AirPort Extreme Base Station Review
Apple’s new wireless router promises roughly 2.5x the throughput and twice the range of the previous model. Keen-eyed readers will note that this is half the 5x increase promised on the American Apple website – that’s because the UK model is restricted with regards to wide-channel usage.
Figures, however, are misleading. You have the oft-quoted ‘raw data’ rate and more realistic ‘real world’ figures. The raw data rate of throughput for the 802.11g standard, for example, is 54Mbps, which is a potential maximum, but the real-world figure is closer to 20Mbps. The reason for this is that transmission wavelengths are blocked by walls or furniture and degrade over distance. Not only that, but microwave ovens, mobile phones and Bluetooth devices can also interfere with performance.
This is unlikely to have any effect on your web browsing, though. Of more practical use to internet users is the increase in distance offered by WiFi n. We were able to take our MacBook out of the house, and up to 100 feet away from the Base Station, and still get a decent internet connection.
The real advantage of WiFi n is the faster transmission rate for bouncing files (specifically audio and video) around the house, which is becoming increasingly important in the digital media age. To this end the AirPort Extreme’s ability to connect a USB 2.0 hard drive to the unit and create a networked storage (NAS) drive is paramount. The feature is called AirPort Disk and setup really couldn’t be easier. A password is needed for security, at which point it appears on the Desktop as any other drive.
We attached a USB 2.0 hard drive to the device and tested the throughput speed using the AJA Kona System Test (www.aja.com/html/support_kona3_swd.html), which involved writing and reading a 128MB video file. When using a PowerBook G4 with a standard 802.11g connection we achieved a 4Mbps write speed and 8Mbps read speed. When using a 802.11n-enabled MacBook Pro that went up to 10.4Mbps write and 18.4Mbps read, confirming Apple’s claimed 2.5 x speed increase. While the figures are still low overall – much lower than even the real-time figures of 20Mbps for WiFi g and 50Mbps for WiFi n – the system was tested in a very busy WiFi neighbourhood. When changing the default Base Station settings to 5GHz and limiting it to WiFi n only devices, we got a write speed of 12Mbps and a much faster read speed of 28.8Mbps –3.5x faster than our WiFi g connection.
Having said that, we still can’t help feeling jealous when we see the figures bandied around by our US counterparts using wide-channel mode (www.macworld.com/2007/02/reviews/apextremebase/index.php). Our American cousins bemoaned the lack of Gigabit Ethernet because it limited the device when two Macs accessed it – we wouldn’t even come close to reaching that limit.
While there are other Ethernet-attached storage drives on the market and other routers that let you connect a hard drive, Apple’s is the only one that supports the Mac-native HFS Plus (Hierarchical File System Plus) drive format and AFP, Apple’s Personal File Sharing protocol. AirPort Utility offers a variety of access controls to protect the hard drive’s files and folders, including setting up user accounts and passwords with read only or read and write permission. Individual folders can’t be separately protected, however, which prevents the feature from being useful in larger offices.
For the home, the ability to turn an older USB drive into a NAS system is both useful and timely. You can use it to store photos, music and video clips that can then be accessed from different computers around the house. It’s also possible to connect a FAT32 formatted drive, which can be accessed from both Mac and PC computers simultaneously (although FAT32 takes a performance hit compared to HFS and has a 4GB file size limitation).
Even though it’s not Apple’s fault, we can’t help but miss wide-channel operation. And with the lack of any rival 802.11n draft 2 router on the market with 2-4GHz wide-channel operation, we can’t make direct comparisons. Faster routers may soon appear on the market, but they’ll lack the ease of use offered by AirPort Disk.