Best of Both Worlds – A Macbook for the WLAN Professional

MacBook wifiI started a new job in January 2015 and one of the first decisions I had to make was:  “Do you want a Windows laptop or a Macbook?”.   It was a hard decision, but I chose the Macbook!  Why?  Follow on as I give the reasons why I chose the Mac over a Windows-based laptop, list some of the neat WLAN features and software you can use on a Macbook and share some basics on setting up VM on the Mac side and Boot Camp on the Windows side.  And to top it off, I’ll even show a few top secret stealth pictures (cleared by the NSA…) on how I turned this Macbook into a lean, mean Wi-Fi machine!  For the WLAN professional, the Macbook is the “best of both worlds”!

(Special shout out to Craig Schnarrs (@the_wifi_guy) who really encouraged me to get this blog going.  Thanks for your encouragement, Craig!)

To begin, I have a true confession to make to all my WLAN colleagues.  I used to tell people I was bilingual – I spoke BOTH Windows and Macbook, too.  But honestly, although my Windows language skills were very proficient (over 17+ years in Microsoft OS and workstation support), my Mac language skills were, well….lacking.  My wife would bring home her Mac from work and ask me questions and then my daughter in college has a Mac and she would ask me how to do something.  And all I could say was, “I think I have to do the dishes now or take the garbage out or clean the sewer or….”   I avoided learning how to use a Mac and was really only speaking Mac on a minimal level!  At night, my constant “therapy session” nightmares went like this:  “Hi, my name is Glenn and I don’t speak Mac very well.”  “Hi Glenn….”.   But when I started my new job, I knew that had to change!  I wanted to speak what all my WLAN friends spoke — they ALL had Macbooks!   So, it was time for me to get a Mac and really become fluent in OS X!  And I learned a lot in the process.  So, here we go…..

Reasons why I chose the Macbook

  • First off, don’t you just love the look and feel of a Macbook!  It is lightweight, very professional looking with super clean and clear resolution in the retina version.  It even comes in a very cool and clean box (which, does not help you in Wi-Fi any, but it does make you feel clean all over!)  And don’t tell me you don’t think its cool when you open the Macbook lid and the display comes up in like one second!  (just try to do that, Lenovo!). Then there is the magnetic DC connector for the power supply that is awesome.  I still have a two-button mouse addiction, so I use an external Logitech mouse which comes in handy for me, even for site surveys.  (In case you are wondering, I have a Macbook Pro (Retina, 15-inch, Mid 2014 model, with 500 GB SSD mSATA HDD and 16 GB 1600 MHz DDR3 memory with 2.5 GHz Intel Core i7 processor, running OS X 10.10.2 Yosemite)
  • Mac OS X will always show channel width, streams and noise, but Windows will only sometimes have this information (in looking at network information per operating system).   (Network Information Available per Operating System.  Presentation by Zaib Kaleem – slide #5.)
  • Mac OS will do native Wi-Fi packet captures, as it puts the Mac Wi-Fi adapter in monitor mode.  (As you know,Wireshark needs a special adapter to capture wireless packets in Windows)  Here’s how to do it on a Mac (Yosemite):
    • Hold option key and click the Wi-Fi icon in the menu bar
    • Then, when the Wireless Diagnostics Introduction screen comes up, hit Command+6 and the Sniffer window will come up so you can choose the channel to sniff and channel width.  When done, a .wcap file will be placed on your desktop, which you can open in Wireshark.  More details can be found here.
    • Ben Miller has discovered a Windows-based app that does captures in Windows (Acrylic Wi-Fi).  I have not used it but the Acrylic Wi-Fi link is here.
  • Windows has the DOS prompt; Mac has the Terminal window!  So learn a little bit of Linux and you can do a lot in Terminal (ping, ifconfig, dig, grep, fdisk, and lots more).  Find a list of the common Terminal commands here.   Spiritually, I really like the OS X command – “bless” (yep, it is really in there!)
  • You can run TWO operating systems on ONE laptop, with Boot Camp (more on that below).  Now, can you run a Macbook OS X and dual-boot on a Windows-based laptop?  I don’t think you can…..

