What is the absolute simplest, least expensive way to fix my sister-in-law's home network?
December 3, 2009 10:57 AM   Subscribe

What is the absolute simplest, least expensive way to fix my sister-in-law's home network?

Here's what we have so far:

* a technophobic relative who lives hours away from me, for whom I would like to do a minimum of telephonic tech support
* a cable internet box, which has exactly one ethernet jack
* an iMac with one ethernet jack and no ability to connect to a WiFi network[1]
* a mac laptop for which they would like wireless access
* an Airport Express, which I suggested they buy before I discovered that the iMac cannot connect to WiFi.

[1] I spent a good chunk of my Thanksgiving weekend trying unsuccessfully to get WiFi to work on that iMac; the laptop connects fine, but I finally concluded that either there's something wrong with the iMac's airport card or that an assistive-learning device she has installed for her son is interfering with the machine's ability to connect to a normal WiFi network or there's some other software issue which I'm just too dumb to figure out; in any case let's just assume that this machine will need to have a wired connection.

Obviously I could suggest they buy an Airport Extreme instead, and then they could use the Express to extend the network range or as a, I dunno, doorstop. But that's kind of pricey, and I already feel a bit sheepish for suggesting they buy the Express in the first place.

Will one of those cheapo $10 ethernet hubs be sufficient? (Cable box to hub, from there wired connections to the iMac and to the airport express, which the laptop can connect to). Or do I need a switch, or a router, or -- basically I know enough about networking to know that there is a difference between these devices, but not enough to know what it is or why you would need one instead of another in a given situation. And I don't really care, I'd just like to put this behind me with a minimum of fuss. And I would especially like to avoid buying anything that will need my sister-in-law to do any software configuration, because I'll end up trying to do it over the phone, which... yeah. Let's not.

So: suggestions?
posted by ook to Computers & Internet (7 answers total)
cable modem ->
Express ->
iMac + USB wireless adapter
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:12 AM on December 3, 2009

The trouble with an el cheapo internet hub is that, if you put it between the cable box and the airport express, the ISP will have to provide two independent IP addresses for both machines to be useable. Odds are the cable company doesn't provide that.

So I recommend obtaining an external USB dongle wifi connection for the iMac. This gets around the "broken" internal wifi issue and the need for both machines to have a unique IP address from the ISP (obviously the airport extreme will provide the two unique IP addresses.)

If you still consider this a non-starter, then the airport extreme (or equivalent non-apple product at a lesser price, but with more difficult setup) is your only option.
posted by davejay at 11:19 AM on December 3, 2009

Free: Tell them to call Apple about the A-E and iMac. Apple is used to stupid questions.

$20 and phone 45 minutes: another Ethernet adapter to plug in to the iMac. Set the iMac to share the Internet access. This is kind of ugly. Prone to breakage.

$50 and phone 15 minutes: a wifi router with Ethernet port(s). Plug it into the Inet and make it service the iMac and laptop. Start router, and set the SSID and login password. Best, most reliable.
posted by cmiller at 11:28 AM on December 3, 2009

Hm, I hadn't thought of using an external wifi device for the imac, that's an interesting idea. I assume any non-Apple brand would require drivers etc., can anyone suggest a specific model or brand that works well on the mac?
posted by ook at 11:35 AM on December 3, 2009

I agree with cmiller's advice, specifically the "get a new wifi router option". a linksys wrt54g would work fine here.
posted by jrishel at 11:49 AM on December 3, 2009

1-wrt54g or some other non-apple wireless router ~$50
2-a wired-only ROUTER, not a hub or switch, ~$30, so you would go modem->wired router->express, with the iMac connected to the router. You would have to configure the express to pass DHCP requests up the chain to the router; the key phrase to look for in Airport Utility is 'bridge mode'
2-another express, ~$100; one would be connected to the modem and act as the router, the other would be a wireless-to-ethernet bridge for the iMac
3-fix the iMac. I'd try booting from an install disc, that'll tell you if it's software or not. If wifi fails booting from an install disc, the most likely hardware issue would be that the little wire that connects the internal wireless card to the antenna got disconnected, followed by the actual failure of the card.

A USB wireless adapter on the iMac might seem to be the straightest line, but something about a wireless dongle hanging off a computer that notionally has wifi built in just offends my personal sensibilities. Plus you'd be short a USB port all the time.
posted by kid_dynamite at 5:59 PM on December 3, 2009

If it were my own machine or if I lived closer I'd definitely go with fixing the iMac... and it's sounding very much like the best first step is going to be to tell her to take it to the store and let the Geniuses figure the damn thing out.

Thanks everyone; all the answers here were helpful.
posted by ook at 7:43 AM on December 4, 2009

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