Modern Wireless for PowerPC Macs

Recently I took the opportunity to upgrade my home server from a heavily upgraded 2001 Quicksilver PowerMac G4 to a PowerMac G5. With that I took the opportunity to reinstall OS X 10.5 on the Quicksilver and turn it into web browsing station for when I’m in the basement working on projects. The main limitation I had with this was network connectivity. I could have run a network cable from the 1st floor office through the basement to the work area, like I did for the living room, but thought it was a little overkill. With the basement ceiling have interlocking tiles I also didn’t want to fight with them. The next logical conclusion was wireless, but that had its own challenges. The G4 PowerMacs never officially supported wireless above 802.11b.

Today 802.11b has two major disadvantages compared to every other wireless standard used: it is slow at only 11Mbps theoretical throughput and only the only encryption it supports is WEP. While 11Mbps of bandwidth is enough for simple surfing the WEP security is a big problem. The security protocol can be easily cracked using only a few MB of passively collected data and 5 seconds of compute time. Seriously:

So using an original Apple Airport card was out of the question. I could have created a separate wireless network off my DD-WRT router that used WEP and isolated the traffic from the house, but I felt that was still too much of a security risk. Instead I started looking into PCI or USB wireless cards that still worked with PPC OS X. I was surprised to find that may be multiple products that worked. Turns out Realtek made drivers for many of the RTL81XX series wireless chips going back to OS X 10.4 PPC. So all I had to do was find a wireless adapter with one of those chipsets and I would be set. Searching turned up dozens of results and I chose to go with a Bolse BO-N1557 USB adapter. The unit was small, built on the RLT8192CU chipset, and supported 2.4GHz 802.11n and therefore WPA2 encryption.

$15 and 3 days later I received the adapter and got to installing it. Years ago I had purchased a USB 2.0 PCI card during the CompUSA closeout and was happy to see it was plug & play in the PowerMac. It only made since to plug the USB adapter into the USB card rather than the USB 1.1 ports. Installing the drivers was easy and straightforward with no major issues.

The only challenge with using Bolse card was the configuration. It looked like Apple never allowed third party manufacturers to tie into the wireless features of OS X. That meant the wireless card showed up as a wired network connection to OS X and the Realtek driver utility had to be used to configure connections to wireless networks. The process wasn’t as smooth or hassle free as the built in OS X process, but was doable.

So there you go, if you have an old PPC Mac and you want to add some modern wireless connectivity, check out the dozens of wireless adapters built on the Realtek RTL8192CU chipset.

Fun Fact: Internally the original Apple Airport cards were WaveLan Silver/Gold PC Cards only without the built-in antennas. In fact, you could take a WaveLan card, plug it into the Airport slot of a PowerMac or PowerBook and it would show up just like an original. You couldn’t close the case because the card stuck out too far, but you at least had wireless connectivity. The WaveLan cards were also used in the original Airport base stations before Apple swapped over to Airport cards.

Have fun.