There’s other Wi-Fi stuff you can do on a Mac and not on a Windows laptop, but I am still discovering them!  Do you have things I’ve missed?  Let me know in the “Leave a Reply” box below.

WLAN Software for  the Macbook OS X   I’ve installed most of the following apps, from free and inexpensive apps up to a bit more pricey software:

  • WiFi Scanner (ZaibKaleem, Access Agility – $4.99)  Simple, fast Wi-Fi network discovery with ability to connect to discovered networks. It even has a good built-in speed test feature.
    • WiFiPerf is another tool by Zaib, based on iPerf3 and does bandwidth performance measurement.
  • Adrian Granados has some awesome Wi-Fi tools:
    • Wi-Fi Explorer ($4.99)  Scan, monitor, and troubleshoot wireless networks with WiFi Explorer.  Quickly identify channel conflicts, signal overlapping or configuration problems that may be affecting the connectivity and performance of your home, office or enterprise wireless network.  Good graphics and is feature-rich.
    • Wi-Fi Signal ($0.99)  WiFi Signal is a system menu bar application that provides easy access to your Wi-Fi connection details (name, channel, transmit rate, signal strength, noise, etc.), monitors the signal quality of your wireless network, and can find and recommend alternative channels for your network thus avoiding signal overlapping and channel conflicts that can result in connectivity issues and performance degradation.
    • Airtool (free)  Shows you the Wi-Fi adapter state, allows quick disconnect from the network and the ability to do a packet capture (on single or multiple channels).  Nice packet capture feature!
  • inSSIDer from Metageek ($19.99).  Wi-Fi network discovery and analysis.  I think most WLAN professionals know inSSIDer pretty well, but just a heads up that this price allows installation in both Mac OS X and Windows VM Fusion and Boot Camp as well.  If you have a problem with registration in VM and Boot Camp with your license key, email Metageek support and tell them what you are doing and they will fix it for you.
  • TamoSoft TT Client and TT Server (free)  Good GUI-based throughput tester.
  • Wireshark (free)  The packet capture standard (be sure you get the latest stable release)
  • IPNetMonitorX ($70.00)  Features 23 integrated tools in a network troubleshooting toolkit for debugging Internet service problems and optimizing performance.
  • Xcode (free)  No, this is not a Wi-Fi tool, but Xcode provides everything developers need to create great applications for Mac, iPhone, and iPad. Xcode brings user interface design, coding, testing, and debugging all into a unified workflow.  So, if you have to write a little code for a Wi-Fi app, Xcode can help.

Those apps should keep you busy for a while.  Now, on to installing Windows on the Macbook!

Setting up VM on the Mac side

  • VM Fusion was already installed on my Macbook by our IT staff, so I will describe what I did to set up tools in this VM.  You can also use Parallels for Mac and read up on how to install it here.
    • [Begin soapbox rant]   There may be one or two people in southern Antarctica who have not installed Yosemite yet.  However, if this indeed applies to you, BE SURE to upgrade VM Fusion to version 7 or get the latest, greatest VM version 6 (I have version 6.0.5).  Don’t make the mistake I made–I had VM Fusion all set up, all my apps installed, and then I upgraded to Yosemite which hosed up my VM!!!  It took a LONG time to get the latest VM 6 version and do a manual install.  Luckily, it restored OK and all my app labor was not in vain.  So, upgrade to version 7 if you can, or be sure you are at the latest version 6 before going to Yosemite.  [End soapbox rant].
    • Follow the latest install instruction on the VM Fusion web site.  Set up VM Fusion so it easily pops up and toggles between itself and Mac OS X.
    • Here’s a list of the WLAN software I installed in VM Fusion 6.0.5:
      • InSSIDer (the licensed Mac/Windows version per above)
      • Chanalyzer (Metageek).  For Layer1 spectrum analysis.  My work had a licensed copy, but the install went easy.  Use the Wi-Spy dBX and if you have an older Wi-Spy 2.4 GHz adapter, Chanalyzer will simultaneously scan the 2.4 and 5 GHz bands.  (I did not know that, but many kudos to Joel Crane at Metageek for providing this info for Layer1 scanning efficiencies!)
      • Omnipeeks (WildPackets).  Packet capture and analysis.  I used my work licensed copy.  For the adapter, I used the Cisco Linksys AE6000.  This is an 802.11ac single stream adapter and it works well with Omnipeeks.  Be sure you read Keith Parson’s install instructions and get the Ralink drivers off the Omnipeek website.  (I emailed Omnipeeks support to get the correct drivers — they sent them to me and I had no problems installing these Ralink drivers for this adapter.)
      • Wireshark and WinPcap (Windows version, of course)
    • You can launch your Boot Camp as a VM session, too.  I have not done that, but am interested in seeing how it works.

