Warning: The following review may be a little technical for our average site visitor. Don’t worry, it won’t hurt a bit. I’ve had Apple’s new Airport Extreme Base Station now for almost a week and have been able to try out most of its features.
Let me start this off by saying that I don’t currently have any 802.11n capable wireless devices. My home network currently consists of an iMac Core Duo (wired but has 802.11g wireless only), a PowerMac (wired), a couple of boring PC’s, and a 12″ Powerbook. I also have a Nintendo Wii and a DS Lite which uses the wireless to connect to the internet.
An Airport Express base station primarily served up wireless for my Powerbook and the DS because the DS doesn’t work with WPA or other more advanced security options and I am able to filter its MAC address (nothing to do with Apple, the Machine Address Code that every networkable device has). The Airport Express is also great for traveling.
I didn’t get the base station for its wireless connectivity options (but I plan on taking advantage of 802.11n as soon as I upgrade my laptop), rather for its USB port that allows you to connect an external hard drive to it. My review will focus primarily on this aspect as there are tons of other sites with benchmarks and fancy charts of the wireless performance.
If you have (or plan on getting) a recent model Apple computer (desktop or laptop) you’ll be good to go on the new, faster 802.11n wireless protocol which Apple is touting at being up to 5x faster than 802.11g (the current standard wireless protocol).
The main thing I’ve noticed about it over my previous router is the consistent speed. Everything feels faster with the Airport installed. Websites seem to ‘pop’ as fast as you would expect and any slowdowns are related to the site itself or anything that is being loaded (large images, external banners, etc). It’s hard to quantify something like speed (I hate benchmarks since they never seem to apply to my setup) but I can say that there is at least the feeling of an improvement in the speed of surfing and file copying across the network (more on that in a bit).
It might just be a placebo effect caused by spending $200 on a router to replace a $40 one. But the price is comparable to other 802.11n routers out there and this one has a few features the other don’t.
One of my favorite things about Apple products (fanboy alert) is the level of detail they put into their packaging. Even something as mundane as a router has a sense of style associated with it’s box…even if there isn’t much to it, it’s just more interesting to open than most computer/electronics boxes.
Inside the box is just the Airport base station itself (wrapped in clear plastic like an iPod comes) sitting on a cardboard pedestal above the power cables. The nice thing is that it doesn’t have a huge power brick-type plug (aka a wall wort) but a more civilized two pronged power adapter cable that plugs into a mini block that is about the size of a cellphone. The cord is also very long so you should have no trouble finding a place to plug it in.
One of the first downsides you’ll encounter when setting up the base station is the number of ports on the back. Most routers these days have four ports for your local network and this only has three. This isn’t the end of the world but it just means that people with bigger LANs might have to get a switch to fill this need. Another downside that is tearing up the internet is the lack of gigabit ethernet ports.
The stock ones have 10/100 capable connections but many of Apple’s computers these days ship with gigabit ports (1000). Again not the end of the world as this base station is really all about the wireless speeds but it would have been nice if they had included it. I’ll touch on why in a minute when I discuss the AirDisk.
As I mentioned earlier, the main reason I wanted to get the Airport Extreme was the built in USB port on the back that allows you to plug a printer or external hard drive into your network. I’ve had an Airport Express for ages now that had a USB port on it but never used it for a printer since it’s plugged in behind my entertainment center to provide wireless AirTunes to my stereo. You can also use the Airport Express’ USB port to charge your iPod (or any USB device) when on the road….I’ve used this feature extensively.
Back to the Airport Extreme. I have a LaCie 250GB external USB hard drive that I have been using on my iMac. The only trouble is that the iMac had to be on to access the drive. The Airport Extreme lets you leave the computer turned off and just plug the drive directly into the base station. I can then access the external hard drive from my laptop wirelessly.
There are a lot of options in here but I’m only going to focus on the AirDisk. There is a small printed manual included with the base station and Apple has posted it on their website along with a guide to designing your wireless network if you’d like to read more about it.
Once I had everything setup and working (which only took a few minutes), I connected the Lacie external drive. Almost immediately the admin utility detected the drive (formatted for Mac before I connected it). The Airdisk utility asked me if I’d like to connect to the drive and asked me for a password. Once I put in the password (the base station’s password was the default option), it mounted the AirDisk onto my iMac’s desktop. Wow! That was easy.
I then tried copying some files to it and they seemed pretty decent. A 350mb file (a TV episode) took ‘about a minute’ (according to the Finder progress bar) and a 800mb file (a movie) took ‘about 3 minutes’. The progress bar seemed to be a little slower than realtime however. It was still fast enough for my purposes.
Once the files were copied, I wanted to try streaming from the Airdisk. They played back flawlessly over the wired connection. I also had no issues streaming video to my Powerbook via 802.11g. More happy camping.
There is an option to “Share disks over the Ethernet WAN port” which means you can basically access the drive from anywhere over the internet – this basically replaces the need for Apple’s .Mac. Hopefully the forthcoming Leopard operating system will take advantage of this and allow the user to use the OS level .mac items interchangably with an Airdisk. There is also an option to “Advertise disks globally using Bonjour” option which sounds kind of scary and isn’t documented at all in the manual.
I had a friend try to connect to my Airdisk over the internet. This involves knowing your IP address (which can be found on the summary page of the base station) and using the Finder’s ‘Connect to Server’ function (press CMD-K in Finder to bring this up). I gave my friend my IP address and the base station password and he was able to connect remotely to the drive and see the files I had put on it. We tried streaming the video files and as expected, they were choppy and slow. This is mostly to do with the upload speeds provided by your ISP which is usually quite slow compared to your download speed. Still it worked great and will be useful to drag and drop files to and from the Airdisk when I’m away from home.
The Airdisk also supports the notion of user accounts for accessing the hard drive. This isn’t documented very well in the manual (or anywhere unfortunately).
This is just like it sounds: you create a list of users (with passwords) and those users can then access the hard drive. The caveat I found with this though is that if I want to create a number of accounts for family or friends, there is no notion (that I’ve found at least) of an admin account that can peer into any of the account folders. The account setting basically creates folders in the root of the hard drive in the name of the account holder.
So when you mount the hard drive, you only see your folder contents. This is disappointing to me because I wanted to be able to manage all the content in those folders (other than changing the settings to turn off the accounts). I also wanted to have different accounts for different purposes. A Backup account to strictly backup important files and a Media account for just music/video files. I can do that but can’t be logged into more than one account at a time. Bummer. Maybe this will be improved in future updates to the admin utility.
In further testing, all the Airdisk functions worked the same on a PC. There are two ways to access the airdisk: either via the airdisk utility or by connecting via the Finder/Windows Explorer directly to the base station IP. I was able to map a drive letter on a PC to the Airdisk with no trouble. I like the fact the Airdisk app checks for any disks anytime you connect to that network. It’s really like it’s attached to your system and there when you need it.
The bottom line is the Airport Extreme is a solid router/base station with some nice other features like the AirDisk. With support for the 802.11n protocol, it’s a solid choice for anyone upgrading or adding wireless to their home network. So far the performance of the Airdisk has been what I expected and very handy.
– nice, classy Apple styling with no fugly external antennas
– fast and consistant speeds (very unscientific)
– can add an external hard drive (or printer) to your network easily
– works the same on PCs or Macs
– pricey (but comparable to other 802.11n routers)
– only 3 ethernet ports on the back
– no gigabit connections
– configuration tool could be improved
– manual is a little sparse on details of the more advanced features
If there is anything else you’d like to know about this base station, post a comment below!
This post was created by John