mac.column.ted: First Look: The new AirPort Extreme Base Station

mac.column.ted: First Look: The new AirPort Extreme Base Station

Ted Landau
February 2007

My new AirPort Extreme Base Station arrived the other day. As you probably know, its most significant feature is support for the (as-yet-unfinished) 802.11n protocol, which allows for much faster wireless transmission speeds and a wider reception range. This speed increase may be especially welcome if you plan on getting an Apple TV (due out later this month), which similarly supports the 802.11n protocol.

The new Base Station also sports three local Ethernet ports (compared to the lone such port on the older Extreme model) as well as the capability to add a USB hard drive as a shared disk. By connecting a USB hub to the Base Station's USB port, you can add multiple USB devices (disks and printers) to the Base Station.

But there are a few caveats. Most important, unless your computer supports the 802.11n protocol (and only the newest, mainly Core 2 Duo, Macs do), it won't be able to use the new speedier network. Instead, you will be forced to set up the Base Station via the older slower 802.11b/g protocol. Further, if you mix 802.11n devices with slower devices on the same network, you will likely lose whatever speed advantage the 802.11n connection would have otherwise attained. Given these caveats plus the $180 cost of the Base Station, you should carefully assess what the device can and cannot add to your particular network before you buy one.

If you do decide to get one, your most challenging task will likely be getting the Base Station and network set up and running at its optimized speed. This is especially so if, as I do, you already have a fairly complex wireless network in place.

So...to help in your decision making and hopefully to help you circumvent potential setup obstacles, I offer the following tidbits and tips from my own still brief experience with the new Base Station:

Software. After unpacking the Base Station, the first step should be to install the accompanying software. Exactly what gets installed depends upon what Mac you are using. At a minimum, you will get two applications: AirPort Utility (an entirely redesigned replacement for AirPort Admin Utility) and AirPort Disk Utility (a new utility designed to facilitate accessing hard drives connected to the AirPort Extreme). These get installed in the /Application/Utilities folder.

If you have any Intel Mac, the Installer also installs AirPort Extreme Update 2007-001 (unless you already installed it).

Finally, if you have a Mac that has the 802.11n hardware built-in, the Installer installs the 802.11n enabler software, needed to "turn on" your Mac's 802.11n capability. This software is installed as a component of the IO802.11Family.kext package, located in /System/Library/Extensions. This is the same Enabler software that is otherwise available separately from the Apple Store. An Apple article describes how to use Network Utility to determine if the Enabler software has been successfully installed on your Mac.

Any Mac with an AirPort capability can connect to a compatible network running on the new Base Station, even if you don't install the new software on that Mac. The new software is only required if your Mac needs the 802.11n Enablers or if you want to interact from that Mac to the Base Station via the new AirPort Utility. Actually, you can still access a new Base Station via the older AirPort Admin Utility, although you will be restricted in what you can do, as indicated by this error message:

Getting connected. After installing the software, it's time to turn your attention to the hardware itself. If you already have an older AirPort Extreme Base Station in place, the first question to consider is: "Should I replace my old Base Station with the new one, or should I leave the old Base Station running and add the new Extreme to the system?"

While it may seem redundant to keep both Extreme Base Stations in play, it does offer a couple of potential advantages. The main one is that (getting back to the caveats I mentioned at the top of this article), if you have a mixture of devices, some that support 802.11n and some that do not, you can maximize the speed of your 802.11n devices by having just these devices networked directly to the new AirPort Extreme, while your other devices network via your older Base Station. If set up correctly, as I will explain, each Base Station can maintain its own network but still allow for devices on either network to communicate with each other.

My pre-existing setup included one older AirPort Extreme Base Station plus two AirPort Express Base Stations. The Express Base Stations were each set to use AirTunes. All three Base Stations were connected via a WDS configuration (as explained more in this MacFixIt article). I have three Macs connected to this local wireless network: a Power Mac G5, a Core Duo iMac, and an Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro. Only the MacBook has the 802.11n hardware. When it finally arrives, I will also be connecting an Apple TV to the network. Given all this, to get the most speed benefit from the new AirPort Extreme, I opted to keep the existing Extreme Base Station (and its network) in place and add the new Base Station to it. As a side benefit, this meant I did not need to reconfigure my WDS settings to accommodate the new Base Station.

To get started, I removed all the connecting cables from my old Extreme Base Station and connected them to the new Base Station. I had three cables: one each for my cable modem, my Ethernet networkable laser printer and my USB inkjet printer. I next plugged in the AirPort Extreme Base Station and launched the new AirPort Utility. From here, I proceeded to set up the Base Station, using the default "Assist Me" mode, one step of which is seen in this figure:

Until you give the Base Station a new name, its default name, as shown in the above figure, is Base Station XXXXXX, where XXXXXX are the last 6 digits of its AirPort ID.

The first hiccup occurred at this point. After completing the setup, and clicking to Update the changes to the Base Station, I lost any ability to connect to the Base Station. In order to get things working again, I had to reset the Base Station (using the familiar technique of an unbent paper clip to depress a reset button). The second time proved to be the charm: All went as intended and the new Base Station was good to go.

I had created a new network for this Base Station. This meant that the AirPort menus on my Macs now indicated both the old network (JumpJet X) running on my old Base Station and a new network (JumpJet X2) running on my new Base Station. For the moment, the new network was set to be compatible with any AirPort-equipped Mac (b/g/n). Only this new network was connected to the Internet. When I selected the new network from each of my Macs, I was indeed able to access the Web. So far so good.

