Apple’s recently-released AirPort Extreme Base Station represents a thorough overhaul and re-packaging of the previous AirPort Extreme model. The new model is packed with enhanced features, a better set-up and management interface and of course, higher rated transfer speeds thanks to the new (and still incomplete) 802.11n protocol. Like most Apple products, the performance boost is being highly promoted. Does the AirPort Extreme stand up to the hype as well as other Apple products do? Continue reading to find out.
Design and Features
The AirPort Extreme looks very similar to the upcoming AppleTV. It’s the same width and length as the Mac Mini desktop computer (6.5"x6.5"), though the AirPort Extreme it is only 1.25" thick. Surprisingly, the AirPort Extreme weighs a whopping 1.6 pounds without the power brick! Comparatively, the average Belkin router weighs about .6 pounds.
The physical design is more sleek and minimalist than the previous, UFO-inspired AirPort Extreme. The shape is more professional looking; slightly utilitarian and unassuming, but very chic. It is bright white, sports an extremely low-contrast Apple logo on the top and looks nothing like a typical wireless router.
The single status light on the front tells all the possible tales – green for "all ok", flashing amber for "oh oh" and then the flashing green & amber for serious problems.
The back side of the AirPort Extreme is laid out very clearly. The WAN port is clearly marked with a different icon than the three LAN ports. Having only three LAN ports is a bit limiting, but one can always employ a hub or switch to expand outbound connections. The AirPort Extreme has a security slot for Targus-like locks. I’d absolutely expect a $179 router to have a security lock, if not an electrified proximity alarm. (To be fair, other 802.11n routers retail between $99 and $199, so $179 isn’t unwarranted.)
The Back of the AirPort Extreme Stacked on a LaCie Hard Drive
The newest, hottest feature on the back side of the AirPort Extreme is the USB 2.0 port. According to Apple, this USB 2.0 port can be used to hook up printers and USB 2.0 drives to your wireless network. It has already been discovered that using a USB 2.0 hub will allow you to use more than one device – several hard drives, several printers, or a combination of both. Performance stats will follow later on in this review.
Apple AirPort Extreme Stacked on a LaCie FireWire Hard Drive
Finally, the last remaining port on the back of the AirPort Extreme is the power port. The AirPort Extreme is powered via a power brick that’s approximately 25% the size of the base station itself. It’s somewhat surprising that Apple didn’t figure out a way to avoid having to use a power brick for a low-consumption device like this. But as far as power bricks are concerned, this one is quite nice looking and relatively unobtrusive. I also noticed that the power brick doesn’t heat up as much as I expected it would.
Setup and Use
For those who’ve owned earlier versions of the AirPort Extreme, the setup and configuration process for the new AirPort Extreme will be relatively simple. Those of you who have never used an AirPort Extreme base station, the automatic setup process is simple, but not as simple and tinker-free as setting up a new Mac computer. Setup requires a little thought and attention, but not too much.
The primary setup actions are easy – pull the AirPort Extreme from the packaging and remove the plastic wrap. Plug it in to an outlet. Run a LAN cable from your cable/DSL/T1 modem to the WAN port on the back of the AirPort Extreme. That’s it – the hardware is set up.
On your Mac, insert the AirPort Extreme installation CD. Once the CD opens, click on the AirPort setup icon. This begins the setup wizard with which you will be able to name your network (SSID) and your base station (in case you have more than one, or if you also use an AirPort Express). You’ll be asked to indicate the type of internet connection you have. If you don’t know this, your internet provider will be able to tell you. You’ll have the option of setting up the AirPort Extreme with or without encryption. Encryption is a very wise choice. A few moments later, the AirPort Extreme setup process will be complete. The base station will reboot and your connection should be live. You may need to re-connect to the base station using your wireless connection icon, but chances are your Mac will automatically make friends with the AirPort Extreme.
There are a great number of ways you can manually configure the AirPort Extreme to match your exact needs. To do this, open your Utilities folder, launch the AirPort Extreme Utility app, select your base station, then hit Command-L (or select the Base Station menu, then Manual Setup). There are enough custom options to keep you occupied for a while. If you royally screw something up (unlikely), you can always do a hard reset of the AirPort Extreme by way of the reset button on the back of the base station.
In short, the setup process is pretty easy. More inexperienced users may need to ask for help, but there’s a good chance everyone will be able to do it all on their own.
AirPort Utility Screen Shot, Summary Page
AirPort Utility Screen Shot, Password and Time Settings
AirPort Utility Screen Shot, Internet Settings Page
The first thing I did after setting up the base station was attach a printer. I set up my HP printer via the USB port. It worked instantly, just as if I’d had it plugged directly into my laptop via USB. No difficulties at all. Lag time from hitting the "Print" button till printing began was the same as before.
I also have a network-enabled printer, so I set it up on the base station using one of the available LAN ports. Setting up a printer with a specific IP address takes a little more setup time, but it’s equally simple. To use a specific IP address in an internal network, like so many 192.168 networks, one must open the AirPort Extreme Utility app, select the base station, then hit Command-L (or select the Base Station menu, then Manual Setup), and use the Internet/DHCP settings to change the AirPort Extreme from the standard 10.0 IP to 192.168.whatever.
Luckily, the setup interface for the AirPort Extreme is awesome in simplicity and impeccably organized. Changing the IP address for the base station takes no more than 20 seconds – less if you don’t gawk at the pretty interface.
Wireless Range & Signal Strength
Like most people, my wireless needs are pretty simple – my desk is 10 feet from my router. Range and signal are never an issue. If I need to go to another room with my laptop, the additional distance from the base station is negligible. Signal strength never loses more than one bar, even through 3-4 walls.
