Five ways Apple could improve its AirPort base stations

Apple's new AirPort base stations are good networking devices, but there are things the company can do to make them even better. CNET editor Dong Ngo offers that to-do list.

Dong Ngo SF Labs Manager, Editor / Reviews
CNET editor Dong Ngo has been involved with technology since 2000, starting with testing gadgets and writing code for CNET Labs' benchmarks. He now manages CNET San Francisco Labs, reviews 3D printers, networking/storage devices, and also writes about other topics from online security to new gadgets and how technology impacts the life of people around the world.
Dong Ngo
7 min read
Watch this: Apple's new AirPort Base Stations are so pretty and full of magic

I don't believe love has to be unconditional, but when there are so many conditions to be met, maybe it's time to look for love elsewhere.

That sums up my personal experience with Apple's all-new AirPort base stations, the recently released 802.11ac-enabled AirPort Extreme Base Station and AirPort Time Capsule.

Don't get me wrong, the new AirPort base stations are special. For the first time since Apple joined the home-networking club back in 2003, these two devices share the exact same design and shape: compact and pretty.

It's even more impressive in the case of the Time Capsule since the 3.85-inch-wide device is actually slightly narrower than a regular desktop internal hard drive, one of which it houses on the inside, but diagonally. The device is also the only one of its type that comes with a accelerometer that automatically parks the internal drive's reading/writing head if falling or toppling is detected, to prevent data damage. Quite amazing.

In my testing, the two devices offered overall great performance with solid Wi-Fi coverage and were also easy to use. Both racked up positive ratings in their respective reviews.

That said, these AirPort products aren't perfect, and they share some frustrations and shortcomings -- most of which have persisted since the earliest days of Apple's networking line. Here's what still bugs me about the AirPort line, and what I'd love to see done to improve it:

1. Lower the price (especially for the Time Capsule)
At $199 and $299, respectively, the AirPort Extreme and Time Capsule (2TB, the 3TB version costs $399) are easily the most expensive devices of their respective types on the market.

To be fair, at $199 the AirPort Extreme is just slightly more expensive than other high-end 802.11ac routers. The Asus RT-AC66U, for example, costs around $180. But you'll get a lot more with the Asus, such as an extra LAN port and a whole lot of features, including a VPN server. If you just want a fast and simple 802.11ac router, which the AirPort Extreme is, the Trendnet TEW-812DRU can be found for just $145.

Now, take that Trendnet and get a dedicated home NAS server, such as the $170 Seagate Central, and you'll get a much better deal than the Time Capsule in terms of cost, performance, and features.

All things considered, if these base stations cost $50 less, they would be great deals. For now, among high-end routers on the market, they cost the most and offer the least in terms of features.

Having no mounting options and just three LAN ports, the new AirPort base stations are prettier than they are practical.
Having no mounting options and just three LAN ports, the new AirPort base stations are prettier than they are practical. Dong Ngo/CNET

2. Fix some key physical shortfalls
While the new devices are indeed pretty and pleasantly unique in many ways, as far as networking is concerned, their hardware design is both impractical and lacking.

It's impractical because there's no mounting option; the devices need to be placed on a flat surface. That plus their great look also means that you'll probably leave them somewhere out in the open to show them off, which might circumvent the rules of placing a Wi-Fi router for best coverage.

It's lacking because there are only three LAN ports instead of four or more, as found in most routers. You can say that having just one fewer LAN port is not a big deal, but in many cases, four ports are the right amount you need to make your home network complete without having to resort to a switch. The new base stations don't support USB 3.0, either, and not even AirPlay, which is available in the AirPort Express.

There's also just one status light on the front, which shines solid green when everything is in order and changes to amber or flashes when something is wrong. And this means the message is ambiguous. There are many issues that can happen in a home network, and more status lights mean in many cases that you can pinpoint the problem by just looking at those blinking little LEDs. In the case of the AirPort Extreme Base Station, you will need to run the AirPort Utility software to find out what's up.

3. Go beyond AirPort Utility
AirPort Utility, available for Mac, Windows, and iOS devices, is among the easiest-to-use router setup software on the market.

