Review: Apple’s AirPort Extreme is impressively fast, setup is a snap

“Although Wi-Fi routers are a lot friendlier to set up and maintain than they used to be, they can still be intimidating to the technologically challenged. If you fall into this category, but still want a super-fast wireless connection for video streaming, you’ll want to consider Apple’s latest AirPort Extreme router,” Dwight Silverman writes for The Houston Chronicle.

“The AirPort Extreme has a striking design. It’s a small, white, square tower with softly curved corners, standing 6.6 inches tall. There’s about a quarter-inch of space at the bottom, allowing for a fan that runs silently. The tower shape also allows for more antennas, and a better configuration of them for beam-forming, one of the benefits of 802.11ac. It’s a gorgeous look, but its shape means it’s not easy to hide away,” Silverman writes. “Setup is a snap. On a Mac or an iOS device, you’ll use Apple’s AirPort Utility software to talk through the process, setting up a network name and a password. The same network name applies to both unless you manually change one of them.”

Apple's redesigned AirPort Extreme and AirPort Time Capsule base stations feature 802.11ac Wi-Fi for up to three times faster performance
Apple’s redesigned AirPort Extreme and AirPort Time Capsule base stations feature 802.11ac Wi-Fi for up to three times faster performance

“It’s also astonishingly easy to upgrade the firmware on the device. If new firmware is available, you’ll see a red-and-white notification badge, similar to that found on Macs or iOS devices. Click it to start the process of downloading the latest update and installing it. It takes less time to do this than on any other router I’ve tried,” Silverman writes. “This 802.11ac router is impressively fast. It moved a 221-megabyte video file from my iMac – connected to the router via Gigabit Ethernet – to an 802.11ac-enabled MacBook Air in 4.75 seconds, slightly faster than on the Linksys EA6500 router I recently reviewed. On my older, 802.11n-equipped MacBook Pro, I copied the file in 14.55 seconds – again, a smidge faster than on the Linksys router.”

Read more in the full review here.


    1. Beam-forming antennae. The new technology can manipulate phase timing from multiple antenna elements to concentrate the signal where you need it—say, if you happen to be 40 feet away in a particular location of the house.

      It’s the commercial world’s equivalent of electronically scanned, phased-array radar.

      1. Are they better at receiving signal as well? I have an old Extreme base and a few Expresses throughout the house and added one of these to try to get a signal out to my summerhouse in the garden. I could just about get one bar on my iPhone or iPad on a good day. When I moved this to the summerhouse it reports an excellent signal with the rest of the network and any device used there seems to get rock solid connectivity.

        1. Now that’s truly a good question. I hadn’t pondered the “upload” angle before. The short answer is that I don’t know because the Internet seems to be really silent on “upload” speed and range with regard to 802.11ac.

          This PDF white paper titled 802.11ac Technical Overview & Design Ideas speaks of two-way virtues only when both devices have multiple antennas.

          In the military radar world, where digital signal processing capabilities are nearly beyond comprehension, AESA (active electronically scanned array) radars are a two-way street, which is to say, the technology is useful for greatly increasing discrimination when receiving signals—as well as for transmitting.

          I’m just guessing, but I’d venture that without a multi-element “chimney” of antennas on both ends, the beam-forming signal gain afforded by 802.11ac is a one-way street.

          It would be great of someone who truly knows the answer would weigh in.

    2. 3.85″ square x 6.6″ tall

      It is tall for the reasons mentioned, and also the same case is used for both Airport and Time Capsule. The TC includes up to 3 TB hard drive.

      Very wise design plan by Apple for people who prefer wireless connectivity.

      Wondering where the Thunderbolt-connected Time Capsule Pro with flash memory is for desktop Mac users.

  1. These figures are so close (especially comparing new MBP with ac and older with just n) that I wonder if the writer has not hit a limit on the source computer – either the ethernet or hard disk speed.

    One would expect the 802.11ac to be significantly faster than the older model.

    1. N was an interim standard as well and all routers are not created equal. The firmware and software is where the “magic” lives.

      I remember linksys (pre-Cisco) having wonderfully stable firmware. Once linksys was acquired they were forced to rewrite their firmware to take up less space, allowing Cisco to use less memory and reduce the cost of manufacturing their devices.

      Apple’s networking hardware is light years ahead of other consumer grade networking devices.

      1. Cisco has produced some good hardware, but lately they have their problems. They’ve had some real teething problems with their consumer networking devices. And I recently upgraded to Time Warner’s Signature Home package. One of the boxes was made by Cisco. It doesn’t tune to the HD channels reliably, and doesn’t record properly about once a week. The other two they have me were Samsung made. They’re huge and slow.

      1. Suggestive of 802,701 A.D., the year H. G. Wells’s time traveller encountered the gentle Eloi and their troglodytic masters the Morlocks, clearly descended from I.T. machine room workers

    2. A router can be a pain to set up, and it is not always easy to set up.

      For a high quality router (not some cheep piece of crap that will fail within the next year), Apple’s router is NOT very expensive. Compare it to other top tier routers and you’ll see.

