Apple has updated its AirPort Extreme to support the Draft N wireless standard giving it significantly improved range and faster transfer speeds. The £119 router also includes a couple of extra wired Ethernet sockets and a USB port that can handily be used to share a printer or hard drive with all the computers on your network.
The official 802.11n wireless standard may not be due until 2009, but who wants to wait that long for increased wireless speed and range? Certainly not us after we've tested the AirPort Extreme, which uses technology based on the latest draft of the upcoming standard.
The advantages are pretty plain to see. Whereas our ageing Netgear Wireless G router always found it difficult to reach certain areas in our home, the AirPort Extreme has no such problems. Everywhere we tried was bathed in a strong signal.
It's much faster, too. Using a new MacBook with built-in support for Pre-N wireless we were able to pull a 5GB file from a PC connected to the Airport Extreme via Ethernet in 15 minutes and 3 seconds. The same task took 31 minutes and 50 seconds with our old Netgear router. That's not quite the 2.5x performance increase that Apple quotes, but it's not too far off it either.
The AirPort Extreme features a USB port, which lets you add a printer or hard drive on to your network
There are other benefits, too. The USB port on the rear can be used to share a printer or hard drive across your network. With hard drives or memory sticks you just plug them in and the AirPort Disk Agent will pop up on your PC or Mac asking you whether you want to connect to the drive.
It's a similar story with printers. Once the printer is attached, Mac computers can automatically use it, while PC users just need to run the simple Bonjour configuration tool to get connected.
The router doesn't have a built-in ADSL modem, so if you get your broadband via an ADSL line you'll need to use it in conjunction with a modem that has an Ethernet port. Cable users can just hook it straight up to the Ethernet port on their set-top box or cable modem.
Unlike most wireless routers, the AirPort Extreme can't be configured via a Web browser. Instead, you have to install the AirPort Utility on the computer you want to use for setting up the router. This utility does have a wizard that makes it slightly easier to configure the router, but it can also be tad annoying to use. It failed to find our AirPort a number of times and crashed on more than one occasion.
We also felt that it was a bit of an oversight on Apple's part not to equip the AirPort Extreme with Gigabit Ethernet ports. The three wired ports top out at 100Mbps, which is odd when you consider that most Apple computers support Gigabit Ethernet.
And while being able to attach a drive to the USB port is a great feature, the performance of the attached drive was a bit of a concern. Although reading files was nippy, writing large amounts of data to disc could be quite slow.
The AirPort Extreme boasts impressive wireless performance -- the Draft N technology really does help to increase its range and data speeds. It's also the best looking wireless router on the market. Lack of Gigabit Ethernet ports is a disappointment though, and the USB disc performance could be improved.
Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Kate Macefield