On to Boot Camp

There is no Windows side yet, because we have to create it.  It’s pretty easy to do this in Boot Camp.  Go to Finder, Utilities, Boot Camp Assistant and follow the instructions or get more details here.   Pick enough HDD space that you will need for app installs and all those ESS or AM files, etc (I have an 500 GB SSD mSATA HDD, so I chose 100 GB).   NOTE: BE SURE TO USE a USB 2.0 key to build your Boot Camp install!!!  Many thanks to Craig Schnarrs (@the_wifi_guy) who, after four unsuccessful tries to install Boot Camp, found a link that the install of Windows for Boot Camp does not like USB 3.0 drivers.  Caveat emptor!  So, be sure you use a USB 2.0 key to avoid the “Craig’s List”!

You will need a fully-licensed version of Windows (I installed Windows 7 in ISO form–I just placed the ISO on my Mac desktop and left it there, in case I have to rebuild or I misplace the USB key I used).  Be sure to have the license key handy when you are ready to boot to Windows in Boot Camp the first time.  I had to call Microsoft to finally license my Windows in Boot Camp, but that might have been due to an internal license key issue at my place of work.  However, Windows is funny — it may see lots of hardware changes on the Boot Camp side as being a brand new install.  Be patient, but you might have to work through some of these issues on the phone with Microsoft (hopefully not, but I have heard several stories, so just a heads up….).

After the USB key is created, then it is just a matter of following the Mac instructions and installing Windows 7 via the USB key and doing all the patches and updates, just like a brand new Windows install (do I hear a lot of “ughs!” out there?  Sorry….).  I did have a difficulty in getting the Ethernet and WLAN NIC drivers to load, so you might need to ‘massage’ these as you proceed.  (I do not have any experience with Windows 8.1 nor any ideas on how Windows 10 will operate in Boot Camp.  If you have some feedback, please use the “Leave a Reply” box below.)

Software in Boot Camp.  I installed pretty much the same software I listed in the VM section above.  Also, you may run into an issue with registration from these software vendors (it may be seen as you are trying to install their software on two different PCs.)  If this happens, send an email to support at these vendor sites, and just explain what you are doing.  All the vendors I have dealt with (so far, anyway….) have been more than happy to help and have allowed me to install their software on BOTH the VM and Boot Camp sides.

I loaded Ekahau Site Survey (ESS ver 7.6.4) for my site survey software.  Ekahau strongly suggests you run ESS in Boot Camp and not VM Fusion/Parallels.  Fluke AirMagnet’s web site says they support VM as well as Boot Camp.  I have not had any AM experience in either VM or Boot Camp and if you have, your feedback will be appreciated.  I also have not used TamoGraph or VisiWave site survey software in VM or Boot Camp.  Any feedback out there?

I also highly suggest and emplore that you be sure to get an external HDD and use Time Machine for backup!  I know, SSD drives don’t ever go bad, do they?  Hmmm.   How about if your laptop gets stolen then?   Just get an external HDD and backup often and regularly and you’ll be glad you did!

Now, how about backing up Boot Camp?  Hmm, that is another question I am still trying to figure out.  Feedback?  Here is what I find, but have not done any of these….yet.

