First Look: Up close with AirPort Extreme

Although Apple’s iPhone and Apple TV unveilings dominated coverage of last week’s Macworld Expo, they weren’t the only products the Cupertino-based company announced that week. The new-and-improved AirPort Extreme Base Station didn’t rate so much as a mention during Steve Jobs’ two-hour keynote, relegating it to the announced-by-press-release status normally reserved for minor releases and upgrades.

And that’s misleading, since this AirPort Extreme update is anything but minor—it’s a long overdue refresh of Apple’s wireless hardware.

It’s been seven-and-a-half years since Apple released its first AirPort device, a spaceship-shaped contraption featuring 802.11b wireless technology that accompanied the AirPort-equipped iBook. Since July 1999, Apple has significantly updated the AirPort Base Station line three times—in November 2001, with better encryption, cross-platform support, support for up to 50 users, and a second Ethernet port; in January 2003, with 802.11g support and wireless USB printing; and, most recently, in April 2004, with Power-over-Ethernet. (There was also the June 2004 addition of the AirPort Express.)

In other words, prior to last week’s blink-and-you-missed-it announcement, it had been nearly three years since the most recent AirPort Extreme update, and Apple’s most capable Base Station was showing its age, in terms of both features and bandwidth. Given that the Apple TV should dramatically increase the amount of data sent over home wireless networks, most people assumed Apple would need to update the AirPort line of Base Stations to support the much faster 802.11n standard, and soon.

Enter the new AirPort Extreme, which bears an uncanny physical resemblance to the Apple TV. Set to ship next month, the new Extreme base station represents the most significant upgrade ever to Apple’s wireless access point, and it accomplishes that feat at a new lower price of $179. Here’s a rundown of what’s new (and what’s missing).

It looks a lot like the Apple TV, but that’s the new AirPort Express Base Station, featuring support for 802.11n wireless networking.

What’s new

802.11n The new Base Station continues to support the 802.11b and 802.11g networking standards available in the last iteration of AirPort Extreme. But it adds support for 802.11a and, most important, the new 802.11n “standard.” We use the term standard loosely because 802.11n hasn’t quite been approved yet; the technology is currently in draft status, which means the final specifications haven’t yet been ratified by the international standards body that oversees 802.11 technology. However, it appears that the current draft specification is very likely to be the final version—or close enough that a software or firmware update should be able to bring the device into spec.

The biggest advantage of 802.11n over earlier standards is a technology called multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO), which uses multiple antennas—the new Base Station has three internal antennas to improve both performance and range. Apple claims that the latest Extreme Base Station offers up to twice the range of its immediate predecessor (which itself offered significantly better range than the original AirPort Base Station), and up to five times better data throughput. (The company doesn’t provide official estimates, noting that “actual performance will vary based on range, connection rate, site conditions, size of network and other factors.” Real-world figures are approximately 100Mbps for 802.11n compared to 20Mbps for 802.11g.) In addition, Apple takes advantage of a currently-optional 802.11n feature, the ability to use either the 2.4GHz or 5GHz wireless spectrums. If your 802.11n network has trouble with one spectrum, you can switch to the other.

To take advantage of 802.11n, you’ll need devices that support the new standard. According to Apple, this includes all Core 2 Duo iMacs except the 17-inch 1.83GHz model; all Core 2 Duo MacBooks; all Core 2 Duo MacBook Pros; and all Mac Pros with an AirPort Extreme card. The wireless circuitry in these machines already supports 802.11n and requires only a simple software update, included with the new Base Station in the form of an 802.11n Enabler utility, to “unlock” this support. (If you don’t purchase a new Base Station, Apple told Macworld that you’ll be able to download the Enabler from the Apple Online Store for a fee of $1.99. According to the company, the fee is required so that Apple complies with generally accepted accounting principles, which generally require companies to charge for significant feature enhancements to previously purchased products. Apple also said that the 802.11n software will eventually be included with all new Macs with 802.11n-capable hardware.)

That said, as with previous Base Stations (and wireless routers from other companies), you’ll get the best performance from single-standard networks—in this case, 802.11n-only. Once you add 802.11g or 802.11b devices to the network, the performance of the entire network will be affected; it won’t be reduced all the way down to the slower performance of the respective older standards, but performance won’t be as fast as a single-standard network. (And 802.11b devices will affect performance to a greater extent than 802.11g devices will.) So if you’ve got Macs, PowerBooks, iBooks, or other wireless devices with 802.11b or -g, don’t expect to see as dramatic an increase in performance, even when using 802.11n devices.

A built-in 3-port 10/100 switch Previous AirPort Extreme Base Stations provided only two Ethernet ports: one (WAN) for connecting to your broadband Ethernet connection, the other (LAN) to share that connection with wired clients on your local network. If you had more than one wired device—a computer, a printer, a network-audio player, and so forth—you had to purchase a hub or a switch, connect that to the Base Station’s LAN Ethernet port, and then connect your devices to the hub or switch. The new Base Station includes four Ethernet ports—one WAN and three LAN—with the three LAN ports as part of a built-in 3-port 10/100 switch. In other words, you can connect up to three wired computers and devices to the Base Station to add them to your local network and provide them with Internet access.

