How do I use a Sprint Sierra Wireless AirCard 595 with Mac OS X?
Bought a Sprint PC Card for my Mac PowerBook so I can get onto their high speed EVDO network throughout the United States and found that it's a nice, new Sierra Wireless AirCard 595, which is apparently the fastest card available. Nice. But when I plug it into my PowerBook, nothing at all happens. What's the trick to get this card to work with Mac OS X?
While the latest versions of Mac OS X (10.4 and above) apparently have the necessary drivers for that card, you still need some software for interoperability with the Sprint high speed network. Sprint's not much help, though, so you need to start at the Sierra Wireless Web site instead.
When you go there, you'll find that they have a free application you can download called AirCard 595 Watcher Lite (if you don't have a 595 card, there's specific support for Mac OS X shown, card by card, at Mac OS X Support by Sierra Wireless).
Generally, you'll also want to install any software before you insert the AirCard into your computer, but fortunately the Mac is less fussy than a PC in this regard. Also, note that you'll need to get your card pre-configured. As they explain: "Activation is not supported. You will need a device that is pre-activated, or you will need to activate your device on a Windows-based PC using Watcher or connection software from your service provider. Activation will be supported in upcoming releases."
Sure enough, when you start up the application and insert your card, you'll probably see this:
and it never progresses. You've got an activation problem.
How do I know? Because I had exactly that issue when I tried to activate my own AirCard 595, and so I had to find a PC, download the Watcher program for the PC, insert the card, activate the card, and then, finally, proceed... Is this a pain? Oh yeah.
Activating the Sierra Wireless PC Card On Windows
First off, let me explain how I ended up having to find a PC laptop, because it's an interesting, albeit frustrating experience.
When I found out that I couldn't actually activate the Sierra Wireless AirCard on my Mac, my first thought was, let's just call Sprint and let the local retail store activate the card for me. Unfortunately, they apparently aren't set up to do that, but "one of the managers has a laptop and he'll be in on Monday". Yeah. Meanwhile, I called up Best Buy and they assured me that they could activate the card, but when I got there, they pointed me to their tech support "geek squad" team. The chap there was friendly enough and we grabbed a Vista laptop on display and tried to activate the card. Problem was, it needed a firmware update which couldn't complete properly. Perhaps the software isn't Vista compatible? Frustratingly, it appears that I'm going to have to wait for that manager after all.
And so, Monday came and I got a call from an employee saying that the manager would be in my local (Boulder, Colorado) store with his laptop to help me out, but when I got to the store, he refused to activate the card, insisting that the AirCard won't work with a Mac. He didn't even know what model number I had, none of them really cared. Worse, Cory, the manager, didn't even deign to come out of the back office, but sent a clueless employee out to relay his message instead. Very insulting! My insistence that the card was a new model, had been sent to me by Sprint corporate, and that "Sprint assures me that it will work with a Mac" were met with complete indifference. I walked out.
Clearly, it's up to us Mac users who are interested in the Sprint high speed data network to do our own activation, with nada support from Sprint corporation itself.
Fortunately I got my hands on a PC laptop and activated the card...
First step, as always, is to download and install the drivers and application before you first insert the card. Here's the basic sequence of screens for installing the software:
Now it's installed we'll see a familiar application running within the Windows world, rather than on the Mac:
Next step is to actually insert the Sprint Wireless PC Card into the laptop, at which point you'll hopefully see this:
My card needed to be updated to the latest firmware, so the next screen I saw informed me of that fact:
and when I said yes, it made sure that's what I wanted to do...
A few minutes passed and:
Success with the upgrade, at least!
Of course, that was all busy work, because we still haven't activated the card. That's the next step:
I had been supplied the information needed by Sprint: you might need to call them to get the data necessary. Once entered, the card should activate:
Just for fun, I tested the connection on the PC before I popped the card out and, as you can see, it worked just fine:
The Big Test: Back Onto the Mac
Okay, so now it's time for the big test: does the Sierra Wireless card work with the Mac or not? Well... I inserted the PC Card into my PowerBook and nothing happened. Then I started up the Sierra Wireless Watcher and it reported that the card was "Disconnected":
Not good, but then it popped up a note that it wanted to configure a new port. Okay, that sounds like progress:
With that configured, it's disappointing to report that the Connect button in Watcher appears to have no purpose. It certainly doesn't connect you.
But here's the real secret: if you actually open up Internet Connect (you can get there from the Apple Menu --> Control Panels or from the Tools menu within Wireless Watcher, either way), select the new driver, "Sierra Wireless AC595 Modem", click Connect and, surprise, it works!
You can surf the net, check your email, and even run a handy connectivity speed test. My results?
Miserable speeds, actually. Not only that, running through the EVDO card causes a noticeable performance penalty on the computer itself, so it not only offers up a slow network connection, it's going to half-cripple your Mac too. Was the connectivity performance a Mac problem? Running the speed tests on the PC produced even worse speeds, actually, with 65kbps down and 39kbps up. Moving to a different spot in the office sped things up a tiny bit, with 90 down and 104 up, but these speeds are terrible.
By comparison, my 802.11 network connected to my cable modem in my office offers up these far, far better test results:
For that matter, when I use my Blackberry Pearl as an untethered Bluetooth modem with my Powerbook, it gets a slow, but survivable 211 down and 11 up.
Sorry, Sprint, but this is slow, slow, slow...
And In The End...
At the end of the day, that shows you the incredible number of steps -- and multiple computers -- you need to activate and configure your new Sprint EVDO card to work with your Mac OS X system. Unlike previous cards, this one at least works, but it's really ridiculous that the Mac software is so non-functional. It being unable to activate the card stinks, but having a non-functional "Connect" button once the card is activated is just adding insult to injury.
Finally, it's time for Sprint to train its sales staff to be pleasant to customers and, just perhaps, to learn that they aren't expert on every single issue and that they might just learn something if they listen to customers and treat them with respect. Cory in Boulder, I'm talking about you.
All that aside, while it's pretty cool to know that you can indeed get Mac network access through the Sprint network in just about every major metropolitan area in the United States, the coverage clearly has problems and the performance penalty is deadly. As WiMax is rolled out, I agree with analysts that we'll see a dramatic drop in the cost of this sort of cellular Internet connectivity, and when the card's $50, monthly unlimited EVDO access is $19.99, and they get rid of the bugs in Mac performance, I'll be keeping this device permanently plugged into my PowerBook.
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