on a religious experience (the very definition of Zealot by the way), They do not have any credibility whatsoever.
        philpenn
        • NonZ has always been.....

          .....stirring the pot for the sake of riling up MAC users. I
          totally agree with you, if he even powered up a MAC and sat
          behind one for a few hours, he may have to change his
          whole "posting persona!" Ohhhhh, then what would he do for
          fun?
          An Apple a Day