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.
The difference is also noticeable in the 2.4GHz band tests, with the new Extreme outperforming the original, and also matching the Asus router from both 15 and 100 feet. The AirPort Extreme also matched the Asus RT-N568 in mixed usage mode that allows b, g, and n clients to access the base station.
Compared with the older model, the 2011 Extreme has a less dramatic increase in the 2.4GHz band than at 5GHz, with 2.6Mbps gains at 15 feet and 16.1Mbps gains in mixed mode at 15 feet. While we can't be sure of the reason for the speed jump in the new model in either bandwidth, the increase might be because of a boost in the maximum power output of the transmitter from the last model. AppleInsider uncovered FCC documents that indicate the new transmitter's power output at 392 milliwatts, more than 2.8 times the 139.32 milliwatts rated output of the last AirPort Extreme.
The new Base Station also produces faster data transfer speeds for external storage drives attached to the USB port in the back of the device. Competing drives like the Asus RT-N56U and the LaCie Wireless Space let users plug in additional drives (in both FAT32 and NTFS), but the new Base Station sits at the top of the list with read and write scores at 192.32- and 173.12Mbps, respectively. We don't have the resources to tear apart the unit and uncover its throughput secrets, but the improved speeds may suggest a NAS processor inside the Extreme, similar to the LaCie Wireless Space, but with more RAM.
Service and support
As with the previous model, Apple backs the new AirPort Extreme Base Station with one year of support, which, albeit short compared with Asus' two-year warranty, 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.
The new Apple AirPort Extreme Base Station offers faster networking performance than the older model, with few changes otherwise. The two share a physical resemblance, and they both feature the same simple installation, true dual-band connectivity, guest networking, and support for network printer and external storage. The new model's $179 price tag makes it more expensive than competing routers that offer more control over your network and offer similar speed. The majority of you can stretch your dollar further with the Asus RT-N56U that offers an intuitive Web interface and long-range performance in addition to a stylish case, but Mac users who value aesthetics over everything else won't be disappointed with the new AirPort Extreme.
|100 feet||15 feet|
|Mixed-mode, 15 feet||100 feet||15 feet|