When the first UFO-shaped AirPort Base Station landed in stores, it was part of the wireless-networking vanguard. Today, there are loads of devices that support 802.11b (or Wi-Fi), and the AirPort has quickly fallen behind the feature curve. For version 2.0, Apple has gone back to the drawing board to extend the AirPort's features. It now offers two Ethernet ports, support for more users, better range, and increased security--all without raising the price. When the first UFO-shaped AirPort Base Station landed in stores, it was part of the wireless-networking vanguard. Today, there are loads of devices that support 802.11b (or Wi-Fi), and the AirPort has quickly fallen behind the feature curve. For version 2.0, Apple has gone back to the drawing board to extend the AirPort's features. It now offers two Ethernet ports, support for more users, better range, and increased security--all without raising the price.
Mostly easy setup
Like other wireless routers, the $299 AirPort supports the 802.11b standard. It can send data at speeds up to 11Mbps within a range of approximately 150 feet. The back of the AirPort has an RJ-11 port for a dial-up modem and two RJ-45 ports for Ethernet connections. It also has built-in roaming support, which lets users maintain their network connection as they move out of the range of one base station and into another. In addition to the AirPort, each Mac desktop or notebook you want to connect must be equipped with a $99 AirPort card.
Apple is a master at making its products easy to set up, and the AirPort is no exception. First, attach the AirPort to your telephone, DSL, cable, or Ethernet connection. A convenient Setup Assistant smoothly guides you through the highways and byways of configuring the base station to work in either a wireless or a mixed network. The assistant's big menus, clearly labeled buttons, and easy choices help. Printed documentation is limited to a spare 32-page booklet that outlines basic hookup and base-station administration and provides simple troubleshooting information. If you need to manage a large network or one that hosts computers from different platforms, a handy networking guide on the installation CD takes you through the process. You can also configure more advanced settings such as channel frequency, access control, and port mapping using the AirPort Admin Utility.
Unlike earlier versions, this model lets you use the AirPort's built-in 56K modem to dial up your AOL connection. Apple includes special connection files on the installer CD. To share an AOL connection, however, you still need multiple accounts.
Apple piles on the features
Feature for feature, the AirPort holds up well against the competition. It sports a stylish, white-graphite plastic case, and it can now support 50 users (up from 10). Apple beefed up the built-in antenna for better range and added a second Ethernet port that allows the AirPort to perform as a cable/DSL router as well as feed the signal to a traditional wired network. But while we appreciate the upgrade, most Wi-Fi routers from other companies offer up to four Ethernet ports for wired networks. With an AirPort, you're forced to buy a separate hub or a switch.
Apple also increased the AirPort's security features. They now include built-in NAT firewall protection, which hides the IP numbers of your computers from outside intruders. AirPort wireless networks are protected by 128-bit encryption.
In CNET Labs' tests, the AirPort showed winning performance. At 5.2Mbps, its wireless throughput was faster than that of the Linksys EtherFast wireless AP and the Proxim Skyline gateway, with one caveat. Our AirPort benchmarks were based on transferring files between a pair of AirPort-equipped Power Mac G4s. The performance tests run with the other devices used NetIQ's Chariot software on the Windows platform, which makes a direct comparison difficult.
Apple's support for the AirPort is mediocre at best. It comes with a standard one-year parts and labor warranty. Apple offers free, toll-free technical support 7 days a week from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. PT, but it's limited to a measly 90 days. Apple's Web site is a rich resource for technical information, online setup guides, and message boards, where you can share your experiences with other users. At least the company fared well otherwise in our review of its tech support.
The Apple AirPort Base Station 2.0 offers a lot of improvements without raising its price. Educators will like its ease of setup and support for more users. Networking gurus will also like its better security and wider range. Both will appreciate its good performance and stylish looks.
Measured in Mbps (longer bars indicate better performance)
|Although the AirPort clearly excels at Wi-Fi throughput, CNET Labs' tests were conducted differently for this comparison. We took the average of three direct file transfers run between two Power Mac G4s running OS X. The other tests used NetIQ's Chariot software on Windows PCs. The clients and routers were set up to transmit at short ranges and at maximum signal strength.|