However, since it's the only way for you to manage the AirPort Station, you have far fewer options than with non-Apple routers, which also have a Web interface. A Web interface makes possible immediate management of your network from any connected device that has a browser. And since a browser is by far the most ubiquitous piece of software, readily available everywhere, having a Web interface means you don't need to change devices or install anything to manage your home network.

With AirPort Utility, you have to first install it (the new base stations require the latest version of the software), which requires a connection to the Internet and takes time. Imagine if you have a new computer and just want to quickly change a setting of a base station, which would just take a few seconds, but prior to that you'll have to first spend a few minutes downloading and installing AirPort Utility. And if you want to use an Android device, you're just out of luck for now.

On top of that, having AirPort Utility installed on your computer might lead to some idiosyncrasies as mentioned below.

Sorry, Wayne!
Sorry, Wayne! Dong Ngo/CNET

4. Kill the idiosyncrasies
Some might call these features but for me they are just nuisances.

The first is AirPort Utility's automatic pop-up when a new base station is plugged into the network. When I plugged the base stations into CNET's corporate network just to test out different post-review things, many of my coworkers got pop-up notices on their computers that a base station had just been plugged in. This happens if computers have AirPort Utility installed, regardless of being Macs or Windows machines. And it happens not just the first time you plug a brand-new base station in but also when the device restarts, or when the computer restarts. And in my case, because I named the review units after myself, folks knew exactly who to blame for the unexpected pop-up message. Quite embarrassing.

The second is the Double NAT error. This happens when you plug an AirPort base station into a network that already has an NAT-capable router (all home routers have NAT function built in); for example, when you plug it into a network outlet at a school, in an office, a dorm room, at a hotel, or when you plug it into a LAN port of another router. Generally, the only situation when this does not happen is when you use the base station as the main gateway that connects directly to a broadband modem. When Double NAT happens, the status light flashes amber, making you feel that something bad is going on, when in reality all you have to do is run AirPort Utility and choose to ignore it.

Now, I won't discuss why these things happen, but you won't run into them when you use a non-Apple router.

Home users might find the Double NAT error a big headache.
Home users might find the Double NAT error a big headache. Dong Ngo/CNET

5. Add some advance features and customization options
This is by far the biggest issue for me.

If you just want to have a fast Wi-Fi network to share the Internet and, in the case of the Time Capsule, do Time Machine backup on, chances are you will be happy with the new AirPort base stations. If you want to do more, prepare to be frustrated.

This is because both the AirPort Extreme Base Station and the AirPort Time Capsule lack many common customizations found in most, if not all, other routers. Among these settings are the ability to filter Web content, program Quality of Service (QoS), and so on. QoS is a very important feature since it makes it possible to prioritize Internet traffic for media streaming or online gaming. It's also kind of hard to get very common things done with the base stations, such as adding clients to a special list for IP reservation or MAC filtering. You can't even view all the wired connected clients, either. Any advanced users would find this both lacking and frustrating.

In addition to that, when hosting data, either internally -- only available with the Time Capsule -- or via a plugged-in USB drive, neither of the devices supports media-streaming, FTP, or HTTP servers. Data sharing works well with Macs but requires some work if you want to share with Windows computers on the same network. Over the Internet, data sharing is only available to Macs.

This type of "dump" storage space hosting is both disappointing and surprising, since Apple also makes one of the popular media streamers, the Apple TV. Every other USB-enabled router on the market I've worked with has a lot more to offer than just file and printer sharing.

Final thoughts
Depending upon your needs -- and your taste -- those issues will range from mere quibbles to deal breakers.

The question remains: is Apple interested in going the extra mile to fully compete with rival networking vendors? Some of these issues go back five or six generations, but if any (or all) of them were addressed, Apple's AirPort line could be even better. Maybe there's hope for the next generation. After all, Apple did add a LAN port to its latest AirPort Express.

In the meantime, after about three weeks of really using these devices, I've decided to stick with what I've been using for more than a year.

But remember: I'm an advanced user who wants and needs all those geeky admin and NAS features. And I'm not in an Apple-only device environment. But that's me. For many others, these networking devices are all but perfect. Are you in that boat? Find out later this week, when I discuss the best uses for the new Apple AirPort devices.