IN THIS CHAPTER
Choosing between wired and wireless networks
Sharing an Internet connection
Making the network connection
Securing your MacBook with a firewall
Communicating with others using networks
In my opinion, network access ranks right up there with air conditioning and the microwave oven. Like other “I can’t imagine life without them” kinds of technologies, it’s hard to imagine sharing data from your laptop with others around you without a network. I guess you could still use a sneakernet (the old-fashioned term for running back and forth between computers with a floppy disk), but these days, Apple computers don’t even have floppy drives. (Even with a high-capacity USB-C external drive, a sneakernet is still a hassle — and somewhat of a security risk to boot.)
Nope, networking is here to stay. Whether you use a network to share an Internet connection, challenge your friends to a relaxing game of World War II battlefield action, or stream your MP3 collection to other computers, you’ll wonder how you ever got along without one. In this chapter, I fill you in on all the details you need to know to get your road warrior hooked up to a new (or existing) network.
If other members of your family have computers, or if your MacBook is in an office with other computers (including those rascally PCs), here’s just a sample of what you can do with a network connection:
If your laptop isn’t within shouting distance of an existing network, or if you don’t plan on buying any additional computers, you may not need to create a network. A lone MacBook hanging out in your home with no other computers around should need a network only for Internet access.
After you decide that you indeed need a network for your home or office, you have another decision to make: Should you install a wired network (running cables between your computers) or a wireless network? Heck, should you throw caution to the wind and build a combination network with both wireless and wired hardware?
Your first instinct is probably to choose a wireless network for convenience. After all, this option allows you to eliminate running cables behind furniture, in the walls, or in your office ceiling. Ah, but I must show you the advantages of a wired network as well. Table 11-1 gives you the lowdown to help you make up your mind.
TABLE 11-1 Wireless versus Wired Networks
Easier to understand
Few (or none)
As I see it, here are the advantages of choosing a wired versus a wireless network setup:
Faster speeds: In general, wired networks that are compatible with your MacBook are many, many times faster than the fastest 802.11ac wireless connections.
The performance of a wireless connection can be compromised by interference (from impeding structures, such as concrete walls, and from household appliances, such as some wireless phones and microwave ovens) as well as by distance. A wireless network can also slow down because of interference from other wireless networks, especially in densely populated areas. Wired networks have no such problems as long as you keep your cables to lengths of 25 feet or less.
Better security: A wired network doesn’t broadcast a signal that can be picked up outside your home or office, so it’s more secure.
Hackers can attack through your Internet connection, though, even if you’re using a wired network. Hence the final section of this chapter, “USE YOUR FIREWALL!”
Wireless: A wireless connection really has only one advantage, but it’s a big one: convenience (which in this case is another word for mobility for all your networked devices). Laptop owners crave this independence — a freedom that desktop computer owners can only dream about.
Accessing your network anywhere within your home or office — without cables — is easy. Connecting a wireless printer is a breeze.
It’s time to see what’s necessary to share an Internet connection. In the following sections, I cover two methods of connecting your network to the Internet. (And before you open your wallet, keep in mind that you might be able to use your laptop to share your broadband connection across your network!)
Because your MacBook has built-in wireless hardware, you can use your laptop to provide a shared Internet connection across a simple wireless network by using a broadband DSL or cable connection.
You can also choose to use a dedicated Internet-sharing device (often called an Internet router) to connect to your cable, fiber, or DSL modem. You do have to buy this additional hardware, but here’s the advantage: Your MacBook doesn’t have to remain turned on just so everyone can get on the Internet. (Most Mac owners prefer this method of sharing.)
As I mention earlier, Internet routers usually include wired or wireless network connections, and many include both.
Setting up an Internet router is usually a simple matter, but the configuration depends on the device manufacturer and usually involves settings in System Preferences that vary according to the router model. Grab a diet cola, sit down with the router’s manual, and follow the installation instructions you find there. (In some cases, you must set up your cable or DSL modem as a bridge between your ISP and your router, which should be covered in your modem and router manuals as well.)
Most normal folks (whom I define as those who have never met a network system administrator and couldn’t care less) think that connecting to a network probably involves all sorts of arcane chants and a mystical symbol or two. In the following sections, I provide you the shopping list you need to set up a network or connect to a network that’s already running.
Today’s Mac laptops come complete with built-in AirPort Extreme wireless hardware, so if you already have an older AirPort Extreme or Express Base Station (or another brand of base station), you’re all set. Otherwise, hold on tight while I lead you through the hardware requirements for wireless networking.
Connecting a MacBook to an existing wireless network requires no extra hardware, because your hardware is built in. (Whew. That was easy!)
