Businesses sometimes struggle to understand the role routers play fueling network performance — protecting data, powering secure wireless connections, and sharing resources. Apple has helped smaller organizations simplify the process. While small businesses receive three choices within Apple's lineup, and while all models include Wi-FI services, there are important distinctions. Here's how to know which Apple Wi-Fi router is likely best for your small office.
Apple's AirPort Express enables connecting up to 10 users on the same network. The device is intended for residential or home office use or for business or mobile users that travel and require portable wireless ad-hoc networks for printing, file sharing, or wirelessly connecting to an existing cabled Ethernet Internet connection (such as at a hotel).
The AirPort Express sells for $99. The model works with Window PCs and Macs and features 802.11a/b/g and n draft 2.0 compatibility. The AirPort Express supports Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA/WPA2), WEP (40- and 128-bit encryption) and MAC address filtering.
The decidedly simple device (they measure only 3.7 inches by 2.95 inches by 1.12 inches) possesses surprising capabilities. The AirPort Express supports NAT, DHCP, PPPoE, VPN (IPSec, PPTP and L2TP), DNS Proxy, SNMP and IPv6. The simple plug-in router also supports RADIUS authentication and time-based access controls and includes Apple's Airport Utility for simplifying setup and administration.
Only home users will be reasonably serviced by the AirPort Express. However, as noted, business users that travel and require an ad-hoc network may find the AirPort Express a viable option.
Apple's AirPort Extreme costs $179 and boasts a larger footprint than the Express (the Extreme is 6.5 inches by 6.5 inches by 1.3 inches). Just as with the Express, the Extreme supports the same Wi-Fi specifications and routing services.
There are important differences for the AirPort Extreme, however. The AirPort Extreme operates its 2.4GHz and 5GHz Wi-Fi bands simultaneously to provide better performance and range and includes Gigabit Ethernet WAN (1) and LAN (3) ports for connecting additional computers and devices. The Express also includes a USB 2.0 port for connecting either a USB-cabled printer or external hard disk for sharing with other computers over the network.
With support for up to 50 connected clients, the AirPort Extreme is the likely choice for small offices needing an easily configured and dependable Wi-Fi router. The device's scalability will meet many small office's needs, and its flexibility (again, a cabled-printer or hard disk can be connected to provide network-based printing or file storage and sharing) helps small offices implement a single device capable of fulfilling multiple needs.
The Time Capsule is the more curious of Apple's Wi-Fi routers. Available in 1TB ($299) and 2TB ($499) versions, the device is essentially an AirPort Extreme Base Station with integrated storage. My opinion, based upon both personally using and supporting clients using these devices, is that the Time Capsule offers the least value of the Apple Wi-Fi lineup.
- Need a simple Wi-Fi network for a few users? Pick up the AirPort Express.
- Need better dual-band performance for 35 users? Get the AirPort Extreme.
- Need secure Wi-Fi access, network-based storage and the ability to connect a few extra machines via cabled Ethernet? I believe Apple would have you buy the Time Capsule, but I'd recommend purchasing the Extreme and adding a Western Digital external hard disk and maybe even saving a little dough in the process.
The Time Capsule is likely best used in very small (five or less system) offices that don't need to back up much more than a few gigabytes of files, total. Even at ideal speeds, trying to back up a few hundred gigabytes or terabytes of data over a small office network is likely a prescription for failure.
Accessing smaller files on an external hard disk connected to an AirPort Extreme usually works fine; trying to back up anything more, especially via wireless, will probably leave you disappointed. Those organizations needing basic Wi-Fi and routing but needing to back up 1TB of data or more are likely better served purchasing standalone external hard disks for the backups and deploying an AirPort Extreme (or Express) instead.
Erik Eckel owns and operates two technology companies. As a managing partner with Louisville Geek, he works daily as an IT consultant to assist small businesses in overcoming technology challenges and maximizing IT investments. He is also president of Eckel Media Corp., a communications company specializing in public relations and technical authoring projects.