Apple's new $179 AirPort Extreme Base Station is more than twice as fast as the previous model, but its speed and good looks don't offset the lofty price tag and its subpar features compared with other routers. Apple loyalists looking for a new router will appreciate the new Extreme's faster networking performance, but if you value price and performance over simple aesthetics, we recommend the Editors' Choice-winning Asus RT-N56U over the AirPort Extreme.
Design and features
Apple's latest refresh to its AirPort Extreme Base Station does little to set it apart from the previous model from back in December 2009. It borrows the same unobtrusive design, with an all-white housing and internal antennas that visually complements other Apple products. The front of the AirPort Extreme features a hidden LED to indicate connection status: green for a solid connection, blinking amber for a missing IP connection, and solid yellow for a connection in progress.
The rear of the unit houses all the plugs we expect to find in a modern router, including a WAN port to connect to a broadband modem, three Gigabit Ethernet LAN ports, and a single USB port to add an external hard drive or a printer to use on the network. Unfortunately, the Extreme only supports networked hard drives in the OS X-supported HFS+ format, so Windows users with an NTFS-formatted drive will need to either partition their storage or format the drive. If you're looking for a backup drive that can double as a router, consider Apple's Time Capsule instead.
On the other hand, the print-serving feature is easy to set up no matter what kind of device you use. We tested the connection with a Kodak ESP 2170 printer and the process requires no additional software installation if you're using Mac OS X, as the necessary drivers come preloaded. If you use a Windows OS, you need to install the driver CD that came with the printer or rely on Microsoft's hardware wizard search to locate your printer model. As before, if you want to connect a printer and an external hard drive at the same time, the AirPort Extreme lets you connect a USB hub to expand the number of ports.
Unlike other routers, the AirPort Extreme doesn't point you to a Web-based setup wizard to guide you through the process of connecting multiple devices to the Internet. Instead, Apple goes a step further and uses the AirPort Utility that's available for both Mac and Windows. Just connect an Ethernet cable to the broadband modem, plug in the power cord to an outlet, and fill in the setup fields to name your network and establish a password to protect others from stealing access. Using the most basic setup process, we established a quick connection within 5 minutes. More-adventurous networking experts can also select "Manual Setup" to choose between 2.4 or 5GHz bands, or disable a shared connection for two separate networks, also known as bridge mode.
Unfortunately, the simple setup process also means that the AirPort Extreme offers little in the way of extra features. While the Asus RT-N56U's Web interface gives access to convenient extras like Web traffic meters, port forwarding, MAC address replication, Wi-Fi protected push-button setup, and Dynamic DNS that lets users keep a DNS name without limiting them to a static IP address, the Extreme Base Station's advanced menu is limited to creating a closed network, or changing the Radio Mode that lets you specify which signals are broadcasted.
The AirPort Extreme also offers guest networking that allows you to create a secondary network for clients to get online without exposing your primary network, or the data you keep on it. You can also allow multiple guests on the network to exchange files and choose from a variety of encryption methods so you don't have to give your guests the same network password as your main Wi-Fi network.
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, at least in our San Francisco office.
We compared a handful of routers to the updated AirPort Extreme as well as to the older model Extreme, in both the 5GHz and 2.4GHz bands. In the 5GHz throughput test, the new Extreme was 24.1Mpbs faster than the legacy Extreme, but couldn't best the competing Asus at distances of either 15 feet or 100 feet.