If you decide that you want to build your own wireless network, you eschew cables, or you want to add wireless support to your existing wired network, you need a base station. (If you do have an existing wired network, the base station can act as a bridge between computers using wireless hardware and your wired network, allowing both types of computers to talk to each other.) Such a wireless base station will have either
And, of course, a base station can simply act as a central switch for your wireless network (with no support for a wired network).
You can choose either a used Apple Base Station or a boring 802.11ac or 802.11n generic wireless base station, but the Apple hardware requires less configuration and tweaking. (Sounds like a Mark’s Maxim!)
Unfortunately, Apple no longer sells its line of wireless base stations, but a used Apple Base Station from eBay or a garage sale still makes a great addition to your system, and it’s well worth bargain-hunting! Your MacBook can work with three of these legacy Apple Base Station models for wireless networking:
Installing an Apple Base Station is simple. Follow these steps:
If you have a USB printer, connect it to the USB port on the base station.
I cover the steps for sharing a printer in the later section “Sharing a network printer.”
If any company other than Apple manufactured your wireless base station, the installation procedure should be quite similar. Naturally, you should take a gander at the manufacturer’s installation guide just to make sure, but I’ve added many brands of these devices, and I used the same general steps for each one. (As I mention earlier, I recommend using legacy Apple wireless hardware with your MacBook whenever possible because the software installation process is easier, but a typical non-Apple base station will work just fine!)
As far as I’m concerned, the only two types of base stations are Apple and non-Apple, which includes all 802.11ac, 802.11n, and 802.11g base stations and access points. Both types of base stations use the same method to connect.
To join a wireless network, follow these steps on each Mac with wireless support:
Click the Wi-Fi status icon (which looks like a fan) on the Finder’s menu bar, and choose an existing network connection that you’d like to join.
The network name is the same as the network name you chose when you set up your base station.
If you set up a secure network, enter the password you assigned to the network during setup.
By the way, security is always A Good Thing. I strongly recommend that you enable the password-encryption features of your Apple or third-party base station while installing it. (Luckily, the Apple Base Station setup application leads you through this very process.) In the words of an important Mark’s Maxim:
Keep uninvited guests out of your network! Use your base station’s security features and encrypt your data by using WPA2 encryption!™
Some wireless networks may not appear in your Wi-Fi menu list. These are closed networks, which can be specified when you set up your base station. You can’t join a closed network unless you know the exact network name (which is far more secure than the base station simply broadcasting the network name). To join a closed network, follow these steps:
If the network is secured with WPA/WPA2, WPA2/WPA3, WEP, or Dynamic WEP encryption (the security standards for protecting your data through encryption), click the Security pop-up menu, and choose which type of encryption is being used.
I recommend avoiding WEP and Dynamic WEP encryption whenever possible. Your best bet is WPA2 or WPA3 encryption. These types are the current standards for home wireless networks, so always choose one of them when available.
To disconnect from a Wi-Fi network, click the Wi-Fi menu and then choose Turn Wi-Fi Off or connect to another wireless network. In other words, if you choose another available wireless network from the Wi-Fi menu, your MacBook automatically drops the previous connection. (You can be connected to only one wireless network at a time, which makes Good Sense.)
If you own a current MacBook model, your machine doesn’t come from Apple with a wired Ethernet port onboard. But you can add a USB-C/Thunderbolt-to-Ethernet connector that allows you to use a wired network. After you add the connector to your system, you can follow along without any problem. You just connect the hardware and configure the connection. Don’t forget that you also need cables and an inexpensive Ethernet switch. (If you’re using an Internet router or other hardware-sharing device, it almost certainly has a built-in four- or eight-port switch.)
On older MacBooks, your Ethernet 10/100/1000 port (which looks like a slightly oversize telephone/modem jack) is located on one side of your laptop. It’s ready to accept a standard Ethernet Cat5/Cat5E/Cat6 cable with RJ-45 connectors. (If you’ve connected a Thunderbolt- or USB–to–Gigabit-Ethernet adapter to your MacBook, you’re also in business.)
If you’re connecting to an existing wired network, you need a standard Cat5/Cat5E/Cat6 Ethernet cable of the necessary length. I recommend a length of no more than 25 feet, because longer cables are often subject to line interference (which can slow or even cripple your connection). You also need a live Ethernet port from the network near your laptop. Plug the cable into your MacBook and then plug the other end into the network port.
If you don’t know your switch from your NIC, don’t worry. Here, I describe the hardware you need for your wired network.
If you’re building your own wired network, you need
A switch: This gizmo’s job is to provide more network ports for the other computers in your network. Switches typically come in four- and eight-port configurations.
As I mention earlier in this chapter, most Internet routers (sometimes called Internet-sharing devices) include a built-in switch. So if you’ve already invested in an Internet router, make doggone sure that it doesn’t come equipped with the ports you need before you go shopping for a switch. Many wireless base stations also include a built-in switch, and you can even connect a separate switch for additional ports.