      With regard to 802.11ac being an interim standard. Bullshit. You can think of ALL 802.11xx standards as “interim” because they ALL will eventually be superseded by a new version of the standard.

      Additionally, you are probably alluding to the upcoming 802.11ad standard. The problem with that standard is that the only significant new part that increases available bandwidth depends upon the jump to 60 GHz. Have you ever tried to get 60 GHz through walls (or really anything more than thin sheets of plastic)? The upcoming 802.11ad standard will be great for cases where the wireless router AND the user is in the same room. If they are much more than a few dozen feet apart — even in the same large room or auditorium — the data rates will have to scale back and the advantage of 802.11ad over 802.11ac will disappear! Thus 802.11ad will NOT be a direct replacement for 802.11ac for the vast majority of users.

      1. Good post. I’m constantly amazed that people with home broadband spending $40 or $50 per month skimp on the router in order to save $30 or $40 one time. This is a mere speck over the life of one’s broadband commitment.

        As with all new standards, theoretical speeds are no where near close to real life throughput for devices. It also takes a long time for hand-held devices to catch up to these newer standards due to power requirements, heat dissipation, etc.

        We’ll see if Apple adds AC support in iPhone or keeps it only to Macs.

    3. The Airport Exteeme is NOT expensive. Go price other wireless routers with all the capability of this one, and sort out the ones that are one and two star review devices, and you’ll be left with about 3-4 from various manufacturers and they are all very close in price. Go check out the price/performance plots of various wireless routers on a reputable site like SmallNetBuilder. Then go check their star ratings. Cheap wireless routers are all over the place now and many are junk. Even some of the more expensive ones are plagued with firmware problems that don’t get fixed for months. You buy and AirPort Extreme and you’ll be happy you did. They never hang, or require rebooting. I’ve had one now for two years and I’ve rebooted it twice during troubleshooting, and both times it turned out to be an ISP hardware problem and not the AE.

    4. No. I’ve gone through the following over the last seven years: Linksys, D-Link, NetGEAR, Cisco, Bountiful, AirLink. I’ve gone from 802.11b to g to n (even made a detour to a along the way). I’ve a plethora of different external antennae powered and unpowered, with extenders, union- and omnidirectional, etc). I’ve a couple different wifi extenders. I’ve 3 different Powerline sets.

      Up to a few days ago, my best config to date was the Verizon Actiontec supplied with my FIOS, pushing signal through an Alfa 9dBi WiFi Booster omnidirectional antenna along with a 7dBi antenna on an extended cable, carefully positioned. This drove signal through 7 rooms (4 rooms in a row), but fell short for one area of the home on the short arm of an L-shape. I added a separate NetGear just for that area.

      The best config prior to that setup was a NetGEAR dual 450+450 with two NetGEAR dual-band-capable extenders, and leaving the Actiontec’s wireless off. But it was finicky.

      So I just plugged in an Apple Time Capsule 3TB. The entire home is covered. 5 bars solid everywhere. With 17 neighbors’ wifi networks in range. 29 mbps down/21 up from each location, a remarkable consistency of access. The signal in the “L” is better than when the last WAP was in the same room.

      Tested with 3 MacBook Pros, 3 iPhones, 2 iPads, an iPad mini, an iPod touch, an Android phone, a Sony laptop, a MacBook on the wireless side, and burdened with a Wii, an Xbox, a Windows desktop, a Roku box, a SlingBox, 2 SeaGate NAS devices, a Vonage adapter, a Ooma box, an original Time Capsule (w/wifi turned off, just used for Time Machine backup), an older AirPort Express (driving AirPlay to the stereo system), 2 network laser printers, 2 networked consumer ink jets and one networked professional large-format inkjet on the wire.

      A pity that I (former network engineer, blah, blah, blah) avoided the router/WAP side of Apple’s product line for so long. I’d settled on D-Link DAP2590s as the best value for small offices but I’m going to experiment – the D-Link, my NetGear, the Cisco are all in the $200 price range so the AirPort Extreme is quite competitively priced.

      I must admit that the TC is the first 802.11ac router that I’m using so I’ll probable explore the offerings of other manufacturers to see if they deliver performance on par with the Apple product. It’s going to be hard to beat the ease of setup when I get excellence without a need to navigate a host of config options, tweaks and toggles. It just worked.

  2. Just picked up my Airport Extreme with 2GB Time capsule on Black Friday. Very pleased at how much better it is than my old Netgear N600, dual-band, with a Zyxel extender setup worked.

  3. Another nice new benefit is that the new Airport AC now OFFICIALLY supports connected external USB drives as a Time Machine destination.

    (Yes, older ones can work but they’re not supported)

    According to Tweet just out by TidBits, Apple is now explicitly stating this support.

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