Apple’s newest AirPort Extreme Base Station doesn't just represent an 802.11ac upgrade – its latest router also underwent a complete redesign. Gone is the flat and boxy form factor; instead, the new AirPort is a mini-tower designed to maximise wireless performance.
It's no surprise that the device is about as gorgeous as a router can get and that it has decent throughput (excellent at the 2.4GHz band, actually), not only with the 802.11ac-supported 11in and 13in MacBook Air's wireless adapters, but with Windows systems, too.
Add the dead simple setup into the mix and it's a sure bet the new AirPort will delight many, despite the fact that the AirPort is not among the fastest pre-draft 802.11ac routers we've tested in 11ac mode. Also, power users and those who need to get very granular with their wireless networks will likely want to look to other dual-band routers with more advanced capabilities. Still, those with a love for Apple's design – and hassle-free setup – will no doubt be happy with this attractive piece of hardware.
The AirPort Extreme is a rectangular-prism shape with rounded edges. My colleague Max Eddy nailed it when he said it looked like an Apple TV that's been stretched (it really does – and I doubt that's a coincidence). At the top of the router is the Apple logo in silhouette against the stark, white casing.
The router measures 98 x 98 x 168mm (WxDxH), and the base has a footprint that's 64 per cent smaller than the last AirPort. It weighs 945 grams.
There are three Gigabit Ethernet LAN ports on the back, a Gigabit WAN port, a USB 2.0 port (for printer and external hard drive sharing), and a power port. Each port has a corresponding LED. The only other LED is a teeny-tiny one on the front which provides an overall device status (an amber colour indicates the device is not connected or setup, or that some other issue is going on, and green indicates you’re online and all is good).
At the bottom of the router is the device's fan and cooling system. Now you may think it odd to have the fan at the bottom of a router, but actually, the router does not sit flush to a surface. There is just enough space for air to circulate via the eight vents at the bottom. I ran the router for hours during testing and the AirPort never warmed up even a bit.
Inside is a triple-stream, six antenna array. The antennas make use of beamforming technology, which helps direct a wireless signal to a wireless client. The router uses Broadcom's latest 802.11ac SoC chipset.
The AirPort Extreme Base Station is a simultaneous dual-band router supporting both the 2.4GHz band (which can be reserved for devices you only use for lighter tasks such as web browsing or checking Facebook) and the 5GHz band (which is more robust and can be used for more bandwidth-intensive tasks such as video streaming).
This router is clearly in line with Apple's emphasis on design. It's an elegant networking device with good hardware inside. I lament the fact that Apple chose to go with USB 2.0 instead of USB 3.0, but other than that, as a colleague observed, it's not a device you would mind having on your desk. It's an upright-operating router that would fit into any home networking setup or entertainment centre just fine.
The router ships with a setup guide. The guide initially details how to connect cables properly: First the Internet connection to the WAN port, a USB printer or hard drive to the USB port, an Ethernet cable to any device's Ethernet port, and then the power. The Ethernet connection is actually optional, because I set the router up completely wirelessly using the new 13in MacBook Air.
The tiny LED on the front of the AirPort glows amber when the device is first powered up. I went straight into the AirPort utility on the MacBook. I was able to connect to the Base Station right away – it comes pre-configured with an SSID already set up.
Once I connected to it via the utility, a newer version of the AirPort utility was detected, so I upgraded. I strongly recommend upgrading to the new version if you purchase the new AirPort.
You can do some (limited) wireless networking customisation within the AirPort utility. For example, I created two separate SSIDs for the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands with WPA2 Personal security. You can also enable features such as MAC filtering, to deny or give access to specific machines on your network by MAC address. There is also a timed access feature in which you can grant or deny Internet access on a schedule.
The router also supports some quite advanced IPv6 features, such as 6to4 tunnelling. A native firewall helps protect a home network from Internet threats. VPN passthrough, NAT, and WPA/WPA2 Personal and Enterprise security are also all included features.
If you are looking for supreme control over your home network such as QoS or controlling Frame Burst – you are going to need a router with more functionality. The AirPort does not offer really fine control over settings; it lacks the web interface through which most routers offer that level of control. For many home users that's fine. Serious gamers or those who run a small home business using a VoIP system may want a router with advanced controls such as the Linksys Smart Wi-Fi Router AC1600 EA6400 (which we’ve also been testing, and we’ll have a full review for you soon).
As far as dual-band, pre-draft 802.11ac routers go, the AirPort Extreme is not the fastest we've seen. Throughput is still good, however, registering in the triple digits at 5GHz which is something I always like to see in my RF-heavy testing environment. I saw good throughput using the new 802.11ac-supported 13in Macbook Air and even better with a Windows 7 laptop with a 3x3 wireless adapter.
Testing about 15 feet away from the router with the new 13in MacBook Air I saw a good throughput of 102Mbps – although again, that's not the fastest. The best speeds I've seen running the same test at the same distance were from Trendnet's AC1750 Dual Band Wireless Router which registered 283Mbps, and Buffalo's AirStation AC1300/N900 Gigabit Dual Band Wireless Router which managed 187Mbps.
Unless you’re a hardcore online gamer or big into multimedia streaming, the Airport's performance should satisfy most needs. You don't even need an 11ac adapter to eke out good performance with this router as I saw testing with a Windows client with an 802.11n adapter. At 2.4GHz, 802.11n legacy mode, the AirPort clocked the highest throughput I've seen with 90Mbps at 15 feet – very good in a challenging wireless environment.
USB HDD file transfer performance
I was less than impressed after connecting a Western Digital My Passport external drive formatted as FAT to the AirPort’s USB port and performing a file copy of a 1.5GB video clip to and from a Windows 7 laptop, and the new Macbook Air. Both my Windows laptop and the Macbook Air were connected wirelessly to the AirPort.
In this simple file transfer test, performance from the AirPort to the new MacBook and back was slower than in Windows. Here are my results (higher number is better):
File copy from the connected hard drive to the MacBook: 3.6MBps (Read)
File copy from the MacBook to the connected hard drive: 4.4MBps (Write)
File copy from the connected hard drive to Windows 7: 7.3MBps (Read)
File copy from Windows 7 to the connected hard drive: 9.8MBps (Write)
This is wireless speed and it's always slower than copying over Ethernet. The overall performance for a data transfer between the MacBook and the AirPort was slightly slower than what I typically see from USB-based NAS devices like the Pogoplug Series 4, which tested at a Write speed of 7MBps and a Read speed of 5.3MBps. I found performance between Windows and the AirPort better.
Still, the router's USB port is sufficient for printer sharing and if you are going to copy large files back and forth from a drive attached to the AirPort, try to go with an Ethernet connected device if possible.
Apple has never really been heralded for its networking technology. Yes, the design of the hardware is beautiful, and notorious for being easy to setup and manage. With the new AirPort design and the inclusion of 802.11ac, it's plain to see that the company is taking big steps forward.
However, beamforming and 802.11ac have already arrived in other vendor's routers, so this isn't anything revolutionary. In fact, the new AirPort Extreme is not even the fastest among the crop of pre-draft 802.11ac routers we've tested in 11ac mode – although it did test as one of the fastest in 802.11n mode at the 2.4 GHz band.
That said, the new AirPort is the most sophisticated forward-looking piece of networking hardware to come out of Cupertino. Apple aficionados can rest assured that the new Apple AirPort Extreme Base Station adheres to both Apple's design ethos and its mantra of "it just works" – not to mention delivering decent performance, too.