Editors' note: Apple recently released a new revision of the AirPort Extreme Base Station, presumably to address speed and performance concerns with the older model. We tested the new model and retested the old one for this review. Only the Performance section of the review has been changed, as that is the only difference between the previous version of the AirPort Extreme Base Station and the new one.
At AU$229, the new AirPort Extreme is on the pricey side among high-end routers and unfortunately, it offers a relatively skimpy amount of networking features, especially for Windows users. It does, however, have high throughput speeds and the ease of use found in most Apple products. This new AirPort Extreme Base Station wireless router is the update to Apple's previous model with the same name and sleek design. The router offers two big improvements, including true dual-band Wireless-N and guest networking. These make it comparable to other true dual-band Wireless-N routers such as the D-Link Xtreme DIR-825 or the Linksys WRT610N. If you are a Mac user or in need of something simple, the new AirPort Extreme Base Station is definitely worth the investment. On the other hand, if you want more networking features and more control over your networking and remote access, there are better options available to you.
Design and ease of use
Like its predecessor, the AirPort Extreme Base Station is one of the best-looking routers we've reviewed. Though it doesn't have the smallest design, the router's square shape and internal antenna create a compact illusion.
On the front is a status light that changes colour according to the working condition of the device. For example, solid green means everything is in order, while flashing amber indicates a possible problem. On the back are three gigabit Ethernet ports and one USB port. There is one Ethernet port fewer than most other USB Wireless-N routers we've reviewed, which means you can connect only three wired clients to the router before necessitating a hub or a switch. The USB port can be used to host either a printer or an external hard drive to share among network users.
As the Base Station doesn't offer a web interface, setting up the AirPort Extreme Base Station requires the installation of the AirPort Utility software, which comes in both Mac and Windows versions. The Windows version of the software installs quite a few services, such as Bonjour and AirPort Base Station Agent, that run whenever the computer starts. AirPort Base Station Agent helps automatically detect shared folders from a USB drive connected to the router.
With other routers that support a web interface, you can configure them via a web browser without the need to install any software. It's also convenient, as you can immediately access the router's settings from virtually any computer connected to it. Some vendors, such as Linksys, offer both the desktop software and web interface for their routers.
To make up for this, the AirPort Utility makes setting up the router very easy for novice users, taking only a few minutes to get up and running. It has a wizard mode that walks you through the configuring process step by step. To customise the router beyond the recommended settings, you can use the manual mode, which has access to more advanced features.
The Base Station required a restart to apply any changes made to its settings, which is a nuisance because it interrupts the connections of all users. Other high-end routers can apply most minor changes without restarting.
According to Apple's website, the AirPort Extreme Base Station supports a maximum of 50 clients at a time. While 50 is quite a large number, this is only suitable for home or small office environments. We've never tested this, but generally if you have a cafe or a restaurant, look for other routers that support more clients at a time.
Other high-end routers include a breadth of features, including website filters, port triggering, Wi-Fi-protected push-button set-up (allowing users to hook up new clients to the network with the push of a button), or Dynamic DNS. The Base Station doesn't offer any of these.
The Base Station also lacks some other basic functions, including MAC replication — the ability to take a client's MAC address as its own. This is important, as some service providers require users, especially at college dorms, to register their computers' MAC addresses to ensure that only those particular computers can connect to the network. The Base Station doesn't make client control easy either. For example, if you want to add a client to the DHCP Reservations or the MAC Address Access Control list, you'll have to go to "Logs and Logistics", which is at a different part of the AirPort Utility, copy the MAC address of the client in question, then go back to the list to enter it. Many other routers show the list right where you need it, making it much more convenient to get the job done.
On the bright side, the Base Station is one of a few routers that offers print serving, storage capabilities and full support for IPv6 (the new version of the IP protocol). It is also the only router that's tied to Apple's MobileMe service for remote access and administration, which is a plus for Mac users who already have a MobileMe account.
The two biggest features of the new AirPort Extreme are true dual-band and guest networking. We found both to work well, though a little differently from what we're used to seeing.
Out of the box, Apple recommends using the same SSID (the name for a wireless network) for both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. According to an Apple representative, the client would detect the band by itself and if it supports both bands, it would pick the 5GHz over the 2.4GHz. In our test, this indeed worked with a MacBook Pro. The laptop immediately picked the 5GHz band every time.
It was a different story, however, when we tried it with a Windows system. Our Windows laptop, which supports both 5GHz and 2.4GHz Wireless-N, picked the 2.4GHz every time. The reasons for this are inconclusive and we were also unable to manually set the machines to use the 5GHz band to take advantage of the higher throughput speeds.
For this reason, we would recommend having a separate wireless network name for each band to allow more control of which band a client wants to use. Fortunately, the Wireless Option button in the AirPort Utility allows you to do this.
You can't turn off either of the bands separately. You can choose to turn off the wireless function of the router altogether, but once it's on, both bands are on. This means using the router to work as a 2.4GHz-only or a 5GHz-only wireless network is not possible. All other true dual-band routers we've reviewed allow people to have more control over the router's wireless functionality.
