Editors' note (July 8, 2011): This is an older version of the Apple AirPort Extreme Base Station. The current (June 2011) version of the AirPort Extreme Base Station can be found here.
Editor's note: We recently re-tested the Apple AirPort Extreme Base Station using the Mac version of IxChariot, the tool we normally use to test routers and network adapters. Please see the performance section for our updated results.
The new Apple AirPort Extreme Base Station is a wireless router based on the draft 802.11n wireless networking standard. At $180, it's on the expensive end of an already pricey group of routers such as the D-Link RangeBooster N 650 wireless router and Netgear WNR834B RangeMax Next Router, and it's based on an unfinalized wireless spec. As such, we're inclined to wait until the 11n spec is finalized (possibly some time this summer) before investing in the hardware, though it's likely that most draft 11n products will only need a simple firmware upgrade to conform to spec. Still, if you already have an AirPort-based wireless network and want to expand it, the AirPort Extreme isn't a bad buy. Its throughput speeds are in range of the competition's (though it lags), it offers a USB port for networking a printer or a hard drive, and it has features we haven't seen on routers before, such as the ability to assign specific IP addresses to devices.
Setup and ease of use
The AirPort Extreme Base Station is a compact little router that looks just like the Mac Mini and has almost the same dimensions. It's a 6.5-inch square that stands 1.3 inches tall. A single LED indicator light sits on the front edge, while the back edge houses a WAN port, three 10/100 LAN ports, and a USB port. Most routers offer four LAN ports, but no USB port. It's also one of the few routers to have no external antennas. An omission we noticed is that Apple doesn't support Gigabit Ethernet on the AirPort Extreme, a puzzling oversight, as new Mac PCs ship with Gigabit Ethernet these days.
The router is compatible with all Mac systems that have built-in 802.11n technology and those that are 802.11b/g/a-enabled. (If you're not using Mac OS X 10.4.x or later, you're out of luck with the AirPort Extreme.) In the newer systems that have 11n built in, the 11n connectivity is enabled during setup with the AirPort Extreme or by purchasing the enabler software from Apple's site for $1.99. Users of older systems that do not have 802.11n built in can connect to the AirPort Extreme, though at slower speeds. Windows users can use the installer CD that ships with the Base Station, though the minimum requirements include a 300MHz processor and Windows XP Home or Pro with Service Pack 2 installed.
Setting up the AirPort Extreme Base Station is a simple task. If you're using a compatible Mac system, simply connect the Base Station to your router via the WAN port using an Ethernet cable and power it up. In the Utilities folder, click on the AirPort setup utility to create a new wireless network and establish security settings. If you're using a PC to create a network or to join the newly created network, you'll first need to install the AirPort Utility from the included CD. Then navigate to the utility (Start > All Programs > AirPort) to enter the necessary information.
Security and Features
The Apple AirPort Extreme Base Station offers the same set of security features as most current routers. You can change your network name (SSID), which is recommended, and choose between WEP, WPA, and WPA2 security. The Base Station Extreme offers MAC address filtering and a NAT firewall. Finally, if you're concerned about your kids' Internet access, you can control their access by time. For example, you can limit access to only those hours when you are home. (Mac OS X allows for site blocking.)
The USB port on the back of the router can be used to attach a USB printer or a hard drive to be shared on the network. The setup guide walks you through the process to enable these features. The Apple AirPort Extreme and the D-Link RangeBooster N 650 wireless router are the only draft 11n routers we've seen that include a USB port, which is a nice touch.
The AirPort Extreme BaseStation includes some advanced functions but they're harder to find than on most routers. This is likely due to Apple's emphasis on ease of use. If you dig around in the utility, though, you can find some useful features (unfortunately, the included setup guide is of little help). For example, you can use the AirPort Extreme Base Station as a point in a wireless distribution system (WDS), where each point increases the spread of the wireless network. WDS requires using products from the same vendor (though not all products from a single vendor will necessarily interoperate), as there is no universal standard for implementing WDS.
Another feature is the ability to assign specific IP addresses to specific devices on your network. That way, if your router resets, you can still easily locate your devices. Apple also has future-proofed the AirPort Extreme by offering support for IPv6 addressing.
The AirPort Extreme also offers dual-band capability; that is, it can operate in the 2.4GHz band or the 5GHz band. The benefit of that option is that many common household devices--including cordless phones, microwave ovens, and baby monitors--operate in the 2.4GHz band, which can cause interference on your network. Also, the 5GHz band makes the Base Station 802.11a-compatible, though it's not compatible with 802.11b/g products. Keep in mind, though, that Mac PCs using older PowerPC processors operate only in the 2.4GHz band; Intel-based Macs can operate in either band.
Using IXIA's IxChariot console and Performance Endpoints for Macs, we recently retested the AirPort Extreme Base Station. Because the Extreme Base Station offers both 2.4GHz and 5GHz operation, we tested both bands. In the 2.4GHz band and in N-only mode, the Extreme Base Station scored 58.84Mbps at 10 feet (maximum throughput) and 37.48Mbps at 200 feet (long-range throughput). In mixed mode at 10 feet (with 11g and 11b clients on the network), it scored 13.72Mbps. In the 5GHz band in N-only mode, the Extreme Base Station scored 77.17Mbps at 10 feet and 58.47Mbps at 200 feet.
In the course of our normal testing, we test routers in their default mode, that is, we don't switch channels. However, we noticed that the scores we obtained using IxChariot were still lower than the scores other publications got for the AirPort Extreme Base Station. Curious, we did try switching channels and found that in our case, using channel 6 showed improved throughput--between 10Mbps to 15Mpbs faster than in default mode. For example, in 2.4GHz at 10 feet, testing in channel 6 gave us a throughput of 71.01Mbps and at 200 feet, channel 6 scored 45.50Mbps.
The Apple AirPort Extreme Base Station is within the range of performance we've seen from other draft 11n-based wireless routers. Unfortunately, all of the draft 11n routers we've tested fall well short of the promised speed improvements of 802.11n, widely advertised to be about 200Mbps. We're curious to see whether products based on the finalized spec will improve upon these speeds. Your mileage will vary, possibly depending on the "noisiness" of your environment, that is, how many wireless networks are active in your area.Service and support