External network card: Essential travel equipment

We've traveled extensively in Europe over the past few months, and throughout these trips one of the few constants is the search for Internet connectivity. As soon as we arrive somewhere, the quest for wifi starts. Sometimes we're lucky enough to be staying with friends or at a "wired" hotel. Often though we're renting an apartment, or just in a place that hasn't seen the light yet :-)
One solution is to visit the local Internet cafe, which is seldom practical. For one thing they're rarely close by. For another, spending time in one isn't practical: evenings are when we like to catch up with mail, tweets, blogs, and plan our upcoming activities. Carting the family off to the cafe after a long day of sightseeing is no fun.
Our solution is to look for a generous neighbor with an open wireless access point. But to stand any chance of finding one, your laptop needs help. Its wifi capabilities just don't have the range you need. Prior to our last trip to Europe, I purchased an Alfa external wifi card with extra antenna.
At 1,000 milliwatts and with the larger +9 dB antenna, only once was I unable to find a friendly neighborhood access point (that was in the suburbs of Paris, seems like the Parisians don't like to share, or are just more secure :-) At less than $40, this kit is now one of my "must bring" items.
  • Installing and using one of these cards is a piece of cake on Windows (just follow instructions and use the drivers on the included CD, or download the latest from the web) but getting it to work on OSX takes a little more work, see below
  • Walk around the premises as you look for that open access point, you'll detect different networks as you go from room to room
  • Set your card on a window sill (i.e. with the window open) for even better reception, it will make a noticeable difference
  • Be courteous: don't start downloading huge amounts of data, watching YouTube, etc. You're getting free internet access, don't be a pest
  • Be careful: you never know who else is listening to traffic on this network. Use HTTPS wherever possible. I heartily recommend Firefox with the HTTPS Everywhere extension (which isn't really everywhere, but it's a lot better than not using it)
  • I've passed through airport security with the +9dB antenna and no one's made an issue of it (rightly so but you never know what's going to tweak airport security these days...)
  • Added bonus: this card works great with BackTrack
As I mentioned above getting the RTL8187L (that's the chipset in the card) drivers working on OSX 10.6 is a little more involved than Windows but I've successfully installed them on two MacBook Pros. These instructions come from http://www.insanelymac.com/forum/index.php?showtopic=208763
  1. Download RTL8187L driver for Mac OS X 10.5 fromRealTek
  2. Install it, including restarting. Ignore the error about the kext not being installed poperly
  3. Open /Applications/Utilities/Terminal, and type the following commands in order:
    1. cd /System/Library/Extensions/
    2. sudo chown -R root:wheel RTL8187l.kext/
    3. sudo chmod -R go-rwx RTL8187l.kext/
    4. sudo chmod -R go+rX RTL8187l.kext/
    5. sudo kextutil -t -v /System/Library/Extensions/RTL8187l.kext
  4. Agree when it pops up and tells you that there's a new network interface that's been added.
  5. You should then be able to open the /Applications/Realtek USB WLAN Client Utility and configure it to connect to your network.

27" iMac Electricity Consumption Stats

I pulled our handy little Killawatt out from its resting place this week and used it to track our 27" iMac's (quad core i7 processor) electricity usage. The Killawatt plugs in between the wall socket and the device you want to monitor. It will calculate cumulative power consumption (Kwh), watts, amps, etc. The device is particularly useful in figuring out how much an electric appliance, or computer, really costs to run.

27” Apple iMac
Kwh / Day
Cost / Day
On, screen dark
On, light usage
On, max usage

"Max usage" means all CPUs were chugging away and a DVD was playing. Cost / day is based on my current cost of just under $0.12/Kwh.

Overall that doesn't feel too bad, though it can add up over a year. If you were compressing videos 24x7 non-stop for a whole year it would cost you over $210 (and would probably seriously reduce the lifespan of your iMac to boot :-)