Test: Apple AirPort Extreme – Wi-FiPlanet.com


By Gerry Blackwell

June 02, 2008

Average performance coupled with installation and configuration issues in a Win / Mac environment marred the otherwise elegantly simple AirPort Extreme experience.

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Apple AirPort Extreme
MSRP: $ 180
Pros: Simple and elegant setup wizard, great Apple industrial design
Cons: Irritating installation and configuration issues, but resolvable in a mixed Windows / Mac environment, average performance

We never understood why Apple, a computer maker, wanted to get into Wi-Fi 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 network specialists, like Linksys.

But Apple is in the field of Wi-Fi and has been for some time. We had the 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, going for an Apple-branded Wi-Fi network is probably a no-brainer. If nothing else, you get a sleek Apple industrial design to match your other gear. The AirPort Extreme, a low, flat, book-sized device with built-in antennas, is reminiscent of both Mac and iPod. But what if you live in the Windows world or in a mixed environment? Does AirPort Extreme perform better than other Draft N routers? Does it work well with Windows devices?

Designed for simplicity

Setting up and operating a basic wireless network using AirPort Extreme should be – certainly is designed to be – very easy, and many users may find it. But in our mixed Windows / Mac test installation, the process was far from smooth. In fact, the problems started before we even plugged in the AirPort, and continued.

The test bench included a MacBook Pro, Apple’s premium 17-inch screen laptop, a nice machine with a Draft 11n adapter. The other components are all Windows-based or network-only devices: Wireless Laptop and Desktop PC, Wired Desktop PC (all Windows XP), Vonage Gateway (VoIP), Network Hard Drive, and USB Hard Drive.

For testing, we wanted to connect the MacBook to an existing 11n, revision 2.0 network based on the Linksys high-end Dual-Band Wireless-N Gigabit Router (WRT600N).

We had noticed issues 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 (Mac address filtering only), the MacBook would not connect at all.

The Apple OS Networking Utility also incorrectly reported that the Linksys network implemented WPA security and insisted on a password. This turned out to be the key to solving the problem. As soon as we implemented 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 Ethernet-connected devices from the Linksys router, turning it off, and reconnecting everything, including the cable modem, to the AirPort Extreme. Then we powered on the Apple router.

The AirPort behaved as expected at first, with the only LED status light flashing green once, then amber while the device configured. But at the end of the boot process, the LED flashed amber, indicating, according to the manual, that the AirPort was unable to connect to the internet.

We have tried turning the cable modem and AirPort off and on and then resetting the AirPort, without 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 the Apple website and installed it on a desktop computer running Windows XP.

When the program starts, it searches for Apple devices. He could not find the AirPort Extreme even though the PC was directly connected to it by Ethernet cable.

At this point, we started to wonder if the device was faulty. But, we first tried running the AirPort utility on the MacBook Pro. He immediately found the AirPort Extreme, and from that point on, the setup process went relatively smoothly.

In fact, before the process was completed (it works from the Mac), the XP PC suddenly connected to the internet and started communicating, even though the AirPort light was still blinking amber indicating a problem.

Once everything has been set up and the AirPort Extreme behaving as expected, with the green indicator light, the AirPort Utility on the PC always could not find the router.

We do not yet have an explanation of what this could be. Interestingly, the Windows AirPort Utility help files seem to mistakenly provide troubleshooting instructions for this issue that apply to the Mac operating system rather than Windows.

Later we found out that the AirPort utility on the PC could connect to the AirPort Extreme, but only if we have selected “Configure Other” in the program menus and manually entered the router’s IP address and password.

Initial success

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

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

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

At this point, we were ready to start performance testing. Before we had a chance, however, devices connected to the network, both wireless and wired, began to lose their logical connectivity. Over a period of a few hours, everyone left the network, including the Vonage Gateway. They were still physically (or wirelessly) connected, but could no longer communicate over the network.

Stay in power

The problem in all cases was that they couldn’t get an IP address from the AirPort Extreme’s DHCP server when trying to reconnect. We still don’t know why. It could be a problem with the AirPort’s DHCP server or the DHCP settings, even though we were using the default settings.

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

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

Browsing the web seemed slow compared to the existing Linksys network. Measured in the 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 tested, but slower than the fastest. When sending to a machine in a room in our test facility that typically had poor coverage, speeds dropped to just under 20 Mbps.

At the end of the line

If you are a Mac enthusiast and have used previous AirPort and AirPort Express products, the issues we encountered may be familiar and fairly easy to resolve.

But if you have Windows devices or work in a mixed environment, the AirPort Extreme may pose more of a problem than it’s worth since performance doesn’t seem to be better than 11n routers from vendors. traditional network equipment, 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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