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Wireless networks like Apple's AirPort transmit network signals using radio waves, which move through most obstacles and allow unfettered network and Internet access for home or small office networks. A wireless network has two pieces: a transmitter (like the AirPort Base Station) and a receiver (like the AirPort antenna card).
There are other Mac-friendly transmitter and receiver options, but AirPort includes some extra features that merit specific mention. That, and it's from Apple and everything.
Wireless networks communicate at a speed comparable to regular Ethernet, definitely adequate for home networks and shared Internet access. Exact performance will vary according to relative placement of the transmitter and receiver and other electronic devices in the vicinity. Peformance drops as distance increases, working up to a few hundred feet away.
AirPort Base Station
The AirPort Base Station comes with several goodies helpful to the home networker. In addition to the wireless transmitter, there are one or two Ethernet ports (depending on AirPort model) for connection to a network or high-speed Internet, Network Address Translation (NAT) for sharing a single Internet connection across the network, and a 56K modem for people with dial-up Internet.
If it sounds like the Base Station is dying for an Internet connection, it is. The NAT feature and multiple connection options make it primarily useful to the SOHO (Small Office / Home Office) user who needs dynamic Internet access or likes the convenience of wireless connections.
AirPort Antenna card
The AirPort card, which works in most recent Mac models, turns your Mac into a wireless network receiver. You can then connect to a compatible wireless network and share files or an Internet connection as normal.
Two (and only two) Macs with AirPort cards can communicate without a hardware Base Station using the Software Base Station program included with the AirPort card.
Macs, PCs, and wireless network options
AirPort uses a network transmission format supported by other wireless products, so you aren't limited to only Apple-made devices. See the MacWindows wireless network page for a list of other wireless options (which may or may not have additional features like NAT and a modem connection).
Macs and PCs can connect to the same wireless network, but they will still encounter the underlying platform differences if they want to share files or printers. See the Mac & PC File Sharing page for products that overcome this barrier.
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