The Base Station's guest networking feature worked well in our trial. Guest networking allows for creating a separate wireless network that has access to the internet but not local resources, such as your computer or printer. The router allows you to create an additional network, the options to apply encryption to it, and make guest clients interact with one another. Again, unlike other routers that offer guest networking, the Base Station doesn't allow you to pick what band you want the guest network to operate in, nor can you make a separate guest network for each band.
We didn't get to try the print-serving feature, but we found that the router's support for USB external hard drives was rather limited. It doesn't read drives formatted in the NTFS file system, but only FAT32 and Mac OS Extended. Generally it's more difficult to format a drive larger than 32GB using FAT32. This means Windows users can't simply plug most of their USB external hard drives into the router and expect to share the data contained on it. If you are willing to reformat your hard drive, you'll need to use a computer to do so, as the router doesn't include the formatting feature.
We tried the router with two of our USB external hard drives, the G-Drive and the Seagate FreeAgent Go. Neither of them — when formatted using FAT32 and tested with a MacBook — worked with the AirPort Extreme Base Station. The router kept showing a "Disk needs repair" error without revealing any details or how to repair it.
Nonetheless, the drives worked when we formatted them using Mac OS Extended. Once plugged in, the router took about 30 seconds to see the hard drives. After that, the default share folder appeared in the Finder of any Mac in the network running OS X 10.4 or later. For Windows, the AirPort Base Station Agent software will make the network drive for you or you can browse for it using the network browser, as long as you have Bonjour installed on the machine.
If you are a Mac and MobileMe user, you can access the hard drive the same way when you are on the go, via the internet. You just need to register the router to your MobileMe account and it works similarly to the "Back to My Mac" feature. You can also change the router's settings this way, using the AirPort Utility. It's important to note that the remote access might not work at all if you access the internet via a corporate network, where certain services of the Base Station are blocked for security reasons.
Unfortunately, the remote access feature is not available for Windows users, even when they have a MobileMe account. MobileMe is free to use for 60 days; after that it costs AU$119 per year.
You can only share the hard drive as one shared folder, but you can't make multiple folders and share them separately with different access privileges. You can also use the AirPort Utility to create user accounts so each user has a private folder of his or her own. For example, if you log in as User1, you will see the default share folder and a folder called "User1", but you won't see the folders of User2 or User3. If you log in as User2, you will see the default share folder and a folder called "User2", and so on. These features make for a simple network storage solution that works well in an environment where you don't need a sophisticated way of sharing resources.
The router is also able to power the external hard drive via its USB port, which is very important, as a lot of new pocket-size external hard drives don't come with separate power cords.
For security, the AirPort Extreme Base Station features a built-in firewall and supports WPA, WPA2 and 128-bit WEP for wireless encryption. It also supports RADIUS access control, with which you can manage wireless clients from a centralised location.
Although parents aren't able to filter websites, they can restrict their kids' access based on time, provided they know how to get the MAC address off the kids' computers, which is a rather daunting task as mentioned earlier.
Let us be clear. We tested the AirPort Extreme in the uncontrolled environment of CNET's San Francisco office building. You may see better or worse performance depending on the wireless environment you use it in.
We tested the AirPort Extreme's throughput speeds by copying data from one computer to another using its wireless connection. This means the scores — while much lower than the theoretical maximum throughput speed of the Wireless-N specification — are the actual sustained-data rates, taking all overhead and interference into account.
We tested both the new version of the AirPort Extreme and the previous revision on the same day, within an hour of each other. In our 5GHz throughput test, the new AirPort Extreme edged out the old, scoring 66.6Mbps and 54.2Mbps, respectively. We saw a much smaller difference in the 2.4GHz band, with the old and new versions of the AirPort Extreme scoring 36.8Mbps and 35.5Mbps, respectively.
In our range test, where the client was 100 feet away, the new AirPort Extreme scored 31Mbps at 2.4GHz — virtually the same as the 30.5Mbps of the older AirPort Extreme. At 5GHz, neither version of the AirPort Extreme could hold a connection to complete the test at that range.
In our mixed-mode test, where the new AirPort Extreme was set to work with both Wireless-N and Wireless-G clients simultaneously, it scored 35.9Mbps — compared with the 35.2Mbps of the older AirPort Extreme. In our testing facility — an office building not optimised for wireless range — using a PC, we were able to hold a steady connection to the new and old AirPort Extreme from about 60m in the 2.4GHz band and about 72m for 5GHz. When we used a Mac, the connection range was slightly longer, by 1.0 - 1.5m.
(Mbps, longer bars indicate better performance)
The router ran warm throughout our testing, and we recommend you leave it in an open, well-ventilated location.
Service and support
As with the previous model, Apple backs the new AirPort Extreme Base Station with one year of support, which, albeit short, is standard for wireless routers. You can, however, purchase an extended AppleCare coverage plan. Also, if your Apple computer or Apple TV is covered under AppleCare, the AirPort Base Station is also covered. The router comes with 90 days of complimentary, toll-free phone support. At Apple's site, you can view FAQs, troubleshooting articles, user forums and download the manual as well as software.