After you assemble your cables and your router or switch, connect the Ethernet cables from each of your computers to the router or switch, and then turn on the device. (Most need AC power to work.) Check the manual that comes with your device to make sure that the lights you’re seeing on the front indicate normal operation. (Colors vary by manufacturer, but green is usually A Good Color.)
Next, connect your cable or DSL modem’s Ethernet port to the WAN port on your switch with an Ethernet cable. If your modem isn’t already on, turn it on now, and check for normal operation.
When your router or switch is powered on and operating normally, you’re ready to configure macOS for network operation. Just hop to the upcoming section “Connecting to the Network.” (How about that? Now you can add network technician to your rapidly growing computer résumé!)
After all the cables are connected, and your central connection gizmo is plugged in and turned on, you’ve essentially created the hardware portion of your network. Congratulations! Now you need a beard and suspenders (common equipment for the network-guru stereotype).
With the hardware in place, it’s time to configure Big Sur. In this section, I assume that you’re connecting to a network with an Internet router or switch that includes a DHCP server. (Jump to the sidebar “The little abbreviation that definitely could” for more on DHCP.)
Follow these steps on each Mac running macOS that you want to connect to the network:
In the Connection list on the left, select Ethernet (or Thunderbolt Ethernet, if you’re using an adapter).
The entry may also be named Ethernet 1, depending on the Mac model you’re configuring. Make sure that you select the Ethernet entry that does not carry the Wi-Fi fan symbol.
Click the Apply button.
The Apply button is grayed out in the figure because my status (in this dialog) is Connected.
Enjoy the automatic goodness as macOS connects to the DHCP server to obtain an IP address, a subnet mask, a gateway router IP address, and a Domain Name System (DNS) address. (Without a DHCP server, you’d have to add all this stuff manually. Ugh.)
A few seconds after clicking the Apply button, you should see the information. You might also notice that the DNS Server and Search Domains fields are empty. Fear not. macOS is really using DNS server and domain information provided by the DHCP server.
Press ⌘ +Q to quit System Preferences and save your settings.
All right! The hardware is powered up, the cables (if any) are installed and connected, and you’ve configured Big Sur. You’re ready to start (or join) the party. In the following sections, I show you how to verify that you’re connected, as well as how to share data and devices with others on your network.
It works! By golly, it works! Okay, now what do you do with your all-new shiny chrome-plated network connection? Ah, my friend, let me be the first to congratulate you and the first to show you around! In the following sections, I cover the most popular network perks. (The good news is that these perks work with both wired and wireless connections.)
If your DSL or cable modem plugs directly into your MacBook (rather than into a dedicated Internet-sharing device or Internet router), you might ponder just how the other computers (or iPhones or iPads) on your network can share that spiffy high-speed broadband connection. If you’re running a wireless network, it comes to the rescue!
Follow these steps to share your connection wirelessly:
Select the On check box next to the Internet Sharing entry in the Services list.
Big Sur displays a warning dialog stating that connection sharing could affect other computers on your network. If you intend to share the Internet connection provided on an existing network at your home or office that you didn’t set up, contact your network administrator first! (It’s best to avoid sowing chaos and disorder.)
Don’t forget — you don’t need to configure Internet sharing if your DSL or cable modem connects to a dedicated sharing device or router. That snazzy equipment automatically connects your entire network to the Internet.
You can swap all sorts of interesting files with other Macintosh computers on your network. When you turn on File Sharing, Big Sur allows all Macs on the network to connect to your MacBook and share the files in your Public folder. (Note that sharing across a network is different from sharing a single computer among several people. I cover that environment in Chapter 10.)
Follow these steps to start sharing files and folders with others across your network:
Select the On check box next to the File Sharing service entry to enable the connections for Mac and Windows sharing.
Other Mac users can connect to your computer by choosing Go from the Finder’s menu bar and choosing the Network menu item. The Network window appears, and your laptop is among the choices. If the other Macs are running Big Sur, your MacBook’s shared files and folders appear in a Finder window, listed below the Shared heading on the Sidebar.
Windows 10 users should head to the Network panel. Those lucky Windows folks also get to print to any shared printers you’ve set up. (The following section covers shared printers.)
Click the Close button to exit System Preferences.
Big Sur conveniently reminds you of the network name for your MacBook at the top of the Sharing pane.
I love describing easy procedures, and sharing a printer on a Mac network ranks high on the list! You can share a printer that’s connected to your laptop by following these simple steps:
Click the Close button to exit System Preferences.
A printer you share automatically appears in the Print dialog on other computers connected to your network.
Yep. That’s an exclamation point at the end of that title, pardner. It’s that important.
The following Mark’s Maxim, good reader, isn’t a request, a strong recommendation, or even a regular Maxim. Consider it to be an absolute command (right up there with Pay your taxes).
