Review: Apple AirPort Extreme

By Gerry Blackwell

June 02, 2008

Average performance coupled with set-up and configuration issues in a Win/Mac environment mar the otherwise elegantly simple AirPort Extreme experience.

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Apple AirPort Extreme
MSRP: $180
Pros: Elegantly simple configuration wizard, superb Apple industrial design
Cons: Irritating, but resolvable, set-up and configuration issues in mixed Windows/Mac environment, average performance

We never understood why Apple, a computer manufacturer, wanted to get into the Wi-Fi business in the first place. Unless it was because the Mac needed special treatment in a wireless network environment. After all, HP, Lenovo et al are content to leave Wi-Fi to networking specialists, such as Linksys.

But Apple is in the Wi-Fi business and has been for a while. We had a chance recently to test its latest router product, the AirPort Extreme ($180), a Draft 11n, Revision 2.0 unit with four 10/100 Ethernet ports and a USB port for connecting a hard drive or printer.

If you’re a Mac-ite, opting for an Apple-branded Wi-Fi network is probably a no-brainer. If nothing else, you get elegant Apple industrial design to match your other gear. The AirPort Extreme, a low, flat, book-sized device with integrated antennas, is reminiscent of both Mac and iPod.But if you live in the Windows world or in a mixed environment? Does the AirPort Extreme perform any better than other Draft N routers? Does it play nicely with Windows devices?

Designed for simplicity

Setting up and running a basic wireless network using the AirPort Extreme should be–is certainly designed to be–very simple, and many users may find it so. But in our mixed Windows/Mac test facility, the process was far from bump-free. In fact, the problems began before we even plugged in the AirPort, and continued.

The test bed included a MacBook Pro, Apple’s high-end 17-inch-monitor laptop, a beautiful machine that comes equipped with a Draft 11n adapter. The other components are all Windows-based or network-only devices–wireless laptop and desktop, wired desktop PC (all Windows XP),  Vonage (VoIP) gateway, network hard drive, and USB hard drive.

In preparation for testing, we wanted to connect the MacBook to an existing 11n, Revision 2.0 network based on Linksys’s top-of-the-line Dual-Band Wireless-N Gigabit Router (WRT600N).

We had noticed problems in the past with the MacBook not being able to easily reconnect to Wi-Fi networks after waking up from sleep mode. In the case of the WRT600N network, with no encryption security in place (only Mac address filtering), the MacBook would not connect at all.

The Apple OS networking utility also mistakenly reported that the Linksys network had WPA security implemented and insisted on a password. This turned out to be the clue to resolving the issue. As soon as we did implement WPA on the Linksys router, the MacBook was able to connect to it.

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The Apple tech support representative we spoke to had no explanation for this unusual behavior, other than suggesting that different manufacturers implemented the draft standard differently.

Setting up a network

We began testing by unplugging all the Ethernet-connected devices from the Linksys router, turning it off and reconnecting everything, including the cable modem, to the AirPort Extreme. Then we powered up the Apple router.

The AirPort behaved as expected at first, with the single LED status light blinking green once, then glowing amber while the device set itself up. But at the end of the boot process, the LED blinked amber, indicating, according to the manual, that the AirPort could not connect to the Internet.

We tried powering down and powering up again–both cable modem and AirPort–then resetting the AirPort, with no success.

There was also a problem connecting to the router from a PC. We had downloaded the AirPort Utility—software used to configure the router—from Apple’s Website, and installed it on a desktop PC running Windows XP.

On launching the program, it searches for Apple devices. It could not find the AirPort Extreme—even though the PC was connected directly to it by Ethernet cable.

At this point, we began to wonder if the unit was defective. But, first we tried launching the AirPort Utility on the MacBook Pro. It immediately found the AirPort Extreme, and from this point on, the configuration process went reasonably smoothly.

In fact, before the process was complete—this is working from the Mac—the XP PC suddenly connected to the Internet and began communicating, even though the AirPort LED was still blinking amber, indicating a problem.

After everything was set up and the AirPort Extreme was behaving as expected, with the LED glowing green, the AirPort Utility on the PC still could not find the router.

We have no explanation yet of what this problem might be. It’s interesting to note that the Help files for the Windows AirPort Utility appear to mistakenly give troubleshooting instructions for this problem that apply to the Mac operating system rather than Windows. 

Later we discovered that the AirPort Utility on the PC could connect to the AirPort Extreme, but only if we selected ‘Configure other’ from the program’s menus and manually entered the IP address of the router and its password.

Initial success

The simple wizard-based network set-up for AirPort on the Mac—we couldn’t test this in the Windows version—asks for a name and password for the router, the type of connection to the cable/DSL modem (DHCP, PPoE, etc.), and guides you through choosing a passphrase for the WPA security. And that’s it.

At this point, everything was working as it should. Other wireless devices in our test facility connected easily to the AirPort Extreme network. The Vonage gateway connected after rebooting. The hard drive plugged into the router’s USB port was visible in Windows Explorer.

The AirPort utility, interestingly, reported that the USB drive required “repairs.” This turned out to be correct, although the problem had not been identified before. A different USB hard drive worked fine.

At this point, we were prepared to begin performance testing. Before we had a chance, though, devices connected to the network—both wireless and wired—began losing logical connectivity. Over a period of a few hours, all dropped off the network, including the Vonage gateway. They were still physically (or wirelessly) connected, but could no longer communicate on the network.

Staying power

The problem in all cases was that they could not get an IP address from the AirPort Extreme’s DHCP server when attempting to reconnect. It still is not clear why. It may be a problem with the AirPort’s DHCP server or DHCP settings—although we were using default settings.

The problem was only resolved by manually assigning an IP address to each device, which instantly restored full connectivity.

It would be nice to report at this point that, despite these irritating set-up problems, this elegantly simple device outperformed other 11n routers we’ve tried—as Mac computers often outperform comparable PCs. But this was not the case.

Web surfing appeared sluggish compared to the existing Linksys network. Measured real-world, tests involving sending large files from the wired Ethernet PC to another 11n-equipped device on the network produced widely varying results.

The best we measured was just under 50 megabits per second (Mbps)—similar to some other routers we’ve tested, but slower than the fastest. When sending to a machine in a room in our test facility that typically has poor coverage, speeds dropped to just under 20 Mbps.

Bottom line

If you’re Mac adept, with experience using earlier AirPort and AirPort Express products, the problems we encountered may be familiar and easy enough to resolve.

But if you have Windows devices or work in a mixed environment, the AirPort Extreme may be more trouble than it’s worth given that performance appears to be no better than 11n routers from mainstream network equipment providers—and not as good as the best.

Gerry Blackwell is a frequent contributor to Wi-FiPlanet. He is based in Canada.

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