Apple AirPort Extreme Base Station (Fall 2009) review: Apple AirPort Extreme Base Station (Fall 2009)

The Base Station's guest networking feature worked well in our trial. Guest networking allows for creating a separate wireless network that has access to the Internet but not local resources, such as your computer or printer. The router allows you to create an additional network, the options to apply encryption to it, and make guest clients interact with one another. Again, unlike other routers that offer guest networking, the Base Station doesn't allow you to pick what band you want the guest network to operate in, nor can you make a separate guest network for each band.

We didn't get to try the print-serving feature, but we found that the router's support for USB external hard drives was rather limited. It doesn't read drives formatted in the NTFS file system, but only FAT32 and Mac OS Extended. Generally it's more difficult to format a drive larger than 32GB using FAT32. This means Windows users can't simply plug most of their USB external hard drives into the router and expect to share the data contained on it. If you are willing to reformat your hard drive, you'll need to use a computer to do so, as the router doesn't include the formatting feature.

We tried the router with two of our USB external hard drives, the G-Drive and the Seagate FreeAgent Go. Neither of them--when formatted using FAT32 and tested with a MacBook--worked with the AirPort Extreme Base Station. The router kept showing a "Disk needs repair" error without revealing any details or how to repair it.

Nonetheless, the drives worked when we formatted them using Mac OS Extended. Once plugged in, the router took about 30 seconds to see the hard drives. After that, the default share folder appears in the Finder of any Mac in the network running OS X 10.4 or later. For Windows, the AirPort Base Station Agent software will make the network drive for you or you can browse for it using the network browser, as long as you have Bonjour installed on the machine.

If you are a Mac and MobileMe user, you can access the hard drive the same way when you are on the go, via the Internet. You just need to register the router to your MobileMe account and it works similarly to the "Back to My Mac" feature. You can also change the router's settings this way, using the AirPort Utility. It's important to note that the remote access might not work at all if you access the Internet via a corporate network, where certain services of the Base Station are blocked for security reasons.

Unfortunately, the remote access feature is not available for Windows users, even when they have a MobileMe account. MobileMe is free to use for 60 days; after that it costs $99 per year.

You can only share the hard drive as one shared folder, but you can't make multiple folders and share them separately with different access privileges. You can also use the AirPort Utility to create user accounts so each user has a private folder of his or her own. For example, if you log in as User1, you will see the default share folder and a folder called "User1," but you won't see the folders of User2 or User3. If you log in as User2, you will see the default share folder and a folder called "User2," and so on. These features make for a simple network storage solution that works well in an environment where you don't need a sophisticated way of sharing resources.

The router is also able to power the external hard drive via its USB port, which is very important, as a lot of new pocket-size external hard drives don't come with separate power cords.

Security
For security, the AirPort Extreme Base Station features a built-in firewall and supports WPA, WPA2, and 128-bit WEP for wireless encryption. It also supports RADIUS access control, with which you can manage wireless clients from a centralized location.

Although parents aren't able to filter Web sites, they can restrict their kids' access based on time, provided they know how to get the MAC address off the kids' computers, which is a rather daunting task as mentioned earlier.

Performance
Let us be clear. We tested the AirPort Extreme in the uncontrolled environment of CNET's San Francisco office building. You may see better or worse performance depending on the wireless environment you use it in.

We tested the AirPort Extreme's throughput speeds by copying data from one computer to another using its wireless connection. This means the scores--while much lower than the theoretical maximum throughput speed of the Wireless-N specification--are the actual sustained-data rates, taking all overhead and interference into account.

We tested both the new version of the AirPort Extreme and the previous revision on the same day, within an hour of each other. In our 5GHz throughput test, the new AirPort Extreme edged out the old, scoring 66.6MBps and 54.2MBps, respectively. We saw a much smaller difference in the 2.4GHz band, with the old and new versions of the AirPort Extreme scoring 36.8MBps and 35.5MBps, respectively.

In our range test, where the client was 100 feet away, the new AirPort Extreme scored 31MBps at 2.4GHz--virtually the same as the 30.5MBps of the older AirPort Extreme. At 5GHz, neither version of the AirPort Extreme could hold a connection to complete the test at that range.

In our mixed-mode test, where the new AirPort Extreme was set to work with both Wireless-N and Wireless-G clients simultaneously, it scored 35.9MBps--compared with the 35.2MBps of the older AirPort Extreme, and slightly above average for routers we tested this year. In our testing facility--an office building not optimized for wireless range--using a PC, we were able to hold a steady connection to the new and old AirPort Extreme from about 200 feet in the 2.4GHz band and about 235 feet for 5GHz. When we used a Mac, the connection range was slightly longer, by 3 to 5 feet.

CNET Labs 2.4Ghz Wireless-N performance score (in MBps)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
mixed mode  
Range  
Throughput  
D-Link DIR-825
55.04 
40.4 
57.44 
Belkin N+ Wireless Router
36.16 
29.44 
55.44 
Apple AirPort Extreme Base Station
35.2 
30.5 
35.5 
New Apple AirPort Extreme Base Station
35.9 
31 
36.8 
Linksys WRT610n
27.04 
28.8 
35.76 

CNET Labs 5Ghz Wireless-N performance score (in MBps)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Throughput  
D-Link DIR-825
80.96 
New Apple AirPort Extreme Base Station
66.6 

The router ran warm throughout our testing, and we recommend you leave it in an open, well-ventilated location.

Service and support
As with the previous model, Apple backs the new AirPort Extreme Base Station with one year of support, which, albeit short, is standard for wireless routers. You can, however, purchase an extended AppleCare coverage plan. Also, if your Apple computer or Apple TV is covered under AppleCare, the AirPort Base Station is also covered. The router comes with 90 days of complimentary, toll-free phone support. At Apple's site, you can view FAQs, troubleshooting articles, user forums, and download the manual as well as software.

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