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Apple AirPort Extreme Base Station review: Speedy and elegant home Wi-Fi router

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The Good Apple's new compact and beautiful AirPort Extreme Base Station supports 802.11ac Wi-Fi, is easy to use, and offers solid performance.

The Bad Other than the new design and 802.11ac, there are no other improvements over the previous generation. The router is inflexible and offers no support for Time Machine backup or media streaming via the USB storage.

The Bottom Line Home users, especially Apple fans who own 802.11ac-enabled devices, will love the new AirPort Extreme for its all-new elegant design, ease of use, and great performance; advanced users should look elsewhere for more features and customization.

Visit manufacturer site for details.

8.1 Overall
  • Setup 10
  • Features 6
  • Performance 8
  • Support 9

Review Sections

Apple's new sixth-generation AirPort Extreme Base Station is essentially the new AirPort Time Capsule minus the internal storage. In fact without the storage, the two devices -- for the first time since the debut of Apple's AirPort base stations -- are identical.

The new true dual-band Wi-Fi router is now more compact, and prettier than the previous generation. It also supports the much anticipated -- and much faster -- 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard. The device's functions, features, and port offerings, however, remain the same as its predecessor's.

On one hand, the new AirPort Extreme proved in my testing to be one of the fastest and most reliable Wi-Fi routers to date. On the other, I wish it had more features to offer, such as common networking customizations, and -- when coupled with an external hard drive -- support for Time Machine backup and media streaming.

That said, for those who care about the look, the new AirPort Extreme is beautiful enough to justify the $199/AU$249 price tag that makes it slightly more expensive than its peers. If you have 802.11ac-enabled devices, such as the new MacBook Air, you'll also love this new device's Wi-Fi speed. Otherwise, there's no need to upgrade if you already have the previous model. Don't forget to check out the alternatives on this list for more networking options and features.

The new AirPort Extreme Base Station has the same footprint as the AirPort Express (bottom), but is much taller. Note the AirPlay audio port on the AirPort Express that the AirPort Extreme doesn't have.

The new AirPort Extreme Base Station has the same footprint as the AirPort Express (bottom), but is much taller. Note the AirPlay audio port on the AirPort Express that the AirPort Extreme doesn't have

Dong Ngo/CNET

Totally new design, same ports, familiar setup process
Like the new Time Capsule, the new AirPort Extreme has a completely new design. Instead of the traditional squarish tile shape that's been used for years, it now looks like a rectangular tube standing 6.6 inches tall and 3.85 inches wide. This means it has the same footprint as the second-generation AirPort Express, which came out last year, but it's much taller. Overall the new router has an elegant appearance, more like a jewelry box than a networking device.

On the front, there's a tiny status light that glows green when all is working well and either flashes or changes to amber to indicate that the device needs attention.

On the back, there are the usual three Gigabit LAN ports (to connect wired clients, such as a Mac Pro), and one Gigabit WAN port (to connect to an Internet source, such as a broadband modem). There's also a USB 2.0 port to host an external hard drive or a printer. This port configuration is exactly the same as found in previous generations of the AirPort Extreme and is disappointing since most routers on the market now have four LAN ports and many already offer USB 3.0. The number of LAN ports determines how many wired clients the router can support out of the box, before you need to resort to a switch. And obviously, USB 3.0 offers better performance when you connect an external hard drive to the router.

Like the new Time Capsule, the new AirPort Extreme doesn't support AirPlay, either. For that, you need to get the AirPort Express, which is, for now, still the only router that supports this music playback feature of Apple's.

The AirPort Extreme requires the AirPort Utility software, screenshot here from a Windows version, for initial setup and ongoing management.

The AirPort Extreme requires the AirPort Utility software, screenshot here from a Windows version, for initial setup and ongoing management.

Dong Ngo/CNET

If you have owned an AirPort device before, setting up the new AirPort Extreme is a familiar process, but first-time users shouldn't have a problem, either. You need to have the AirPort Utility software, available for Macs, Windows, and iOS, to get the job done. In most cases, the software is already on a Mac, but if not you can easily download it for free. AirPort Utility makes the setup very simple and self-explanatory.

On the downside, AirPort Utility doesn't offer the same depth of customization and features. That said, the new AirPort Extreme has no more features than its predecessor, and just a handful of them.

A powerful Wi-Fi router that's weak on customization and storage support
The new AirPort Extreme is a true dual-band router, offering Wi-Fi coverage on both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency bands at the same time. This means it supports all existing Wi-Fi clients, regardless of their Wi-Fi standard, with the top possible speed. The router supports the current top tier (three-stream) of both the new 802.11ac and 802.11n (Wireless-N) standards. When used with a 802.11ac-enabled client, such as the new MacBook Air, it can accommodate up to 1.3Gbps data speed. Wireless-N clients can be connected at 450Mbps on either band.

