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

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.

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.

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 throughput speed of the Wireless-N specification--are the actual sustained data rates, after all the software/hardware-overhead and interference. For comparison, we tested a few other true dual-band wireless routers the same way.

The AirPort Extreme performed well in the 5Ghz band, scoring a 66.48Mbps on our throughput test, where we put the test client just 15 feet away from the router. This means it would take about a minute to transmit 500MB of data. This wasn't the highest score, as the D-Link DIR 825 scored a 80.96Mbps. On our range test, however, where the client was 100 feet away, the D-Link's speed declined significantly to 36.48Mbps, while the AirPort Extreme remained high at 59.04Mbps.

The router performed less impressively in the 2.4Ghz band, achieving 40.6Mbps on our throughput test and 21.12Mbps on our range test. In Mixed mode, where the router was set to work with both Wireless-N and Wireless-G clients, it scored 35.2Mbps, which is about the average among all routers we've tested.

The AirPort Extreme Base Station offers good range. In our testing facility, which is an office building and not optimized for wireless range, we were able to hold a steady connection to it farther than 300 feet in 2.4Ghz band and about 280 feet in the 5Ghz band. Both of these numbers are impressive. Expect even longer range if you use it in a more open environment.

CNET Labs 5Ghz Wireless-N performance scores
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Apple AirPort Extreme Base Station (5Ghz)
Linksys WRT610n (5Ghz)
D-Link DIR-825 (5Ghz)

CNET Labs 2.4Ghz Wireless-N performance scores
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Mixed Mode  
D-Link DIR-825 (2.4Ghz)
Belkin N+ Wireless Router (2.4Ghz)
Apple AirPort Extreme Base Station (2.4Ghz)
Linksys WRT610n (2.4Ghz)

We were impressed with the Base Station's stability. We moved data constantly back and forth between clients over a long period of time, and none of the clients got disconnected. The router did run 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.