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Review: AirPort Extreme

And that’s a mistake, because the AirPort Extreme update can be described as anything but “minor,” but rather one of the most anticipated updates to Apple’s wireless hardware.

About seven and a half years have passed since Apple released its first AirPort device, a spaceship-shaped product incorporating 802.11b wireless technology that came with AirPort-equipped iBooks. Since July 1999 Apple has significantly upgraded the AirPort base station lineup three times: November 2001, with better encryption and cross-platform support, support for 50 users, and a second Ethernet port; in January 2003, with support for 802.11g and USB wireless printing; and most recently in April 2004, with the power-on-over-Ethernet feature.

In other words, leading up to last week’s announcement, it’s been about three years since the last AirPort Extreme update came, and indeed Apple’s most capable base station was starting to show the signs of age in terms of both features and bandwidth. Since Apple TV should dramatically increase the amount of data sent over home wireless networks, most people assumed that Apple would need to upgrade the AirPort line of base stations to support the 802.11n standard, and soon.

Introducing the new AirPort Extreme, which looks undeniably similar to Apple TV. With availability scheduled for next September, the new Extreme base station represents Apple’s most significant update to the access point and that also affects a new lower price of 169 EUR. Next we will tell you what is new and what we are missing.

The news

802.11n The new Base Station continues to offer support for the 802.11b and 802.11g wireless standards present in the latest version of the AirPort Extreme product; but it also adds support for 802.11ay, more importantly, for the new 802.11n “standard.” We will use the term standard even though 802.11n has not yet been approved but is still in the draft phase, which means that the specifications have not yet been approved by the international standards committee in charge of 802.11 technology. However, it seems that the current specifications in the draft are very close to what we can expect from the final version, or close enough that a software or firmware update can bring the device in line with the new specifications.

The major advantage of 802.11n over previous standards is a technology called multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO), in which multiple antennas are used; in fact the new base station has three internal antennas to improve both the performance and the maximum range of coverage. Apple notes that the latest Extreme base station offers up to twice the range of its immediate predecessor (which in itself represents an improvement over the original AirPort base station), and an improvement of up to five times in data transfer. The company does not offer official estimates, stating that “actual performance varies depending on range, connection speed and conditions of the place where it is used, network size and other factors.” The real world figures are approximately 100 Mbps for 802.11n compared to 20 Mbps for 802.11g. Additionally, Apple also benefits from a feature that is currently optional in 802.11n: the ability to use either the 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz frequency spectra. If your 802.11n network has problems with a spectrum of frequencies, you can switch to the other.

To take advantage of 802.11n you will need devices that support the new standard. According to Apple, this hardware includes all iMac Core 2 Duo models except for the 17-inch 1.83 GHz model; all MacBook Core 2 Duo; all MacBook Pro Core 2 Duo, and all Mac Pro with AirPort Extreme card. The wireless circuitry in these computers already supports 802.11n and only requires a software update that is included with the base station (802.11n Enabler utility) to unlock that support. (If you are not purchasing the new base station, Apple has advised Macworld USA that you can download the Enabler from the Apple online store for a guide price of $ 1.99.)

As with previous base stations (and wireless routers from other companies), you will get the best performance with networks that use only one standard (in this case only 802.11n). Once you add 802.11g or 802.11b devices to the network, the performance of the entire network will suffer. It is not that it will offer the performance of the slowest standard, but it will not be as fast as when all devices on the network use the same standard. So if you have multiple Macs, PowerBooks, iBooks, or other wireless 802.11bog devices, don’t expect to see a significant performance boost, even when using 802.11n devices.

Three-port 10/100 switch Previous AirPort base stations featured only two Ethernet ports: one to connect the broadband cable (WAN), and the other (LAN) to share the connection with clients using cable on the local network. If you had more than one device (a computer, a printer, a network audio player, etc), then you had to buy a hub or a switch, connect it to the Ethernet LAN port of the base station, and then connect your devices to the hub or switch. The new base station includes four Ethernet ports, one WAN and three LAN, with the three LAN ports as part of the built-in 10/100 switch. In other words, you can cable up to three computers and devices to the base station to add them to the local network and provide them with Internet access.

USB Printer and Hard Drive Sharing Today’s Extreme and AirPort Express base stations offer printer sharing capability – plug a USB printer into the printer’s USB port and any Bonjour-compatible computer (both current Mac OS X and current Mac OS X computers). Windows computers running Bonjour for Windows software) will automatically detect the presence of the printer on the network and can print to it. This capability has been taken one step further in the new version of the Extreme Base Station with AirPort Disk. Connect a USB 2.0 storage device with FAT32 or HFS Plus format to the base station’s USB port and the unit will be accessible to any computer on the local network using the AFP (Personal File Sharing) and SMB (Windows File Sharing) protocols. You can use hard drives and memory keys, but not optical drives.

Although it is not a new technology (NAS technology has been around for a long time), its integration into the new base station means that virtually any USB disk can be used as a NAS drive; Not to mention, standard USB drives are generally cheaper compared to dedicated NAS drives.) A new AirPort Disk utility will allow you to assign restrictions to the contents of the connected disk at the file and folder level, so that each user with permissions to access said drive can be restricted to specific files and folders. You can even set the disks to automatically mount to the desktop when connected.