Compared to a wired ethernet cable, WiFi has always been tragically slow – with the arrival of 802.11ac, the newest WiFi standard – that might not be true anymore. AirPort Extreme is Apple’s dual-band router, which means it broadcasts both at 2.4 and 5 GHz to provide suitable networks to a variety of devices. As well was the basic a/b/g/n, 802.11ac allows for a theoretical gigabit bandwidth over WiFi.
Today, I’ll be putting the device through its paces, seeing how much of a benefit I’ll achieve over the top tier router supplied by my cable company. We’re also giving an AirPort Extreme away, so read on to find out how to win!
Introducing Apple’s AirPort Extreme Base Station
AirPort Extreme retails for just under $200. For an additional $100, you can purchase a 2 TB Time Capsule – essentially the same hardware but with an internal drive fitted. This AirPort Extreme is at the premium end of routers, but by no means is it overpriced – the ASUS RT-AC66U offers a similar feature set for the same price. D-link’s Wireless AC SmartBeam sits at the budget end at around $99, but its speeds are limited.
In reality, you won’t hit anywhere near the theoretical speeds from most client devices which only support a single data stream. The MacBook Air firmware has just been updated to use 2 data streams at once, so you should see significant speeds when paired with the AirPort Extreme. Sadly, neither the latest iPad nor iPhone support 802.11ac yet; a number of Android devices including the Samsung Galaxy S4 do have it though. Another feature of the new 802.11ac is the concept of beam forming, which means a WiFi signal is focussed on the device using it, rather than irradiated concentrically around the router. In theory, this should also allow for a longer range signal. Read more about the various WiFi standards and new dual band routers.
The box lifts smoothly to reveal the stark white tower inside – any additional bits are hidden in the base. It’s the classic Apple packaging that we love.
This product is unabashedly Apple – an objet d’art. Beauty isn’t normally something I look for in a router if we’re being honest – but out of the box, this one oozes it.
Upon peeling off the protective cover, you’re greeted with that same tacky white plastic that characterised the early MacBooks.
Standing proud in a nod to the Power Mac G4 cube design, the Airport Extreme eschews the traditional front panel of endless lights and indicators which mean nothing to the average user anyway; opting instead for a single indicator light discreetly at the base.
Around the back of the device are a scant selection of ports – 3 ethernet ports, a USB port (only 2.0 though), the WAN ethernet socket, and power. Although pleasing to the eye, the vertical arrangement means unclipping one of the lower ethernet ports is impossible for all but the tiniest of fingers. It’s a small annoyance given how rarely this happens, but might be relevant to you.
Also in the box is a power cable, and a hefty selection of setup guides in various languages. It seems curious that if they’ve gone to the trouble of providing an English plug to me, why they would bother including so many setup guides in different languages?
On the base of the unit is an elevated black platform with inset air inlets – a very discreet Apple logo stamped in place, despite this side facing down.
The USB port allows you to connect a printer for sharing on the network, or a hard drive for a quick and dirty NAS. You can’t use an attached drive as a Time Machine backup destination though, which may dash any hopes you had of making your own low-cost Time Capsule – Apple has reserved that functionality for the official devices.
As expected, setup is effortless – I placed the cable box into modem mode (this disables all ethernet ports except one and deactivates WiFi completely) – and plugged in the AirPort Express. My iPad detected a new AirPort device immediately, and invited me to set it up.
There are no confusing choices of WEP or WPA security – just naming the device, the network, and the password. If you have a drive attached, the device name is what you’ll see in Finder or My Networks.
Unfortunately, finding additional configuration options or information post-setup is made quite difficult by the overly simplistic AirPort Utility. For most users, the main window will present you with two icons: the Internet, and the AirPort Extreme. Click on the router for some basic information, and hover over a client for another popup. It’s not intuitive at all, and it would be nice to see graphical representations of connected clients on this screen too.
To reconfigure, click the ‘Edit’ button. You’ll find a standard set of network options, but also some hidden gems like timed access control for specific hardware addresses. There’s no explanation or helpful dialogs to walk you through setting these up.
On the other hand – most users will rarely have need of entering those screens. Even attaching a network drive is a simple plug-and-play affair – within seconds of attaching a formatted USB portable drive, it was available everywhere on the network, no setup required.
I’m replacing the standard n-router supplied by Virgin Media to their top tier customers (60 Mbps plan). In both cases, I’ve left the default settings – no channel adjustments were made, so the routers chose whatever they thought was the least crowded channel. For reference, here’s the technical details of the old and new networks (from the MacBook Air, mobile devices were limited to n-speeds):
Typically in a home network, it’s your internet speed that provides the data bottleneck. In my case, the slow WiFi speeds mean I couldn’t fully utilise the 60 Mbps broadband from mobile devices. To test the WiFi speed then, Speedtest app illustrates a small difference.
It should also be noted that the higher speeds on the AirPort Extreme were much more consistent – it took a few tries to get even 19 Mbps from the old router – most resulted in less than 1 Mbps – you can see this inconsistency on the rate graphs above. This could be due to other factors of course, like network utilization or interference, but the 32 Mbps from AirPort Extreme was obtained first time, every time. In terms of range and coverage, I saw no additional benefit for mobile devices – the signal dropped completely a few houses down the road, as always.
On a MacBook Air, speed tests were done by measuring the transfer times for a 1.7 GB file from my wired NAS. Again, no changes were made to the NAS itself.
- Cable-supplied router, same room: 3.42 minutes
- Cable-supplied router, upstairs: 3.40 minutes
- AirPort Express, same room: 24 seconds
- AirPort Express, upstairs: 54 seconds
The results show a clear 4-6x speed increase over 802.11ac compared to 802.11n.
For coverage testing, I used the free NetSpot app (you can also get a NetSpot desktop license) to map out the WiFi signal strength; the router was placed in the same location each time. An overall stronger signal is clearly identifiable (green and yellow is strong, dark blue is weak), which would indicate that the “beam forming” aspect of 802.11 ac is working.
Should you buy the AirPort Extreme?
Although I see huge speed increases across the board – especially on my MacBook Air – I feel like Apple missed a trick here. It really shouldn’t be difficult to enable the Time Machine on a USB drive, even if it means the Airport Extreme has to reformat it for exclusive use – and why are all the (limited) device configuration options so hidden away?
The lack of USB 3.0; the lack of 802.11ac chips in the latest Apple mobile devices – it worries me that Apple aren’t being the trend setters anymore. There was a time when Apple were the first to feature USB ports and essentially kickstarted that generation of hardware – now they are simply lagging. That said, the AirPort Extreme is a capable router – far better than your average cable company is going to provide. For an instant speed boost on your home network, you could do worse.
Buy it for a speed boost and sheer ease of setup; look elsewhere for advanced configuration options.
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