To test 802.11n range as best as I could, I set up my AirPort Extreme base station atop a tripod in the wide open outdoors and went for a stroll with my MacBook Pro.
I was amazed with the distance I was able to cover without dropping any signal strength. 150 feet – full signal. 200 feet – full signal. 250 feet – a momentary dip, then back to full signal. 300 feet (I could barely see the AirPort Extreme by this point) – full signal. Another 20 feet and the signal dropped to almost nothing. I looked up from my laptop and discovered that several people had crossed into my path, directly between the base station and my laptop. I shooed them out of the way and the signal went back up to full strength. I kept walking and found that my signal finally dropped to half strength by the time I had passed 350 feet.
I could have gone farther than 350 feet, I’m sure, but the road I was walking down began to curve and I lost sight of the AirPort Extreme base station.
In short, the distance tests for 802.11n is outstanding.
Speed Tests & AirPort Disk Utility
Wireless data rates can be dramatically affected by structural and electronic variables in your immediate area. Users’ results will typically vary to greater or lesser degrees, therefore don’t take the following test results as gospel. (To quote Apple’s website, "Actual performance will vary based on range, connection rate, site conditions, size of network, and other factors. Range will vary with site conditions.")
Prior to testing the 802.11n data transfer speeds between two 802.11n enabled computers (MacBook 2GHz Core 2 Duo and MacBook Pro 2.33GHz Core 2 Duo) on a local network, I tested the wired connections between the same computers for a frame of reference.
1. MacBook connected to MacBook Pro directly by a LAN cable, each with Gigabit ethernet. Average transfer speed of 650MB file = 20MB/s, with a top burst of 31MB/s.
2. MacBook connected to MacBook Pro by LAN cables via AirPort Extreme, using the base station’s 10/100BASE-T ports. Average transfer speed of 650MB file = 11MB/s.
I performed several wireless speed tests with the new AirPort Extreme. These tests included wireless 802.11g at 2.4GHz, 802.11n at 2.4GHz and 802.11n at 5GHz. Each was tested with and without encryption.
One of the most promising features of the AirPort Extreme is the USB 2.0 port and the ability to connect hard drives to it. This helps create NAS-like storage on the cheap. The fact that a USB hub can enable you to connect multiple hard drives is truly revolutionary.
I tested the AirPort Disk Utility to see how easy it was to set up and how the overall performance rated.
Setting up the AirPort Disk Utility was easy quick. The application asked if I wanted to allow free connection or if passwords access was preferred. I’m data-paranoid, so I chose the password option. I denied disk access to guests. Bah, guests. Within 2 minutes, the 250GB USB 2.0 drive I connected was accessible via my menu bar and my desktop. I was pleased, until I began moving data to and from the drive.
In most cases, encryption seemed to slow things down a little, but not much.
As a final test, I did what many people will eventually do – I backed up an entire directory of documents, spreadsheets, PDFs and images to the AirPort Disk. The directory contained 6.17GB of data. The data transfer was started at 6:15am. By 7:30am, only 2.33GB of data had been moved over.
I was disappointed by the AirPort Disk stats, but I had to recognize that the data rates I was seeing were still technically ‘decent’. I just expected a lot more, especially with 802.11n.
As I mentioned above, varying conditions in your immediate environment may significantly alter your AirPort Extreme speeds.
One thing I found particularly impressive was the fact that my overall Internet speeds increased two-fold after installing the AirPort Extreme. Previously, I was getting an average of 2,400kbps with my 6mbps Comcast connection (using Motorola’s SB5120 modem and speakeasy.net’s speed test).
After I hooked up the AirPort Extreme base station and configured it for encrypted 802.11n running at 5GHz, my average speed tests ranked closer to 5,900kbps down and 350kbps up! That’s awesome! Even directly connected to the cable modem, speeds never jump over 6,100kbps, so to have 6mbps wireless is a real treat. On a day-to-day basis, this will be much appreciated and nearly justifies the $179 price tag of the AirPort Extreme.
The new AirPort Extreme base station looks awesome and has a useful USB port for connecting printers and drives. Signal strength and wireless range are stellar. The overall results in computer-to-computer data transfer tests show that the 802.11n protocol, at least with this AirPort Extreme, come close to half the speeds of wired networks. That’s an impressive feat. Major kudos to Apple for these positive points!
The AirPort Disk performance was less impressive. I figured this would be one of the strongest points, but it was the weakest point of all.
Additionally, the 2x boost in average Internet speeds made me very happy. If this wireless router can enhance speeds for other Mac users, there will be a lot of satisfied folks across the nation.
If you want a router with 802.11n protocol that’s friendly to both Mac and PCs, is easy to set up and maintain, and operates at near-wired speeds, the AirPort Extreme is a great choice. If you need flawless n speeds all the time and you intend to use the AirPort Disk USB 2.0 drive for massive data transfers, the AirPort Extreme may be a good choice, but it’d be prudent to weigh other options before buying.
If you have an opportunity to test the AirPort Extreme prior to purchase (bring your new MacBook or MacBook Pro down to your local Apple store), I’d recommend doing so. You’ll get a feel for the real-world performance and how valuable it can be to you.
• Sleek design
• Amazing wireless distances & signal strength
• Potential boost of cable/DSL Internet speeds
• 802.11n provides better security & potential speeds
• USB 2.0 port for AirPort Disks & printers
• Works with both Macs and PCs
• Hefty $179 price tag
• Sluggish AirPort Disk speeds on local wireless network
• Only 3 ethernet ports
• Requires an ‘N’ compatible NIC card to faster speeds