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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


Networking with Apple TV

Another application of the new speed offered by wireless-n comes from Apple TV. Since the new set top box is also wireless-n ready, users interested in accessing their iTunes library on TV have a clear reason to upgrade. While Apple TV can work with earlier wireless networks, it will sync much faster when connected to a new AirPort Extreme.

The Apple TV does not work as a wireless router itself. It needs to either be plugged into an Ethernet network directly, or be connected to an existing wireless network. That includes an existing AirPort Extreme, the new wireless-n version, or a Mac configured with Internet Sharing to relay its network access to other wireless clients.

Another option, of course, is to buy a cheaper, third party wireless base station. However, there are some potential problems with mixing and matching different wireless networks. While all WiFi devices are supposed to use the same open standards, in reality many devices tack on non-standard "speed boost" features or alternative protocols which require installing special software. Many alternative routers only provide limited support for Mac users, and don't always work properly with network services such as iChat video conferencing.

In addition, nearly all wireless devices apart from Apple's are configured using a web interface. Discovering them on the network and setting them up properly often requires struggling with an awkwardly designed interface and the complications inherent in refreshing a browser display while changing the very settings that affect connectivity with the device. Of course, many don't support Safari browser, either.

Apple's Web Free Interface

Apple's approach to configuring its AirPort devices is to rely upon a desktop application to do all the setup work. Among other things, this makes it easy to set up multiple units with the exact same settings, or to back up a device's settings to a file, so they can be restored if the device ever needs to be reset.

Bundled with the new AirPort Extreme is a revised, fifth version of Apple's AirPort Utility. This software makes both the basic setup and any advanced configuration of AirPort devices so easy that it bumps Apple's wireless base station product from very good to excellent, and handily negates any price advantages offered by competitors. It's really that good.

Everything about setting up shared disks and printers, and even the more complex details of configuring network settings of the base station, are easy to configure with the contextual help information provided. Clicking on "more info" presents a clear explanation of what to do and why it matters.

AirPort Extreme 802.11n


Apple has also put together a detailed reference guide with more information: Designing Airport Extreme 802.11n Networks.

No Paperclip Required

The new AirPort Utility shows a list of all discovered base stations, each with a colored indicator dot reflecting the status light on the unit itself. These can be used to identify the device when multiple base stations are being set up at once, but also work as a problem indicator if anything about the settings is not quite right.

The third unit I set up, for example, was in a typical home environment, connected to a 2Wire DSL router. Since the existing device was already creating a private network, the AirPort Utility software alerted me to the potential problem of "double NAT," and recommended I set up the AirPort Extreme in bridge mode. Clicking on the indicator smartly took me right to the configuration panel listing that option.

While the AirPort Utility's setup steps already present all the configurations options in an easy to understand language, the simplicity behind the new indicator interface is really brilliant. Rather than forcing the user to figure out what's wrong with their network and then search around through a convoluted set of jargon-heavy web pages to hunt down the setting required to fix it, AirPort Utility monitors for common problems, flags a warning, offers a suggestion on how to solve the problem, and then directs the user right to the relevant settings.

It's a bit like the annoying, dancing paperclip from Microsoft Office, except there's no dancing paperclip, and it doesn't annoyingly interrupt and take over the whole screen. Imagine if Office simply lit an amber light to indicate that it had a suggestion available for consideration. Wow, that would actually be helpful.

Introducing the Summary Tab

Another cleverly-subtle interface feature debuting in the AirPort Utility is the Summary Tab. Like earlier versions of the AirPort Utility, the new version uses the familiar Mac OS X tabbed view to present multiple screens of settings by subject: Base Station, Wireless, WDS, and Access Control.

AirPort Extreme 802.11n


Now there's a new tab: Summary. It presents an overview of the entire configuration, with hyperlinked labels. Click on Base Station Name, and the interface takes you directly to the page used to set it. Click on Wireless Clients, and you are presented with a display logging individual systems currently using the network. Brilliant!

AirPort Extreme 802.11n


Much like Tiger's System Preferences, there's also a search panel that provides a quick way to jump to features just by typing in a keyword. Hopefully, this same searchable, Summary Panel interface will be applied in Leopard to clean up Mac OS X's quirky Network and Printer setup controls. And what about Disk Utility? Imagine if Apple made the entire Leopard interface coherent and consistent! AirPort Utility would be a good model.

AirPort Extreme 802.11n


On page three: You're Looking For What?, Disk Sharing Setup, The New Base Station Hardware