Apple AirPort Extreme Base Station review: Speedy and elegant home Wi-Fi router

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CNET Editors' Rating

4 stars Excellent
  • Overall: 8.1
  • Design and ease of use: 10.0
  • Features: 6.0
  • Performance: 8.0
  • Service and support: 9.0

Average User Rating

4.5 stars 2 user reviews
Review Date:
Updated on:

The Good Apple's new compact and beautiful AirPort Extreme Base Station supports 802.11ac Wi-Fi, is easy to use, and offers solid performance.

The Bad Other than the new design and 802.11ac, there are no other improvements over the previous generation. The router is inflexible and offers no support for Time Machine backup or media streaming via the USB storage.

The Bottom Line Home users, especially Apple fans who own 802.11ac-enabled devices, will love the new AirPort Extreme for its all-new elegant design, ease of use, and great performance; advanced users should look elsewhere for more features and customization.

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Apple's new sixth-generation AirPort Extreme Base Station is essentially the new AirPort Time Capsule minus the internal storage. In fact without the storage, the two devices -- for the first time since the debut of Apple's AirPort base stations -- are identical.

The new true dual-band Wi-Fi router is now more compact, and prettier than the previous generation. It also supports the much anticipated -- and much faster -- 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard . The device's functions, features, and port offerings, however, remain the same as its predecessor's.

On one hand, the new AirPort Extreme proved in my testing to be one of the fastest and most reliable Wi-Fi routers to date. On the other, I wish it had more features to offer, such as common networking customizations, and -- when coupled with an external hard drive -- support for Time Machine backup and media streaming.

That said, for those who care about the look, the new AirPort Extreme is beautiful enough to justify the $199/AU$249 price tag that makes it slightly more expensive than its peers. If you have 802.11ac-enabled devices, such as the new MacBook Air, you'll also love this new device's Wi-Fi speed. Otherwise, there's no need to upgrade if you already have the previous model. Don't forget to check out the alternatives on this list for more networking options and features.

The new AirPort Extreme Base Station has the same footprint as the AirPort Express (bottom), but is much taller. Note the AirPlay audio port on the AirPort Express that the AirPort Extreme doesn't have.
The new AirPort Extreme Base Station has the same footprint as the AirPort Express (bottom), but is much taller. Note the AirPlay audio port on the AirPort Express that the AirPort Extreme doesn't have Dong Ngo/CNET

Totally new design, same ports, familiar setup process
Like the new Time Capsule, the new AirPort Extreme has a completely new design. Instead of the traditional squarish tile shape that's been used for years, it now looks like a rectangular tube standing 6.6 inches tall and 3.85 inches wide. This means it has the same footprint as the second-generation AirPort Express, which came out last year, but it's much taller. Overall the new router has an elegant appearance, more like a jewelry box than a networking device.

On the front, there's a tiny status light that glows green when all is working well and either flashes or changes to amber to indicate that the device needs attention.

On the back, there are the usual three Gigabit LAN ports (to connect wired clients, such as a Mac Pro), and one Gigabit WAN port (to connect to an Internet source, such as a broadband modem). There's also a USB 2.0 port to host an external hard drive or a printer. This port configuration is exactly the same as found in previous generations of the AirPort Extreme and is disappointing since most routers on the market now have four LAN ports and many already offer USB 3.0. The number of LAN ports determines how many wired clients the router can support out of the box, before you need to resort to a switch. And obviously, USB 3.0 offers better performance when you connect an external hard drive to the router.

Like the new Time Capsule, the new AirPort Extreme doesn't support AirPlay, either. For that, you need to get the AirPort Express, which is, for now, still the only router that supports this music playback feature of Apple's.

The AirPort Extreme requires the AirPort Utility software, screenshot here from a Windows version, for initial setup and ongoing management.
The AirPort Extreme requires the AirPort Utility software, screenshot here from a Windows version, for initial setup and ongoing management. Dong Ngo/CNET

If you have owned an AirPort device before, setting up the new AirPort Extreme is a familiar process, but first-time users shouldn't have a problem, either. You need to have the AirPort Utility software, available for Macs, Windows, and iOS, to get the job done. In most cases, the software is already on a Mac, but if not you can easily download it for free. AirPort Utility makes the setup very simple and self-explanatory.

On the downside, AirPort Utility doesn't offer the same depth of customization and features. That said, the new AirPort Extreme has no more features than its predecessor, and just a handful of them.

A powerful Wi-Fi router that's weak on customization and storage support
The new AirPort Extreme is a true dual-band router, offering Wi-Fi coverage on both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency bands at the same time. This means it supports all existing Wi-Fi clients, regardless of their Wi-Fi standard, with the top possible speed. The router supports the current top tier (three-stream) of both the new 802.11ac and 802.11n (Wireless-N) standards. When used with a 802.11ac-enabled client, such as the new MacBook Air, it can accommodate up to 1.3Gbps data speed. Wireless-N clients can be connected at 450Mbps on either band.

Note that these are the ceiling speeds of the respective standards. In real-world use, actual sustained Wi-Fi speeds fluctuate a great deal and are generally much lower than the cap speeds. Nonetheless, support for higher tiers always means faster speeds. ( Read more about Wi-Fi standards here. )

It can be quite a task to find out and type in the MAC address in case you want to add a device to a special list.
It can be quite a task to find out and type in the MAC address in case you want to add a device to a special list. Screenshot by Dong Ngo/CNET

The AirPort Extreme offers a set of features common in routers, such as guest networking (only on the 2.4GHz band), IPv6, port forwarding, DynDNS, Access Control, and print-serving and file-sharing capabilities. It lacks many features you might expect given its cost, such as QoS customization for traffic prioritizing, Parent Control, VPN server, and so forth.

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Where to Buy See all prices

Apple AirPort Extreme Base Station (802.11ac)

Part Number: ME918LL/A Released: Jun 10, 2013
MSRP: $199.00 Low Price: $179.00 See all prices

Quick Specifications See All

  • Release date Jun 10, 2013
  • Data Link Protocol IEEE 802.11a
    IEEE 802.11ac (draft 2.0)
    IEEE 802.11b
    IEEE 802.11g
    IEEE 802.11n
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