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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


It's Wired, Too

One welcome feature over earlier models is the new built-in switch providing an additional three Ethernet ports for wired computers. However, it's a bit disappointing that these are only 10/100 Mbps Fast Ethernet ports, and not 1000 Mbps Gigabit Ethernet, particularly since Apple's computers have long offered the much faster Gig-E ports for some time.

AirPort Extreme 802.11n


Was it an issue of too much heat, or too much extra cost? While Gig-E ports wouldn't really speed up the networking between wired and wireless clients, they would make it easy to attach Gigibit Macs with fast access to each other, and perhaps eke-out faster responsiveness from a shared USB disk.

Of course, anyone who really needs Gig-E connectivity likely already has a Gigabit switch. The price of these switches has dropped dramatically over the last few years, with 5 port switches now available for as little as $50. Still, it's a feature that would have been nice to have built into the AirPort Extreme.

Extreme vs Express

The new AirPort Extreme is the same bright white color as the AirPort Express, which Apple continues to sell. The more compact Express version only supports the earlier 802.11g standard, but also includes support for AirTunes wireless audio distribution, which is not offered at all on the faster new Airport Extreme. Why didn't Apple include a digital Toslink audio port on the new Extreme? It appears to be an odd omission.

What about Power over Ethernet, a feature offered on the institutional version of the previous AirPort Extreme? This enables large scale AirPort users to deploy Apple's base stations without needing a separate power supply, and instead use power fed over the Ethernet port. It appears Apple simply discontinued the earlier Extreme models (they no longer listed in the public Apple Store). Will it offer a new PoE version of the new Extreme? Power over Ethernet is not a feature of interest to consumers.

Apple's current wireless offerings target the casual consumer with AirPort Extreme, which now begs for an upgrade to wireless-n, and the home/office user with the new AirPort Extreme, which conspicuously lacks AirTunes and Gig-E, but adds disk sharing features and couple extra LAN ports. This leaves a question mark over the version Apple intends to sell to schools, but given how central AirPort is to Apple's education strategy, it is likely to address that question soon.

The Wrap Up

Essentially, the new AirPort Extreme adds a some useful new hardware features, offers much faster wireless speed and improved coverage, and delivers a solid upgrade in software ease of use. For users interested in upgrading to the new wireless-n standard, Apple's new base station should top the list of potential considerations, with a competitive price and a strong lead in ease of use and innovative, practical features.

Apple's smart AirPort Utility configuration software won't get used frequently, but it will make a big difference in limiting the hassle and annoyance users will need to experience when they do. It goes a long way to erase the competitive difference in price offered by other manufacturer's wireless routers. For example, users won't need to worry whether Apple's own router will appropriately pass traffic over the right ports to get iChat video conferencing to work.

Users with an AirPort Express will have to decide whether it makes sense to upgrade to using two base stations, or give up wireless iTunes delivery. Users of the previous AirPort Extreme will have to consider whether their needs for local network file sharing, shared media libraries, and Apple TV warrant springing for the extra boost in speed.

Rating: 4 of 5
4-stars


Pros:
  • Competitively priced, slim, solidly designed hardware.
  • Excellent AirPort Utility software.
  • Simple and easy to use network disk and printer sharing features.
  • Offers a big boost in wireless speed and coverage.
  • Built in switch for wired Ethernet devices.

Cons:
  • Lacks AirPort Express' AirTunes for wireless music distribution.
  • Lacks Gigabit Ethernet.

Products and companies mentioned in this review
Apple AirPort Extreme Base Station
D-Link
Quicker Tek