Which Apple WiFi router should you buy?

Which Apple router should I buy? And what different features do the three different WiFi routers offer?

Apple offers a strong selection of wireless routers. Sold under the AirPort brand, Apple offers three different WiFi routers: AirPort Time Capsule, AirPort Extreme and AirPort Express. You can read about the AirPort range on Apple's website.

But which Apple router should you buy - which router is best for your requirements? The choice isn't as straightforward as you might think, because each AirPort base station offers a different set of features, strengths and weaknesses (and is priced accordingly). In this review, we look at what the three AirPort WiFi routers have to offer and the differences between them, and offer advice as to which Apple router is right for you.

Apple currently makes the following AirPort base station devices (click on the links to read our individual reviews of the units):

Which Apple router should you buy: Connecting an Apple base station to your network

AirPort Extreme next to AirPort Express

All three Apple AirPort devices are, at heart, WiFi routers designed to add wireless capabilities to your local network. What's important to note right up is that they are pure routers, rather than combined router-modems. The difference is that the modem connects to the internet while a router allows multiple devices to connect to each other (and to the internet via an attached modem).

So the idea is that you connect the AirPort device to your modem. The AirPort router then augments or replaces the wireless network being provided by your computer. An Apple AirPort device is not a replacement for the modem that your ISP provided: it sits alongside it.

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Which Apple router should you buy: What do you get with an AirPort Time Capsule or AirPort base station?

The Apple AirPort router you decide to buy will almost certainly be better than any modem or router that has been supplied by your ISP (Internet Service Provider). All three models that we look at here are first-class routers packing the latest wireless technology, and are designed in such a way as to look stylish in the home while outperforming rival devices.

As well as being well designed, Apple's base stations offer a selection of features you don't get on your average wireless router or modem:

  • 802.11ac Gigabit Wi-Fi. The latest standard in wireless networking compatible with Macs and Macbooks released after June 2013.
  • Dual antennae. Both the AirPort Time Capsule and AirPort Extreme feature dual internal antennas so they can produce both a 2.4GHz and 5GHz wireless network.
  • AirPrint. You can attach a printer to the base station and print wirelessly from a Mac or iOS device.
  • AirDisk. You can attach an external hard drive and use to share and access files wirelessly. The Time Capsule also has a drive built in so you can backup files directly.
  • AirPort Utility. You can set up, manage and update your wireless router using Apple’s AirPort Utility for Mac OS X and iOS devices. The iPhone and iPad app is especially great for anyone who has used the clunky web-based interfaces offered by most modems routers.

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Which Apple router should you buy: AirPort Extreme

Which Apple WiFi router should you buy: AirPort Extreme

Apple's AirPort Extreme is the most obvious entry point. Costing £169, the AirPort Extreme has a striking, vertical design - a little like an elongated Apple TV. It's an attractive and neat design, with a small base, although it is rather tall (168mm). Bear that in mind when planning where you'll put it. The stylish design hides its utilitarian purpose and it won't look out of place wherever you put it in the house.

It also sports an internal power supply, so there is no need for a clunky external power unit. Inside are six different antennae, offering dual-band wireless networks with support for all bands.

AirPort Extreme Base Station sockets

In the rear you get a single USB 2.0 port (for either an external drive or printer), three Gigabit Ethernet LAN ports and one WAN ethernet connection (this is usually the one you connect to your modem).

We found it very easy to set up. AirPort Utility takes you through the process.

Dimensions: 98mm x 98 mm x by 168 mm. Weight: 945g

Which Apple WiFi router: AirPort Time Capsule vs AirPort Extreme vs AirPort Express review

AirPort Extreme performance

The AirPort Extreme's performance on both 802.11n and 802.11ac wireless bands is extremely good.

It recorded one of the fastest peak 802.11ac speeds we've seen, breaking all records at 706 Mbps (megabits per second), before settling down for a still-impressive average of 578 Mbps at short range, and 540Mbps at the longer 10m distance. We recorded reasonable transfer speeds on 802.11n, too, with an average 105Mbps at long range.

Which Apple router should you buy: AirPort Express

Which Apple WiFi router should you buy: AirPort Express

The AirPort Express is an interesting device. While it's tempting to think of it as an entry-level Wi-Fi base station (it costs only £79, after all) the AirPort Express is more likely to be used as an extension to your current network.

It's a small device, with the same footprint as an Apple TV, and it creates a Wi-Fi network. The unit features the 802.11n dual band antenna. AirPort Express still lacks the newer 802.11ac network as it hasn't been updated by Apple for some years now.

The AirPort Express base station sockets

It only has two Ethernet connections on the rear (and they are 100base-T rather than the new Gigabit Ethernet) and while it features AirPrint, so you can attach a printer it lacks AirDisk. So you can’t use the AirPort Express for wireless backups.

It does have a unique feature, however. The presence of small 3.5mm mini jack socket that enables you to connect the AirPort Extreme to a music system. This audio jack enables you to connect a speaker to the AirPort Extreme and use it as an AirPlay speaker (so you can bounce music to it from any device).

Dimensions: 98mm x 98mm x 23mm. Weight: 240g

Which Apple router should you buy: AirPort Time Capsule

Which Apple WiFi router should you buy: AirPort Time Capsule

Apple's Time Capsule is essentially an AirPort Extreme wireless router with a built-in hard drive. It offers the same functionality of the AirPort Extreme, but, in addition, makes it easy to back up a Mac. Apple sells a 2TB (£249) and 3TB (£349) option.

It is expensive, but we find it's a great system for keeping multiple Macs backed up. Especially multiple MacBooks, which is what most of us are using these days.

If you're thinking of buying a AirPort Extreme for £169, it may be worth considering paying the extra £80 to add the 2TB of storage and extra functionality of the Time Machine.

Dimensions: 98mm x 98mm x 168mm. Weight: 1.48kg

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OUR VERDICT

If you haven't got an Apple AirPort Extreme or Time Capsule, and are looking to improve your Wi-Fi network, we recommend you get one of Apple's base stations. Both are superb devices that offer a range of features and better performance than most routers on the market. It's easy to use an AirPort Extreme or Time Capsule to set up a network. The only real differentiation between the devices is whether you also want to create wireless backups. The AirPort Express could be purchased as an additional device at a later point if you decide to expand the network, although it is good for creating a small network on the fly (you could pop one in your suitcase when you head off on holiday, for example) and offers an AirPlay audio feature missing from other devices here - it may well get an update soon.

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