What is the point of Apple's AirPort Base Station devices? Apple makes a range of AirPort devices, known as Base Stations, which are essentially Wi-Fi routers. There's the AirPort Express, Extreme and Time Capsule.

But why does Apple make AirPort Base Stations? What is the point of buying an Apple AirPort Base Station when you already have a router in your home? What’s the difference between the AirPort Express and Extreme, and are either of them tangibly better than the router supplied by your ISP.

In this feature, we're going to take a look at AirPort Base Stations and ask:

  • What is Apple AirPort and what AirPort devices are available?
  • What is the difference between AirPort and Wi-Fi?
  • What is the point of Apple AirPort Extreme and is it worth buying an Apple AirPort Base Station

Apple AirPort Extreme Base Station

What is Apple AirPort?

AirPort is Apple's name for Wi-Fi using the regular 802.11b, g, n and now ac standards. Rather than call it Wi-Fi, Apple choose to call it AirPort way back in 1999. Aside from the unique branded name, and some unique features, there is little technically different between AirPort and Wi-Fi.

The term AirPort Extreme was the name originally given to Apple’s 802.11g range, but now indicates a slightly more powerful router with additional ports and features. The AirPort Express is a more lightweight router designed for music sharing. The Time Capsule is essentially an AirPort Extreme with a built-in hard drive for wireless file sharing and Time Machine backup.

Apple calling it AirPort rather than Wi-Fi 802.11 is all well and good, companies often brand technology to make it more consumer-friendly. Although these days Wi-Fi is such a ubiquitous term that we feel Apple may be just confusing new customers.

AirPort is included in all Macs currently on sale, and all Macs and iOS devices can connect to a Wi-Fi network (interestingly iOS devices refer to it as Wi-Fi rather than AirPort).

(Read definitions of more Apple-related tech terms in our Apple users' tech jargon dictionary.)

What Apple AirPort Base Station devices are available?

Alongside the implementation of AirPort in Apple Mac computers, Apple also makes a range of AirPort products known as Base Stations. Apple currently makes the following AirPort Base Station devices:

AirPort Express Base Station

What is the difference between AirPort and Wi-Fi?

AirPort is just Apple’s way of saying Wi-Fi. There is no technical difference between an Apple AirPort device and Wi-Fi. You can connect a Mac to any Wi-Fi network using the AirPort icon in the menu bar.

See: How to set up a Time Capsule

What is the difference between AirPort Express and AirPort Extreme?

The AirPort Express Base Station is designed to add a few Apple features to your current network. If you attach an AirPort Express to your current network your router gets Apple-like capability. One unique feature is AirPlay audio support: the AirPort Express Base Station has a built in 3.5mm mini jack socket for outputting audio. You hook it up directly to your speaker system and can output music directly from a iOS device.

AirPort Express

The AirPort Express can also be connected to a printer and this enables you to use AirPrint with any printer (so you can print from an iOS device).

The AirPort Extreme does not have the 3.5mm mini jack socket, so it cannot be used to turn a speaker into an AirPlay speaker. This is a shame as everything else it does slightly better than the AirPort Express device.

The AirPort Extreme Base Station has faster data throughput and includes the new 802.11ac standard, and you can attach an external hard drive to it for wireless Network Attached Storage (NAS). It also has four gigabit ethernet ports so you can create a wired network with it that has fast data rates.

In general we see the AirPort Extreme as the device to connect to your home network if you want to boost your wireless network; and the AirPort Express is useful for extending a wireless network or adding AirPrint to a printer; or AirPlay to your stereo system.

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Can I replace my modem with an AirPort Extreme?

One of the quirks about Apple’s AirPort Base Stations is that they are routers, but not modems. As a quick refresher: a router enables you to create a network that connects various devices together (Macs, iPhones, iPads, hard drives, printers and so on); whereas a modem connects your network to the wider internet. What you generally think of as your router (the box supplied  by your ISP - Internet Service Provider) is probably a combined router and modem.

So while the AirPort Extreme enables you to hook all your items together, you’ll still need a modem to connect to the Internet. Typically most ISP supply you with a combination modem / router when you sign up. These combination devices are often referred to as “hubs” so you get the Virgin Media Hub or the BT Broadband Hub, and they create a wired and wireless network along with connecting to the Internet.

Apple’s AirPort Base Stations can augment (or replace) the router part of that device, but cannot replace the modem part. So you still need to keep your ISP hub. The idea is that you connect the AirPort device to your current modem and either turn off the router part of your hub, or have both routers working together (in effect having two wireless networks).

In office environments the situation is somewhat different, in that you may have a wired network in place but no wireless system. In this case attaching an AirPort Extreme router to the network enables you to set up a wireless network.

Setting up an AirPort Base Station with Apple AirPort Utility

It’s also worth noting that Apple provides apps to work with the AirPort devices. You can manage your networks with AirPort Utility for both Mac OS X and iOS. AirPort Utility is a far more friendly interface than any of the web-based interfaces we’ve seen provided with other routers.

What is the point of Apple AirPort Extreme and is it worth buying an Apple AirPort Base Station?

It’s a good question and can only be truly answered by looking at how good the hub is supplied by your ISP. It’s worth noting that the AirPort Extreme and Time Capsule are both first class routers and almost certainly better than the one you have in your house.

As well as offering the latest 802.11ac standard, both the AirPort Extreme and Time Capsule have dual antennas inside so can produce both a 2.4GHz and 5Ghz wireless network (effectively you get two home networks from the one device). Newer devices can connect to the 5GHz network while older ones stick with the 2.4GHz network. Most hubs only operate in the slower 2.4GHz network.

With the Apple AirPort device you also get access to AirPrint and with the AirPort Extreme or Time Capsule you get access to an external drive (the Time Capsule has a drive built in, the AirPort Extreme enables you to access a USB drive connected to the device). With both of these you can backup your Macs wirelessly. You can connect the AirPort Express to your music system and beam music wirelessly using AirPlay.

These are great features to have alongside your current home network. In essence: an AirPort base station augments your current network with a layer of Apple services, and provides you with a much better wireless system.