Note that these are the ceiling speeds of the respective standards. In real-world use, actual sustained Wi-Fi speeds fluctuate a great deal and are generally much lower than the cap speeds. Nonetheless, support for higher tiers always means faster speeds. (Read more about Wi-Fi standards here.)

It can be quite a task to find out and type in the MAC address in case you want to add a device to a special list.

It can be quite a task to find out and type in the MAC address in case you want to add a device to a special list.

Screenshot by Dong Ngo/CNET

The AirPort Extreme offers a set of features common in routers, such as guest networking (only on the 2.4GHz band), IPv6, port forwarding, DynDNS, Access Control, and print-serving and file-sharing capabilities. It lacks many features you might expect given its cost, such as QoS customization for traffic prioritizing, Parent Control, VPN server, and so forth.

And even for what it can do, the AirPort Extreme is a lot less flexible than others. For example, while you can block access to the Internet using a connected client's MAC address, you can't set up Web filtering in case you want to block based on keyword, Web services, or a specific Web site. It's also quite hard to add a device to the block list, or assign a fixed IP address to it, because in most cases you need to determine its MAC address and type it in manually.

The AirPort Extreme supports sharing data and printers via the Internet, but this feature is available only to Mac users.

The AirPort Extreme supports sharing data and printers via the Internet, but this feature is available only to Mac users.

Screenshot by Dong Ngo/CNET

The biggest issue I have with the router, however, is the limited support for network storage features.

While the AirPort Extreme doesn't have internal storage of its own, you can add an external hard drive to its USB port. Note that the router supports drives preformatted in HFS+ or FAT, but doesn't support NTFS-formatted drives at all. When a drive is plugged in, you can share the storage space and data stored on it with the rest of the network. On a Mac, the share will appear automatically in Finder. On a Windows machine, you might need to locate it via the default IP address (which is 10.0.1.1) before you can map network drives. But the router's storage features end there.

You can't back up a connected Mac to a USB external drive using Time Machine, nor can you stream digital content stored on the drive to other devices in the network. This means if you put music, photos, or videos on the connected USB external drive, they won't be available to network media streamers, such as a Roku, a WD TV, or even an Apple TV. Almost all existing routers with USB storage offer media streaming.

In addition, you can't use the AirPort Extreme as a server for FTP or Web functions. This support of "dumb" storage space and lack of customization really hinder the potential of the AirPort Extreme and can cause frustration for those switching to it from a non-Apple router for the first time. This also means the new router has nothing new in terms of features over the previous generation.

Other than an external drive, you can plug a printer into the USB port to enable wireless printing. This works very well as long as the printer is supported (most new printers are). Since there's only one USB port, you can use either a printer or an external hard drive but not both simultaneously. Both the print-serving and file-sharing features can be accessed remotely via the Internet, using Back to My Mac. This worked well in my trial but is only available to Macs. There's not much love for Windows users here.

Fast performance
While seemingly the same as the Time Capsule, the new AirPort Extreme didn't offer identical performance.

CNET Labs 802.11ac performance score (in Mbps)

(Longer bars indicate better performance)


Range

Throughput

Asus RT-AC66U
178.5339.2

Netgear R6300

208331.32

Apple AirPort Extreme Base Station

204.6287.2

D-Link DIR-868L

221271

Trendnet TEW-812DRU

192.4263

Apple AirPort Time Capsule

219254

Cisco Linksys EA6500

113244.5

AirStation WZR-D1800H

144233.6

D-Link DIR-865L

135.2199.2

Belkin AC 1200 DB

57162.6

When used with 802.11ac clients, the Extreme scored 287Mbps for short range, significantly faster than the 254Mbps of the Time Capsule. However, when I increased the distance to 100 feet, this order was reversed, with the AirPort Extreme scoring 204Mbps, significantly slower than the Time Capsule's 219Mbps. Nonetheless, these were very fast Wi-Fi speeds, among the fastest on the market.

With Wireless-N clients, on the 5GHz band, the AirPort Extreme scored 202Mbps and 132Mbps for short and long range, respectively, putting it in the top three on the charts. On the 2.4GHz band, it again did very well with 79Mbps for short range and 38Mbps for long range.

CNET Labs 2.4GHz Wireless-N performance score (in Mbps)

(Longer bars indicate better performance)


Range

Throughput

Apple AirPort Time Capsule
27.683.8

Apple AirPort Extreme Base Station

38.479.4

D-Link DIR-868L

55.663.3

WD My Net N900 HD

1658.1

Asus RT-N66U

45.555

Trendnet TEW-812DRU

3752.8

Netgear R6300

41.651.2

Cisco Linksys EA6500

33.648.8

D-Link DIR-857

29.647.8

Netgear WNDR4500

31.145.3

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