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So I purchased this little USB wifi adapter

It works well in Windows 7, installed the driver and was good to go.

OS X (mountain lion specifically) was a bit of a different story. Plugged it in, network preference pane showed nothing. Installed the driver package on the included CD and it installed some RA Link tool bar utility (grrr) that did did my wifi but I noticed in the network preference pane it has the same icon as the ethernet adapter - not the wifi icon.

Anyone have any experience with this and can enlighten me? Ideally I'd like it to act just like an Apple made wifi adapter without 3rd party utilities running all the time.

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WiFi is ethernet. Ethernet is physical and data link layer technology over several different media types including coaxial and twisted pair cable, fiber optic and wireless. The 802.11a/b/g/n wireless adapters you buy are ethernet adapters using radio signals as a medium.

Just from looking at the adapters manufacturer's name, Panda, it is probably a cheap Chinese product. I tend to stay away from these low cost, questionable quality products for many reasons, including the one you are having now.

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WiFi is definitely not "wireless Ethernet". They're just similar enough to make you think they might be, but then it turns around and bites you when you ignore how different they really are. For example, try bridging to a WiFi client connection and watch what happens. Try connecting an access point in station mode to an Ethernet switch. – David Schwartz Jan 22 '13 at 6:43

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