When you connect a network to the Internet, you open a door to the outside world. As a consultant to several businesses and organizations in my hometown, I can tell you that the outside world is chock-full of malicious individuals who dearly love to inflict damage on data and would like to take control of your MacBook for their own purposes. Call ’em hackers, call ’em delinquents, or call ’em something I can’t repeat, but don’t let ’em in!
Big Sur comes to the rescue again with the built-in firewall in macOS. When you use the firewall, you essentially build a virtual brick wall between yourself and the hackers out there (both on the Internet and within your local network). Follow these steps:
Select the Enable Stealth Mode check box.
This important feature prevents hackers from trolling for your MacBook on the Internet — or, in normal-speak, searching for an unprotected computer — so it’s much harder for them to attack you.
Big Sur even keeps track of the Internet traffic that you do want to reach your laptop, such as web-page requests and file sharing. When you activate one of the network features described in the earlier section “Sharing stuff nicely with others,” Big Sur automatically opens a tiny hole (called a port by net types) in your firewall to allow just that type of communication with your Mac.
If you decide to turn on printer sharing (as described in the preceding section), for example, Big Sur automatically allows incoming print jobs over the network from other computers.
You can also add ports for applications that aren’t on the firewall’s Allow list, such as third-party instant-messaging clients and multiplayer-game servers. Depending on the type of connection, Big Sur often displays a dialog prompting you for confirmation before allowing certain traffic, so you probably won’t need to do anything manually.
You can manually add a program to your list of allowed (or blocked) firewall ports, however. Follow these steps:
Click the Add button (which carries a plus sign).
Big Sur displays a standard file-browsing sheet.
Click the Add button on the File sheet.
The application appears in the Firewall list. By default, it’s set to Allow Incoming Connections.
With Apple’s FaceTime technology, you can video-chat with owners of iOS devices and other Macs, and if they can run FaceTime, they’re guaranteed to have the right video hardware!
To launch FaceTime, click the Launchpad icon on the Dock and then click the jaunty-looking video camera icon. (Naturally, you can also use Spotlight to launch the application.) The first time you use FaceTime, you have to enter your Apple ID and your email address. The folks you chat with on the other end use that same email address to call you via FaceTime. (You can call iPhone owners by using their telephone numbers.)
After you sign in, you can initiate a call with any contact by clicking the search box near the top of the FaceTime window and typing the desired name, email address, or phone number. Click the email or telephone number that FaceTime should use, and the connection process begins.
Apple isn’t satisfied with providing access to your Contacts list, however. You can use the Recent Calls list (which appears along the left side of the window) to choose a contact whom you’ve called or attempted to call, or who has called you within the recent past. Click the All or Missed buttons at the top of the window to further filter the Recents list, which switches between all activity and any calls you’ve missed.
When the call is accepted, you see a large video window with a smaller picture-in-picture display. The video of the other person fills the large window, and the video that you’re sending to that person appears in the small display. Click the End icon to end the FaceTime call.
“If I can FaceTime or send an email, why use Messages?” When family and friends want to communicate with you by using their computers, they could certainly use Mail or FaceTime — but video and email may not be convenient (or as fast), and you’d miss that communication. Messages allows you to plug into the popular world of Internet instant messaging, which many Mac owners used before through various sources, like AOL or Google, or iMessages (between Apple computers and devices).
Sending a text message to another person is practically instantaneous — hence the name — and you can switch to an audio chat (sound only) or a video chat (using Facetime) if the other person has a compatible device.
When you first run Messages, you’ll be prompted to use the Messages account that you’ve created on your iPhone or iPad. If you don’t have either of those devices, you can create a Messages account using your Apple ID. (Messages creates an iMessage instant messaging account, which you can use to send and receive text messages between your Mac and iOS devices like your iPhone and iPad.) If you’ve already set up SMS and MMS text messaging on your iPhone, those messages are also shown in Messages, and you can reply to them within the application as well!
To send a new message, click the Create New Message icon in the Messages toolbar or press Command+N. Messages prompts you to type a name from your Contacts list that contains an instant message address, or enter an email address or telephone number if they aren’t in your Contacts list. Now type your text in the entry box at the bottom of the window.
If you want to use bold or italic text, highlight the text and then press ⌘ +B for Bold (B) or ⌘ +I for Italic (I). You can also add an emoji (a symbol that conveys emotion; in techspeak, also called a smiley) to your text: Click the text where you want the emoji to appear, click the Smiley button to the right of the text entry field, and then choose the proper smiley from the list.
When your message is perfect, press Return to send it. You’ll note that Messages creates an entry (called a conversation) in the Sidebar at the left. You can click another conversation at any time to switch to that message exchange, allowing you to communicate with several people (or groups) at one time. (My youngest daughter can keep track of a dozen conversations simultaneously! Luckily, I’m not that popular.)