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Monday, May 21, 2007, 06:00 am PT (09:00 am ET)

An in-depth review of Apple's 802.11n AirPort Extreme Base Station


You're Looking For What?

One minor flaw related to using the search field to find settings relates to what happens when the user searches for something that makes no sense in the current context. For example, after setting up the AirPort Express in bridge mode—where it acts only as a wireless distribution point and not as a router—I did a search for port forwarding.

In bridge mode however, the settings page for port forwarding isn't just grayed out, but actually goes away to help simplify the interface; it makes no sense to configure port forwarding in bridge mode. However, the search box still offers to help the user find these hidden settings. Since they are no longer displayed however, the search tool confusingly either dumps the user on the closest page possible, or appears to do nothing.

This makes it feel like the interface is broken or buggy, when really the user is just doing something non-sensical. It seems Apple should address this by presenting the hidden settings—in this case port forwarding—with an explanation that they are currently unavailable and why, rather than just hiding the page entirely. This is the same user interface concept behind greying out menu items that are unavailable rather then just making them vanish.

Disk Sharing Setup

The other new feature in AirPort Utility is, of course, the configuration controls for disk sharing. Unlike a full blown file server, all that's required to share a disk with AirPort Extreme is a USB drive and a tick in the appropriate check box. The box is already even checked by default. As Jeff Goldblum might announce, "there is no step two!"

Disk sharing requires the disk to already be formatted and ready to use. If you plug in a drive that is already formatted and full of files, the AirPort Extreme happily shares everything without any extra setup. If you plug in a defective drive as I did, the AirPort Utility software warns of the error and tells you to plug the drive into another computer and run Disk Utility to repair it.

AirPort Extreme 802.11n


There's an option for allowing guest access to the drive for anyone on the network, and controls to use either a single disk access password or the option to set up individual user accounts to control access to files on the disk.

AirPort Extreme 802.11n


Using the included AirPort Disk Utility, USB drives shared from the base station can be automatically discovered by Mac and PC users on the network, and client computers can turn on a new menu bar icon that lists all of the available shared drives on the network. After choosing to connect to a shared drive, all of its partitions will be mounted.

AirPort Extreme 802.11n


This magical simplicity is delivered through the convenience of Bonjour, Apple's automatic network configuration and discovery protocol. Bonjour is also behind printer sharing and the automatically discovered, shared playlists in iTunes.

Sprinkled throughout the AirPort Utility software are options to advertise shared printers, disks, and even the base station configuration "globally using Bonjour," although this requires an an account with an external dynamic DNS server, something Apple provides little information about how to actually go about doing. Perhaps it's waiting for a new .Mac wide-area Bonjour service to be unveiled in conjunction with Leopard.

AirPort Extreme 802.11n


The New Base Station Hardware

The new AirPort Extreme lacks the external antenna port present on the model it replaces, but wireless-n's new MIMO antenna technology means that an external antenna is not only unnecessary, but would only interrupt the workings of its internal array.

Also missing is support for dial up networking, but the number of people relying on modems for Internet access is dwindling to the point where Apple doesn't even include a modem on its new Macs. Users with needs for dial up networking can pick up a refurbished model of the previous AirPort Extreme from online vendors for around $100.

The shape of the AirPort Extreme unit is also new. The base station is no longer a UFO-shaped blob resembling a pregnant frisbee, but now hints at the simple candy box share of a Mac mini or Apple TV. It has the same footprint of the mini, but is about half as tall. Apple TV is larger around, 7.7 inches square, rather than the 6.5 inches of the mini and the new base station.

AirPort Extreme 802.11n


The new AirPort Extreme is significantly less expensive than the previous versions, at $179 rather than a list price above $250. While Apple originally introduced wireless networking at a breakthrough price, it didn't stay ahead of the curve on keeping prices competitive until release of the AirPort Express. With this new wireless-n model of the AirPort Extreme, Apple is again working to hit a competitive price target.

Even the most bargain basement wireless-n routers without disk and printer sharing have list prices nearly identical to Apple's. Although many can be found online at significant discounted price, they fail to offer the same easy-to-use software and attention to detail. The AirPort Extreme is particularly a good value for Mac users, because it provides hassle free support for Mac protocols and devices.

On page four: It's Wired, Too, Extreme vs Express, The Wrap Up, Rating, Pros and Cons