Developer: hField Technologies, Inc.
Requirements: Mac OS X 10.3 or 10.4 (not yet compatible with 10.5). Universal.
Ever since Apple’s engineers had the brilliant idea of enclosing their laptops’ wireless antennas in a metal case, there have been third-party solutions for improving the wireless range of Apple’s various laptops. The Wi-Fire, a directional, high-gain 802.11 antenna by hField Technologies that runs off of a free USB port, purports to be one such device.
There’s only one problem: it doesn’t work.
Oh, you can connect the silly-looking panel to any USB-equipped Mac and dangle it off the top of the screen or monitor. You can even point it at your router using the directional arrow on top of the antenna casing.
But what you can’t do is actually use it to connect to a network.
There are at least two different software versions available, one of which shipped on CD with the device. The other is available for download at hField’s Web site. The CD version of the software, which is more recent, is marginally more functional than the Web version.
Neither version would allow a PowerBook running Mac OS X 10.4.11 to connect to a network, and both versions caused kernel_task to start eating all available CPU cycles. The Web version hung the SystemUIServer immediately on boot, causing the menu bar to freeze. The CD version’s monitor and configuration application hung on every quit, requiring multiple attempts to force-quit the application before it finally went away.
The Web version wouldn’t even let the Wi-Fire see my router, sitting six feet away from the computer with no walls or anything else in between them. At least the CD version could see it, if not connect to it.
At the heart of the Wi-Fire is a Zydas ZD1211b chipset. As far as I can tell, Zydas was bought by Atheros, which seemingly last updated the driver in July 2006 and now no longer offers it for download. (I apologize for the vagueness of the information here, but none of the companies actually involved with writing the drivers or making the chipset seems to want to admit to ever having done it, as there’s literally nothing on Atheros’s Web site about the chipset, and Zydas doesn’t appear to have any remaining Web presence.) It’s probably just as well; the release notes from the CD version of the driver (4.5.70, which appears to be the latest version) offer the following “known issues:”
For an Intel-based system, the wireless network adapter can’t work anymore after system restart. So please unplug the wireless card before system restart.
For an Intel-based system, the wireless network adapter can’t work anymore after system wake-up from the sleep state. So please unplug the wireless card before system entering sleep state.
For an Intel-based system, the driver will hang if the wireless USB adapter keeps scanning before associating to a [base station] successfully.
For a PPC-based system, the system would hang if you unplug the wireless card while the card is scanning.
In the interest of being completely fair, at least one Mac rag was able to get the device working, so perhaps the experience here is the exception rather than the rule.
On a more positive note, the Wi-Fire has a very nice retractable USB cable, even if the Wi-Fire does look a little silly perched there loosely on the top of my screen. What it really needs is a padded clamp to hold it more securely in place. The odd clamp/stand works much better as a desk stand than as a means of attaching the Wi-Fire to a monitor.
Unfortunately, this product is doomed to failure on the Mac due to its non-functional drivers and very un-Mac-like configuration/monitor software. Keep the $80 for a wireless adapter or antenna with real Mac drivers.