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AirPort Extreme Base Station

Apple’s new AirPort Extreme Base Station solves three major wireless networking problems in one blow: speed, range, and configuration. The gateway also makes sharing multiple printers and hard drives across a network as easy as plugging in a cable.

This new wireless router promises roughly five times the throughput and twice the range of the previous model. And because it’s based on a new wireless standard, 802.11n, which incorporates both the older b and g standards, it is backward compatible with Apple’s earlier AirPort (802.11b) and AirPort Extreme (802.11g) adapters. Best results, however, require leaving b and g standards behind.

The Base Station’s product name is identical to its predecessor, but the unit itself has a radically different form. The alien spaceship shape is no more; the new Extreme looks like a slightly squat Mac mini, making it easier to stack in multiples (although careful channel selection may be needed when doing so to avoid interference). It also sports a three-port 10/100 Mbps Ethernet switch, a useful feature for small, mixed wired/wireless networks found for years in Wi-Fi routers at a fraction of the cost of Apple’s previous Base Stations.

Speed thrills

With an 802.11n-enabled Mac wirelessly connected to the new AirPort Extreme Base Station, we consistently saw speeds of just over 90 Mbps when sending data to and from another Mac connected to the Base Station via Ethernet. When two 802.11n-enabled Macs communicated with each other wirelessly through the Base Station, rates reached almost 50 Mbps in each direction, but only over 90 Mbps when restricted to a single direction, clearly revealing that the new Base Station’s lack of Gigabit Ethernet constrains the potential top speed of 802.11n. In comparison, two Macs connected to the Base Station via Ethernet can achieve 94 Mbps in each direction. (Ethernet allows full speeds in each direction; wireless bandwidth is pooled among all transmitting devices.)

The new Base Station provided high-speed coverage over impressive distances—far longer than we have seen with Apple’s 802.11g Base Station and similar 802.11g gateways. For example, we took a MacBook up to 100 feet and 20 vertical feet away from a building containing the Base Station —complete with intervening walls, floors, and concrete partitions —and still maintained a connection with speeds of between 1 and 15 Mbps, with an average of 5 Mbps. The highest achieved speeds were measured as far as 30 feet away with one intervening wall. (Wi-Fi gateways are usually oriented with flat antenna profiles that work well when you’re at the same altitude as they are, such as the same floor of a building, and much less well when you’re above or below, especially when you’re also distant horizontally on the same plane.)

The top speeds we saw required the use of the 5 GHz band and wide channels, which allow the AirPort Extreme to use twice the range of frequency that was available with b and g standards. The Extreme can use either the 5GHz or the 2.4GHz band—most Wi-Fi routers use the 2.4GHz band only—but Apple doesn’t allow wide channels in the 2.4 GHz band to avoid interfering with Bluetooth.

When a network was using 2.4GHz channels (or ranges of frequencies) shared by other nearby networks—as many as five networks showed up in testing on one channel—we still saw typical speeds of 50 Mbps. On unused channels, a rarity in cities, we saw rates of 70 to 80 Mbps.

However, add the transmissions of just one legacy AirPort client—one using the older b or g standards—on the same network and throughput plummets. In a test with two laptops, one containing an 802.11b adapter, and the other an 802.11n adapter, both transmitting data at full speed, overall throughput dropped to a range of just a few Mbps to 30 Mbps. But in more likely scenarios, in which a b or g computer is sending data only intermittently, throughput between n hardware should remain high.

A minor glitch arose in our testing: if you have the AirPort Extreme set to share a single IP address and connect the Base Station to a larger network, throughput to the larger network drops to 30 Mbps for 802.11n and 60 Mbps for Ethernet. Throughput on the Extreme’s wireless connections and built-in Ethernet switch remain unchanged. When sharing is turned off, which is typically the case on a large network, the glitch disappears. And with broadband cable, DSL, or fiber services that operate more slowly than 30 Mbps, this problem won’t crop up. Apple confirmed and was able to replicate this problem, and is looking into a solution.

Improved utility

Apple took advantage of the release of an entirely new model to revamp its aging AirPort Admin Utility as well as ditch several related setup assistants and its client-monitoring program. The new AirPort Utility neatly combines all those features with less clutter.

Users new to wireless networking will see a streamlined set of steps, better than any previous assistant, that let them quickly set up a secured wireless network. Advanced users have access to more and better-organized settings.

The AirPort Utility makes troubleshooting much easier, by adding a display of configuration problems and tools to fix those errors in the Manual Setup’s Summary tab. Each element in the Summary tab, such as the Base Station’s channel or network setup, is a live link to the appropriate setting within the program.

Those who want to use DHCP but who run a Web server from a single IP address shared by the Base Station—or who need to access Timbuktu Pro, Personal File Sharing, or other services remotely—are in luck. The new Extreme lets you assign fixed private IP addresses based on a DHCP Client ID or Media Access Control (MAC) address. This fixed address can be coupled with improved port mapping controls, which allow inbound traffic from the Internet to be redirected through the gateway to the correct computer on your internal network.

The new AirPort Extreme supports the newer WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) and WPA2 encryption methods for both personal and corporate networks, as well as older WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) encryption. WEP, widely considered a broken method, is handled with the WEP Transitional networking standard, which allows mixing WEP, WPA, and WPA2 on the same network for compatibility. We recommend using WPA or WPA2, rather than WEP Transitional, where possible. (If you choose to deploy an 802.11n-only network, security is limited to the most advanced form, WPA2. However, all 802.11n devices support WPA2, so there’s no mismatch in technology.)

Sharing printers and drives

Home users and small businesses will find the ability to add and control access to one or more hard drives connected via USB (or a separately purchased USB hub) a much less expensive option than many of the alternatives, such as using a dedicated NAS (network-attached storage) drive or using a dedicated computer as a file server. And although other gateways let you connect a hard drive, Apple’s is the only one that supports the Mac-native HFS Plus (Hierarchical File System Plus) drive format and AFP, Apple’s Personal File Sharing protocol. AirPort Utility offers a variety of access controls to protect the hard drive’s files and folders, including setting up user accounts and passwords with read only or read and write permission. Individual folders can’t be separately protected, however, which prevents the feature from being as useful in larger offices.

A few rough edges remain in the new system. AirPort Utility doesn’t always remember Base Station administrative access passwords or encryption keys when you change settings. And the utility—not the Base Station—crashed during normal operation many times in testing. However, since 802.11n is in flux, expect several firmware updates starting in March.

Macworld’s buying advice

Apple’s new AirPort Extreme Base Station may have been a long time coming, but it’s worth the wait for anyone whose network needs either greater speed or longer distance. While cheaper 802.11n gateways are already on the market, none matches Apple’s for features or ease of setup. Apple just needs to step up to the plate and add gigabit Ethernet to fulfill this speed demon’s full potential.

[ Glenn Fleishman writes daily about wireless networking at his site Wi-Fi Networking News.]

AirPort Extreme Base StationA Summary tab in AirPort Utility’s Manual Setup shows settings and allows quick access to make changes.

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