  • Do two partitions on your external HDD:  One HTFS (for Time Machine) and NTFS, where you can do a normal Windows backup when you are in Boot Camp.  NOTE:  this URL is dated mid-year 2011, so take note.
  • Use Winclone, which lets you backup, restore or transfer your Windows partition.
  • Paragon Software has Boot Camp Backup Beta (as of Oct 2014) which does backup, restore and migration of Boot Camp.

Top Secret Stealth Pictures of My Modified Macbook.  Now that I have your attention, there is nothing new or secret here.  But I still think it is kind of cool seeing how this all works out together in making a Macbook serve you as a WLAN professional, instead of you having to serve your laptop.

So, here’s what I did:

  • I purchased a Macbook cover (there are lots out there, but I got a TopCase cover and chose black to match the Velcro)  Yes, the covers are silicone, so you will need a nice wide strip of industrial-strength Velcro to go on the back of the Macbook lid so the stuff below will stick to it well.  I put the Velcro loop side on the Macbook and the hook side on the devices I attach.  Press the Velcro on firmly and it should adhere OK to the silicon lid cover.  However, take care when you press the Velcro to your Macbook lid–you do not want to crack the LCD display!
  • I bought an Orico 7-port USB 3.0 hub and attached Velcro to one side.  Ekahau suggests spacing the three Proxim NICs a bit apart for better reception.  This hub allows you to do that, and also to plug in the USB for your Wi-Spy dBX and Velcro it to the back of the lid.
  • I wrote the last two MAC octets of the Proxim NICs on each NIC with a Sharpie.  Sometimes, ESS “burps” and does not see all three NICs and you have to reinsert them in the hub.  It’s good to be able to quickly pinpoint which NIC is the one not recognized.
  • Take a look at the pictures below.  The wide Velcro strip provides ample room for anything else you might need to attach.  These attachments do add a bit of weight to the Macbook lid, so be aware of that as you walk around doing your site surveys.
IMG_4373

Macbook front with Orico hub attached to left USB port

IMG_4369

Macbook lid with USB hub (with Proxim NICs/Wi-Spy dBX) attached with Velcro

IMG_4370

Closeup of USB hub, NICs and Wi-Spy dBX

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Going forward – what I would like to see in a Macbook and accessories:

  • First off, either Ekahau Site Survey or Fluke AirMagnet (or both!) need to step up to the plate and come up with native code for the Macbook, or get their site survey apps to really work well in VM Fusion/Parallels!  Who wants to shut down and reboot to Boot Camp for a site survey when you don’t need to do that?  (Ekahau, Fluke, are you listening?)  Thousands of WLAN professionals would like this native code, that’s for sure.
  • Next, I want to make or need to find an adapter that plugs into the magnetic DC connector/power supply so that a secondary battery can be used (one I can strap under my Connect-a-Desk for doing lengthy site surveys).  Is there one of these devices out there?  ESS in Boot Camp is great, but Boot Camp (or ESS?) just kills the laptop battery fast.  Plan now to recharge the battery at lunch time if you have an all-day site survey to do.  UPDATED!  Jerry Olla (@jolla) sent me a link for HyperJuice which looks like it will serve as an extra battery supply for the Macbook.  Feedback anyone?
  • Speaking of the laptop support, I bought a Connect-a-Desk for my Macbook.  It’s OK to use, but I do not really like it.  I want something that is beefier, something that firmly straps around my waist and shoulders and securely holds my laptop with external mouse support (R or L).  I know Keith Parsons had a custom-built laptop site surveying lap desk made for him, but I do not have any website or contact info (Keith, any input is appreciated here).  I have been designing one in my workshop and have some templates made using a baby carrier shoulder harness.  However, I would LOVE to hear about one that does the job for you.  Any ideas?  Use the “Leave a Reply” comment box below.

I know there will be more accessories and software developed for the Mac that will useful for doing Wi-Fi work.    But for me as a WLAN professional, the bottom line is, get a Macbook!   It truly is the “best of both worlds” in ONE laptop!

 

 

 

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