Beyond the basics. Making additional changes to the Base Station's configuration required shifting from AirPort Utility's Assist Me mode to its Manual Setup mode (which you do by selecting Manual Setup from the utility's Base Station menu). If you are familiar with where settings are located in AirPort Admin Utility, the first thing you will discover about this new utility is that everything has changed. You would be hard-pressed to find even one option located in exactly the same place in both utilities. Still, after a bit of exploration, I was soon comfortable with the new arrangement. Plus, if you know the name of the feature you are seeking, AirPort Utility's new "Find a setting" feature will locate it for you. It worked perfectly when I tried it.

The hierarchical structure of the Manual Setup options is a toolbar of icons (AirPort, Internet, Printers, Disks, and Advanced), each with its own row of tabbed buttons, as seen in this figure:

Before proceeding any further with your setup, you should download Apple's Designing AirPort Extreme 80211n Networks document. While it could be written more clearly and more simply, the document is still nearly essential as a guide to doing any setup beyond what I have already covered. The slim Setup Guide that comes with the Base Station is almost completely useless.

I decided to create a Dual Band network (as detailed starting on page 47 of the Designing document). This would allow me to have my 802.11g Macs connected through the 802.11g network running from my older Base Station, while my MacBook Pro (and eventually my Apple TV) would connect via an 802.11n-only network running from the new Base Station. Both would share the same Internet connection.

To accomplish this, I first connected the two Extreme Base Stations together via an Ethernet cable. Next, I chose "Off (Bridge Mode)" as the Connection Sharing option for the older Base Station:

Lastly, I selected "802.11b/g compatible" as the Radio Mode for the older Base Station and "802.11n only (5 GHz)" as the Radio Mode for the new Base Station:

The 5 GHz band does not directly offer greater speed than a 2.4GHz band (see this Wikipedia document). The speedier 802.11n protocol can work at either GHz. The 5 GHz can provide a clearer, stronger signal with potentially less interference, as well as the benefit of access to wide channels (a setting accessed via the "Wireless Options..." button and which can affect speed, as covered in this TidBITs article). In any case, a more practical advantage of the "802.11n only" setting at either GHz is faster transmission speeds than using a mixed protocol network, even if only 802.11n devices are connected to the network. The downside of an "802.11n only" network, as its name implies, is that 802.11a/b/g devices are not able to join it.

Bumps in the road. I'd like to be able to tell you that all went smoothly as I worked through constructing this new network. But I would be lying if I did. At different times, various Base Stations would vanish from the AirPort Utility listing, returning again only after I tried a different combination of network selection, Base Station settings, and/or hardware cable connections. After updating a Base Station's settings, I still often need to quit AirPort Utility and relaunch it before I can access the Base Station again. Occasionally, the Internet connection would get lost, despite everything apparently set up as directed. Once, after being absent for several minutes, the connection re-appeared spontaneously without me having made any changes.

I had -- and continue to have -- numerous password-related problems. The most common is an inability to join the 802.11n-only network, either getting the "error joining the AirPort network" message or getting a password dialog that only includes WEP password options, even though the network uses a WPA2 password. Sometimes this fixes itself if I just keep retrying long enough. Otherwise, restarting the Mac typically clears this up, at least for while.

There were about a half-dozen more minor problems. As one example, after waking from sleep, my MacBook Pro would always shift from the previously selected 802.11n network to the 802.11g network. Happily, this is easily remedied: Go to the Preferred Networks list in the AirPort section of the Network System Preferences pane and move the new 802.11n network to the top of the list.

Suffice it to say that, if your setup is anything similar to mine, you should plan on spending a couple of hours experimenting with different options and resolving various glitches before you get everything running as desired.

802.11n slower than 802.11g? After finally getting all components running smoothly, I decided to test out the extent of the speed gain of the 802.11n network. As a measurement, I chose Internet download speed. I know this is not a perfect measure, as speed can vary from moment to moment depending upon factors on the Internet, having nothing to do with my local network. But I still felt it could provide a decent approximation. Using my MacBook Pro and the bandwidth test at pcpitstop.com, I compared the speed when the MacBook was connected to the 802.11n network (running from the new Base Station) vs. the 802.11b/g network (running from the old Base Station). I was surprised and disappointed at the results: Download speed was consistently almost twice (2X) as fast when using the older "g" network than when using the newer supposedly speedier "n" network!!

I tried various other Radio Mode settings on the new Base Station, but the speed difference remained the same. Even the "g" network connection on my Power Mac G5 was faster than the "n" network connection on my MacBook Pro.

I have no explanation for this as yet. There is still some further tweaking of settings I intend to do, but I am not optimistic that it will make a difference.

Addendum and correction (added February 13): I was not optimistic enough as it turned out. Disabling the WPA2 password eliminated the slowdown in the "n" network, as well as eliminating the occasional problems I had joining the network. There is apparently a bug in WPA2 encryption with "n" networks, at least for some Macs, that Apple will need to fix. On the other hand, as I should have realized, the Internet download test is ultimately not appropriate for testing the maximum speed capabilities of the "n" network, as the Internet download speed is slower than the maximum capable speed of the "n" network.

Bottom line. The good news: If your setup can be handled by AirPort Utility's Assist Me mode, you will likely have little or no trouble with the new AirPort Extreme, except possibly a password bug. The bad news: For more complex setups, expect to confront at least a few glitches and hassles as you work to configure the Extreme and your network for optimal performance. Even after your work is done, you may find that you're not getting the promised speed benefit.

To send comments regarding this column directly to Ted, click here. To get Ted's latest book, Mac OS X Help Line, click here.

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