Apple's new Airport Extreme gets dual-band Wi-Fi
It's a welcome update for users with a mixed wireless environment
It's been two years since Apple Inc. moved its Airport Extreme Wi-Fi router to the 802.11n networking standard -- making the move before 802.11n was even finalized. Now Apple has pushed its take on wireless networking another evolutionary step forward by adding simultaneous dual-band Wi-Fi, guest networking and MobileMe support.
The newest Airport Extreme base station, which I bought and have been using for a couple of weeks, retains its flat, white Mac mini-like look; the same $179 price tag; and the ability to broadcast using the 802.11a/b/g/n protocols on the 2.4-GHz and 5-GHz frequencies. You can still share printers or external USB hard drives, and Apple's software for setting up and tweaking a wireless network is still the best in its class. I remain impressed with Apple's Airport Utility software because the setup options are powerful enough for advanced users, but are simple enough for anyone with even basic networking skills to understand. (If you've ever set up a Linksys network, you know what I mean.)
Best new feature: Dual-band support
But the best feature of Apple's new base station by far is simultaneous dual-band support. Until now, any speed gained by using the faster 802.11n standard evaporated if you connected devices running the older -- and more widely supported -- 802.11g protocol. That's because older base stations could only deliver the fastest connection speed that the slowest device on the network could support. For instance, if you had three computers with "n" wireless support and an iPhone that connected using 802.11g (the iPhone doesn't support 802.11n yet), then all clients connected to that network would operate at "g" speeds. That's fine for general Web browsing, but not so hot for large file transfers.
That's no longer an issue. The latest base station -- and the more expensive Time Capsule -- can simultaneously broadcast in the 2.5-GHz and 5-GHz frequencies, with clients automatically connecting to the fastest available signal. This is a big step forward for anyone looking to squeeze every bit of wireless performance out of a mixed-device environment.
Just don't expect miracles. With a white MacBook, new 24-in. iMac, a new 2.53-GHz MacBook Pro and an older 1.66-GHz Mac Mini at my disposal, I tested the difference in speeds between 802.11n and 802.11g networking. The file -- a 1.36GB movie -- was transferred to several machines from the MacBook Pro, and after copying the file several times, I averaged the results.
It took 12 and a half minutes to copy the movie to the Mac Mini, which can only transfer files using 802.11g. But transfers were much faster to hardware using the 802.11n standard: 6 minutes and 9 seconds to the iMac; 4 minutes and 59 seconds to the base station itself; and an average time of 4:10 to the white MacBook. Yes, transferring files from the new MacBook Pro to the white MacBook turned in the fastest time. I'm not sure why, but the results were consistent.When you're streaming high-definition Quicktime movies to your computer -- I watched Apple's video of its iPhone 3.0 announcement -- and other computers on the network are moving data around, data transfers will definitely be affected.
Big data transfers affect bandwidth
To prove the point, I set up my MacBook Pro to stream the Apple event while transferring a multigigabyte folder full of files from the iMac to my MacBook Pro. The stream played without a hitch until I began transferring files from the MacBook Pro to the base station's shared disk. On the Mini, which was transferring that movie file in the background, estimated data transfer times quadrupled. If you are working in a bandwidth-intensive environment, you're better off sticking to wired connections.
One of the main benefits of the Airport Extreme base station is that you can connect an external disk to it for Time Machine backups. (Apple's Time Capsule does the same thing, but with a built-in hard drive.) Since the MacBook Pro and the MacBook both use 802.11n, I let them run their first backups overnight. Both were finished by morning, having uploaded more than a hundred gigabytes worth of files wirelessly overnight.
The Mac Mini, on the other hand, took days to sludge through nearly 200GB of media files, and the Time Machine app frequently reported errors while backing up. Ultimately, it turned out that a couple of corrupt files refused to be copied, something I managed to figure out using the Console application to ferret out the problem. Removing the corrupt files from the backup finally resolved the glitch.
If you have 802.11g -- or even 802.11b -- devices, and you want them connected to your network without suffering from wireless slowdowns, Apple has a solution: The Airport Extreme includes three Ethernet ports on the back of the base station. (Your cable or DSL modem connects to a different Ethernet port labeled "WAN.") This allows you to plug a computer into a local network, at the same time allowing access to the shared disk and its partitions. The result is fast and easy file transfers to machines without wireless access.
It's also useful if someone brings over a computer with only a wired connection. Just connect it to the Airport Extreme with an Ethernet cable for quick access to the network.While setup is generally easy, not everything worked as it should without a little adjusting to the base station settings -- which is done through Airport Utility. I was having trouble getting the house iPhones to connect to the network, even though the computers were able to connect fine.
After launching Airport Utility (it's in the Utilities folder), I clicked on the "Wireless" tab and tried changing some of the settings. You can, for instance, give the network its own sectioned off 802.11n access point, change the broadcast channel, switch to a different multicast rate and reduce transmit power. None of the options made any difference. Neither did enabling interface robustness. My iPhone connectivity was sporadic at best.
Finally, I switched the Radio Channel selection from automatic to manual and chose channel 7. Voila! That fixed everything. Clearly, there's another device close to my house operating on the 2.4-GHz band, a common occurrence for those in apartments or condos. After the channel switch, my transfer speeds were great and connectivity was consistent for all my devices.
Guest networking allows limited access
Another feature I like is Guest Networking, which allows you to set up a network that's effectively walled off from the main wireless access point, and includes basic user-definable restrictions. This will be welcome for anyone who has wanted to provide access to the Internet without giving away the main network's password. Guests can be allowed to communicate with one another, and the base station software can also enable or disable access to a connected hard disk. The main network can be configured with an entirely different password and set of privileges, including full disk and printing support. My particular setup was configured so that anyone that connects to the main network had access to a connected 1TB hard drive, partitioned for file sharing and Time Machine backups.
Even with separate active networks, sharing files between computers was a breeze, as the Bonjour-enabled Macs instantly appeared in the Finder's sidebar -- even though some computers were on the guest network and others were using the main network.
Unfortunately, the current iteration of the base station software offers limited sharing capabilities. You can't, for instance, partition the USB-attached hard drive and assign access to separate partitions via access groups and accounts, with read/write access based on log-in information. For now, it's all-or-nothing access.
Finally, Apple added MobileMe support, allowing access to a shared hard drive attached to the base station -- even when you're away from your network. Shared disks are shown in a Finder window sidebar, offering access to files anywhere there's a network connection. While it's useful for MobileMe subscribers, reliability wasn't 100% during testing. Sometimes the shared USB drive wouldn't show up in the sidebar. I could get the drive to mount by turning off Back to My Mac, and then turning it back on, but that didn't always work, either. Given Apple's rocky history with MobileMe, I'd give it an update or two before I started relying on disk access.
Having said that, though, the biggest advance with this latest Airport Extreme is the dual-band support. It's not a must-have for most users -- unless you have a mixed wireless environment and want the fastest Wi-Fi transfer speeds possible. But if you do have an alphabet soup of wireless devices and computers all accessing the same network, you'll find it meets your needs. Add in the Guest Networking option and the prospect of more reliable MobileMe support down the road, and the Airport Extreme is worth the price.
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