USB printer and hard drive sharing: Both the current Extreme Base Station and AirPort Express Base Station support printer sharing; plug a USB printer into the Base Station’s USB port, and any Bonjour-capable computer (recent OS X machines as well as Windows computers running Apple’s Bonjour for Windows) will automatically detect the presence of the printer on the network and be able to print to it. This capability is carried over to the new version of the Extreme Base Station, but Apple has added an even better feature: AirPort Disk. Connect a USB 2.0 storage drive—in HFS Plus or FAT32 format—to the Base Station’s USB port, and that drive will be accessible to any computer on your local network via both AFP (Personal File Sharing) and SMB (Windows File Sharing) protocols. Hard drives and flash drives will work, but optical drives will not.

Although this isn’t a new technology—network-attached storage (NAS) drives have been available for some time—integrating it into the new Base Station means virtually any USB hard drive can be used as a NAS drive. (Not to mention that standard USB drives are generally much less expensive than dedicated NAS drives.) And a new AirPort Disk Utility lets you assign file- and folder-level restrictions to the contents of the attached drive, so each user with permission to access the drive can be restricted to particular files and folders. You can even set up drives to auto-mount on your Desktop whenever you connect your Mac to the network—no more having to use the Network browser or Connect To Server dialog to access your NAS-hosted files.

Finally, if you’ve got a USB printer and a USB drive, or more than one of each, you can simply connect a USB hub to the Base Station’s USB port and then connect those devices to the hub. All of the printers and hard drives will be accessible to the local network, and you can use AirPort Disk Utility to configure access to each drive independently. (Although Apple hasn’t explicitly stated so, it appears that you could even use one of these Base-Station-shared USB drives as your Time Machine backup volume—once OS X 10.5 ships later this year, of course.)

Time-based access control Current Base Stations let you regulate access to your wireless network based on each device’s Media Access Control (MAC) address, a unique hardware identifier that distinguishes one computer from another. The new Base Station retains this functionality, but enhances it by letting you determine when each device can access the wireless network—and, therefore, the Internet. For example, you could set up the Base Station so that your child’s MacBook can access the Internet only during specific hours. Or you could deny access to all computers within range of your network during hours when your family is at work or school.

Better form factor The shape of the new Base Station—6.5 inches square by 1.3 inches tall—is likely to be an improvement for most users compared to the admittedly attractive, but somewhat impractical, spaceship design of previous models. A vertical design, which would have required a smaller footprint, may have been even better, but the new Base Station will fit in tighter spots, such as on top of a row of books in a bookcase or within a media center.

From left to right, the ports on the back of the new AirPort Extreme Base Station: Power, USB, WAN, three Ethernet ports, and a Security Slot.

What’s missing

No Gigabit (1000BASE-T) Ethernet As noted above, the new Base Station includes a 10/100 switch. This means that it supports 10BASE-T and 100BASE-T Ethernet. It also means that the new Base Station doesn’t support the newer—and faster—1000BASE-T (a.k.a., Gigabit Ethernet) standard, a technology present on every Mac shipping today (though not on the Apple TV, which features a 10/100 jack). Apple told Macworld that 10/100 Ethernet “delivers ample performance for the most common tasks on a home network, even multiple video streams.” And for the most part, that’s a fair statement—the lack of Gigabit Ethernet will likely affect only those users who have two or more Gigabit-Ethernet-equipped Macs connected directly to the AirPort Extreme’s Ethernet ports and who use that connection to transfer large amounts of data between those wired Macs. The limitation won’t affect wireless data transfers, or even transfers between wired and wireless devices—although 802.11n can theoretically saturate a 100BASE-T connection, when you take into account network overhead, radio interference, and other factors, it’s unlikely you’ll see faster-than-100BASE-T speeds over wireless.

No antenna port Unlike current Extreme Base Stations, the new model does not include a port for connecting an external antenna to extend the range of your wireless network. The reason for this is that the new Base Station, as noted above, is designed to maximize the device’s internal three-antenna array using MIMO technology; adding an external antenna would actually reduce the range by disrupting this array. And given that the new Base Station is supposed to offer significantly better range than its predecessor out-of-the-box, there hopefully won’t be as much of a need for an external antenna. We’re looking forward to testing the range when our unit arrives.

What’s it cost?

At $179, this is the least expensive Extreme Base Station yet, but it’s still more expensive than similar products from manufacturers such as Linksys and Belkin, whose 802.11n wireless routers start at around $120. However, these basic models are lacking many of the features offered by the new AirPort Extreme Base Station, such as shared-printer and NAS support. Once you move up to products that offers similar features, such as Linksys’s WRT350N, prices are roughly comparable (and, if Apple’s claims are true, the Base Station will be easier to set up and administer).

Order status

Based on specs alone, the new AirPort Extreme Base Station looks to be a welcome update to Apple’s wireless-router line—and a much more compelling product than older Base Stations, which were often criticized for being considerably more expensive than similar third-party products. Unfortunately, like the other products Apple announced last week, the new AirPort Extreme Base Station isn’t immediately available; Apple says it will begin to ship in February, although our order, placed the day of the announcement, has a delivery estimate of March 6. We’ll be sure to fill you in on its performance and functionality when the AirPort Extreme Base Station arrives.

[ Dan Frakes is a senior editor for Macworld and a senior reviews editor at Playlist. ]

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