At £140, the new Apple AirPort Extreme Base Station is fairly pricey for a high-end wireless router. Unfortunately, it offers a relatively skimpy amount of networking features, especially for Windows users. It does, however, have high throughput speeds and the ease of use characteristic of most Apple products.
The updated Base Station offers two big improvements over its predecessor, including true dual-band wireless n and guest networking. These make it comparable to other true dual-band wireless-n routers, such as the D-Link Xtreme N Dual Band Gigabit Router DIR-825 and the Linksys WRT610N.
If you're a Mac user or in need of something simple, the new Base Station is definitely worth the investment, but, if you want more networking features and greater control over them, it may not be the best option.
Like its predecessor, the Base Station is one of the best-looking routers we've reviewed. Although it doesn't have the smallest design, the router's square shape and internal antenna give the impression that it's more compact than it actually is.
On the front is a status light that changes colour according to the working condition of the device -- continuous green means everything is in order, while flashing amber indicates a possible problem. On the back are three Gigabit Ethernet ports and one USB port. That's one Ethernet port fewer than most other wireless-n routers we've reviewed. This means you can connect only three wired clients to the router before you'll need a hub or a switch. The USB port can be used to host either a printer or an external hard drive, to share among network users.
As the Base Station doesn't offer a Web interface, setting it up requires the installation of the AirPort Utility software, which comes in both Mac and Windows versions. The Windows version of the software installs quite a few services, such as Bonjour and AirPort Base Station Agent, that run whenever the computer starts. AirPort Base Station Agent helps automatically detect shared folders from a USB drive connected to the router.
Routers that support a Web interface can be configured via a Web browser without the need to install any software. It's convenient, as you can immediately access the router's settings from virtually any computer connected to it. Some vendors, such as Linksys, offer both desktop software and a Web interface for their routers.
AirPort Utility, however, makes setting up the Base Station very easy for novice users -- it takes only a few minutes to get up and running. It has a wizard mode that walks you through the configuration process step by step. To customise the router beyond the recommended settings, you can use the manual mode, which gives access to more advanced features.
The Base Station requires a restart to apply any changes made to its settings. This is a nuisance, as it interrupts the connections of all users. Other high-end routers can apply most minor changes without requiring a restart.
According to Apple's Web site, the Base Station supports a maximum of 50 clients at a time, making it suitable for home or small-office environments. Other routers can support more clients at one time, however.
Other high-end routers include a wealth of features missing from the Base Station, including Web-site filters, port triggering, Wi-Fi-protected push-button set-up (allowing users to hook up new clients to the network with the push of a button) and dynamic DNS.
The Base Station also lacks some other basic functions, including MAC replication -- the ability to take a client's MAC address as its own. This is important, as some service providers require users to register their computers' MAC addresses to ensure that only those particular computers can connect to the network.
On the bright side, the Base Station is one of the few routers that offers both print serving, storage capabilities and full support for IPv6, the new version of the IP protocol. It's also the only router that's tied to Apple's MobileMe service for remote access and administration, which is a plus for Mac users who already have a MobileMe account.
The two most important features of the new Base Station are true dual-band and guest networking. We found both to work well, although slightly differently to what we're used to.
Apple recommends using the same service-set identifier (the name for a wireless network) for both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. According to Apple, the client will detect the band by itself and, if it supports both bands, it will pick the 5GHz over the 2.4GHz band. In our test, this worked with a MacBook Pro. The laptop immediately picked the 5GHz band every time.
It was a different story, however, when we tried it with a Windows system. Our Windows laptop, which supports both 5GHz and 2.4GHz wireless n, picked the 2.4GHz band every time. We're not sure why, and we were unable to manually set the machines to use the 5GHz band to take advantage of the higher throughput speeds.