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.
For this reason, we would recommend having a separate wireless network name for each band, to allow more control of which band a client wants to use. Fortunately, the 'wireless option' button in AirPort Utility allows you to do this.
You can't turn off either of the bands separately. You can choose to turn off the wireless function of the router altogether, but, once it's on, both bands are on. This means using the router to work with the 2.4GHz or 5GHz band only is impossible. All other true dual-band routers we've reviewed allow more control over the router's wireless functionality.
The Base Station's guest-networking feature worked well in our trial. Guest networking lets you create a separate wireless network that has access to the Internet but not local resources, such as your computer or printer. The router allows you to create an additional network, encrypt it, and give guest clients the ability to interact with one another. Again, unlike other routers that offer guest networking, the Base Station doesn't allow you to pick what band you want the guest network to operate in, nor can you make a separate guest network for each band.
The Time Capsule doesn't read drives formatted in the NTFS file system -- only files formatted as FAT32 and Mac OS Extended. In general, it's more difficult to format a drive larger than 32GB using FAT32 than it is using NTFS. This means that, because the majority of external hard drives nowadays are much larger than 32GB, Windows users can't simply plug most of their USB external hard drives into the router and expect to share the data contained on them. If you are willing to reformat your hard drive, you'll need to use a computer to do so, as Time Capsule doesn't include a formatting function.
We tried the router with two USB external hard drives, the G-Tech G-Drive mini Triple and the Seagate FreeAgent Go. Neither of them -- when formatted using FAT32 and tested with a MacBook -- worked with the Base Station. The router kept showing a 'disk needs repair' message, without revealing any details or stating how to repair it.
Nonetheless, the drives worked when we formatted them using Mac OS Extended. Once plugged in, the router took about 30 seconds to see the hard drives. After that, the default share folder appears in the finder of any Mac in the network running Mac OS X 10.4 or later. In Windows, the AirPort Base Station Agent software will make the network drive for you or you can browse for it using the network browser, as long as you have Bonjour installed on the machine.
If you are a Mac and MobileMe user, you can access the hard drive the same way when you are on the go, via the Internet. You just need to register the router to your MobileMe account and it works similarly to the 'back to my Mac' feature. You can also change the router's settings this way, using AirPort Utility. It's important to note that the remote-access feature might not work at all if you access the Internet via a corporate network, where certain Base Station services are blocked for security reasons. Unfortunately, the remote-access feature is not available for Windows users, even if they have a MobileMe account.
You can only share the hard drive as one shared folder -- you can't make multiple folders and share them separately with different access privileges. You can use AirPort Utility to create user accounts so each user has a private folder of their own, though. For example, if you log in as 'user 1', you will see the default share folder and a folder called 'user 1', but you won't see the folders of users 2 and 3. These features make for a simple network storage solution that works well in an environment where you don't need a sophisticated way of sharing resources.
The router is also able to power the external hard drive via its USB port, which is important, as many new pocket-sized external hard drives don't come with separate power cords.
The Base Station features a built-in firewall and supports WPA, WPA2 and 128-bit WEP for wireless encryption. It also supports Radius access control, with which you can manage wireless clients from a centralised location.
Although parents aren't able to filter Web sites, they can restrict their kids' access based on time, provided they know how to get the MAC address off the kids' computers.
We tested the Base Station's throughput speeds by copying data from one computer to another using its wireless connection. This means the scores -- while much lower than the theoretical throughput speed of the wireless-n specification -- are the actual sustained data rates, after all the software and hardware overheads and interference. For comparison, we tested a few other true dual-band wireless routers in the same way.
The Base Station performed well in the 5GHz band, reaching 66Mbps in our throughput test, with the client just 4.5m away from the router. This means it would take about a minute to transmit 500MB of data. This wasn't the highest score, as the D-Link DIR-825 hit 80Mbps. In our range test, however, with the client 30m away, the DIR-825's speed declined significantly to 36Mbps, while the Base Station's remained high, at 59Mbps.
The router performed less impressively in the 2.4GHz band, achieving 40.6Mbps in our throughput test and 21.12Mbps in our range test. In mixed mode, with the router set to work with both wireless-n and wireless-g clients, it scored 35.2Mbps -- about average among the routers we've tested.
The Base Station offers good range. In our testing facility, an office building that's not optimised for wireless range, we were able to hold a steady connection to it from further than 90m in the 2.4GHz band and about 85m in the 5GHz band. Both of these numbers are impressive. Expect even longer range if you use it in a more open environment.
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
We were impressed with the Base Station's stability. We moved data constantly back and forth between clients over a long period of time, and none of them became disconnected. The router did run warm throughout our testing though, so we recommend you leave it in an open, well-ventilated location.
The Apple AirPort Extreme Base Station looks attractive and offers good performance, but it lacks many of the features found in other high-end routers. As such, it's suitable mainly for networking novices and undemanding users.
Additional editing by Charles Kloet