Apple's AirPort Extreme simplifies small organization and residential office networks. Erik Eckel takes a look at this combination router/firewall/wireless access point.
My four- or five-year old Apple AirPort Extreme base station was growing long in the tooth. Plus, I think its power source was struck by lightning a few weeks ago. It was time for a replacement.
Having previously read positive reviews of Apple's new $199 AirPort Extreme, which boasts 802.11ac performance and beamforming technology, I picked one up. Like many harried professionals, however, I didn't look forward to the process of recording all the settings from my current router, including DHCP range, multiple wireless networks and corresponding passcodes, DNS servers, port forwards and similar elements, plus having to re-enter all that information on the new router.
Thanks to Apple engineering, I didn't have to. Upon powering the new AirPort Extreme and opening Apple's AirPort Utility, the very first option I was presented was the opportunity to replace my existing device with the new router. The old router's settings were automatically and correctly transferred to the new device. All I had to do was click Next and move my cable modem's Ethernet cable to the new router's WAN port. The migration experience was truly that easy.
The new AirPort Extreme model is blazing fast when married to an 802.11ac-compatible system, such as a new MacBook Air. In fact, the device supports Wi-Fi speeds up to 1.3 Gbps, which is three times faster than the 802.11 standard. With true dual-band support, the integrated wireless access point transmits at 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz simultaneously, meaning systems will automatically connect to the best available frequency for the best performance. Because the 802.11ac feature supports beamforming, in which the wireless access point senses the location of a connected device and adjusts its signal to that location, wireless performance improves for such connected devices.
Other than being noticeably taller than the older model it replaces, the new 6.6-inch tall AirPort Extreme is 3.85 inches wide. The unit includes a gigabit WAN port, three gigabit LAN ports and one USB 2.0 port, which can be used to connect and share an external hard disk or printer over the network.
Curious whether the router offered better internet performance, I compared bandwidth and wireless radio strength tests both using the old Airport Extreme base station and the all new AirPort Extreme. Results were only marginally improved using the new model with my two-year-old MacBook Pro, which proved consistent whether using 802.11g or 802.11n connection technologies. The old model averaged 22.32 Mbps downstream, 2.3 Mbps up and 32 ms latency, with -73 dBm signal (RSSI) strength. The new router returned essentially the same performance with an average 22.55 Mbps downstream, 2.33 Mbps up, 29 ms latency and -69 dBm signal strength.
Some reviewers note that the router lacks QoS traffic prioritization and VPN services, but I suspect Apple doesn't believe many users intend to leverage the device for such functionality. Instead, the redesigned AirPort Extreme is a highly approachable, easy-to-configure router and wireless access point that simplifies networking and possesses excellent performance for the money.
The new unit's ease of installation (a wizard is provided if the unit is being installed from scratch, and the router can even be deployed using just an iOS device), combined with its 802.11ac support, make it a natural replacement for any other aging Apple router where Time Capsule backup features are not required. The fact the new unit's power brick is integrated inside the router also makes it easier to connect and deploy, and this is a welcomed feature. Too often, manufacturers include a bulky power brick as part of the power cord, which sometimes requires creative cable routing or cable management to maintain a tidy implementation.