IRTalk, IrDA, and the Mac

In the 1990s, several Macs included infrared networking support, a legacy short range point-to-point technology often forgotten nowadays. It can be used to transfer files between Macs, to mobile phones, and to print to IrDA compliant printers, among other things. This article provides an overview of infrared networking on Macs and the models with built-in IrDA support.

Infrared wireless connectivity is something you probably use daily, as most TV, DVD, DVR, Blu-ray, and other home media devices use infrared remote controls. It’s not a two-way connection like a computer network, but it generally works very well. The only real restriction is that the transmitter on the remote needs to have a clear, unobstructed path to the receiver on the device.

IRTalk and IrDA

IRTalk brought infrared (IR) connectivity to Macs starting with the PowerBook 190 and 5300 in August 1995. The technology made it easy to transfer files between IRTalk machines with no need for a cable. IRTalk operates at the same 230.4kbps speed as LocalTalk.

IRTalk and IrDA OptionsIRTalk is unique to Macs, and models with only IRTalk support cannot connect to IrDA devices. A bit later, Apple produced PowerBooks with both IrDA and IRTalk support, finally dropping IRTalk with the release of the iMac in 1998.

IR-connected devices must be within 16′ (5m) of each other with a clear line of sight between their infrared transceivers.

No Macs introduced since January 2002 include built-in IrDA hardware. Apple has substituted wireless radio wave technologies such as 802.11 WiFi and Bluetooth for network and device-to-device connections.

Macs with Built-in Infrared Networking Support

There are three categories of IR support on Mac. The earliest models with IR only support Apple’s IRTalk protocol, later Macs add IrDA to that, and the last few models with built-in IR are IrDA only, eliminating support for the older IRTalk protocol. Models are listed by date of introduction.

IRTalk Compliant, No IrDA Support

The Apple IR File Exchange transfer rate is 230.4kbs, the same as LocalTalk.

IrDA and IRTalk Compliant

These models also support Apple’s IRTalk protocol. IrDA supports transfer rates up to 4 Mbps.

IRDa Compliant, No IRTalk Support

These Macs cannot communicate with IRTalk-only Macs. The Rev. A and B iMacs were the only desktop Macs with IR connectivity.

IR on Newton

Every Newton MessagePad as well as the eMate 300 includes infrared connectivity. All models support the Sharp ASK 9600 bps protocol, the MessagePad 110 and newer add Apple extensions to ASK for 38.4 kbps data transfer. Only the MessagePad 2000, 2100, and eMate support IrDA.

IrDA is the only protocol common to Mac and Newton.

IrDA Support in Mac OS X

Mac OS X understands IrDA, as shown in the image below. If your Mac has an IrDA transceiver and you’re paired with a mobile phone with IrDA and data sharing, the Network system preference will show the following:

IrDA detected in Network system pref

I haven’t worked with this setup, as I’ve never had a smartphone with IrDA and a data plan. (My Palm Centro has IrDA, but I never used it with a data plan.)

IrDA modem detected

I don’t know how fast you can connect this way, but since every OS X Mac has USB and modern smartphones have Bluetooth and WiFi, it makes far more sense to add a Bluetooth or WiFi USB dongle to your Mac and use it with a modern smartphone.

All the G3 Macs with IrDA can run OS X 10.2 Jaguar and 10.3 Panther, both containing IrDA support. The Lombard, Pismo, and first two generations of TiBooks work with OS X 10.4 Tiger, which can connect via IrDA, and you can coax the TiBooks – and even a G4-upgraded Pismo – to run 10.5 Leopard, but I can’t find anything online indicating anyone successfully using IrDA with Leopard.

And that’s what killed infrared connectivity on Macs. Wireless technology was a lot faster and doesn’t require a line-of-sight connection. But if you have a couple of these old Macs, need a quick data connection, and don’t have Bluetooth, WiFi, ethernet, or FireWire cables to make the connection, it is an option.

Resources

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