The base station itself looks almost identical to the AirPort 2.0, with a slightly sleeker, smooth, mushroom-cap shape. Under the cap, you'll find just two Ethernet ports (one LAN and one WAN); a USB port; and, on some models, a modem port. Three small lights on the front of the device indicate power, LAN connections, and wireless activity; they're not labeled, though, so you'll have to refer to the manual frequently until you memorize their functions. Finally, a Reset button lets you revert to the AirPort's factory settings.
The Airport Setup Utility takes a wizardlike approach to configuration.
With its odd jumble of basic and advanced terms, the AirPort's included manual will leave both novices and expert networkers equally baffled. Plan to spend some time studying the manual and surfing the Apple Web site if you want to do anything other than plug the base station directly into your DSL or cable modem.
To configure the AirPort Extreme, you must run the included AirPort setup utility on a Mac using OS X 10.1.5 (with networking update) or later. The wizard-style interface walks you through the basics, such as naming your network, assigning a password, and configuring your Internet connection. You must use a separate utility, the AirPort Admin Utility, for more advanced tasks, such as configuring security settings, but that app features an intuitive, tab-based interface.
During our setup tests, even though we'd configured the base station on our wirelessly equipped 12-inch PowerBook, the AirPort Admin Utility didn't immediately recognize the wireless network. We had to run the AirPort Setup Utility a second time to configure the PowerBook itself before we could connect. Interestingly, it was much easier to connect to the AirPort network using a PC notebook; Windows XP detected the new network immediately and let us choose it, enter our password, and start surfing.
The Extreme in AirPort Extreme refers to the 802.11g-draft specification, which offers 54Mbps of bandwidth and promises faster throughput than that of existing 802.11b products. The 802.11g standard is backward compatible with 802.11b, so you can introduce the AirPort Extreme into your existing wireless network, and it'll still function fine (but it's slower, as you'll see on our performance page). You can set the AirPort to run in g mode, mixed mode, or b-only mode, depending on your network. The AirPort Extreme also supports network bridging, so you can connect several AirPort Extreme base stations to extend the range of the network without Ethernet wiring.
The AirPort Extreme comes in two flavors. The basic model includes two Ethernet ports and a USB port for wireless printing--a neat trick, but it requires OS X 10.2.3. The higher-end model, which we tested, includes a modem port and a built-in 56K modem for connecting via dial-up and an external antenna connector for about $50 extra. To connect with the base station at maximum speed, you must have an AirPort Extreme-ready system. In other words, your system must include the AirPort Extreme minicard, which, sadly, is not backward compatible with older Mac hardware; only the new PowerBooks and the most recent 1GHz iMac and Power Mac G4 will support it.
There's no Security tab in the AirPort Admin Utility, but there are plenty of security options.
Although occasionally hard to decipher, the AirPort Extreme's security options are impressive. The device includes 128-bit WEP encryption (though it's not enabled by default, unfortunately), and the setup utility asks but doesn't require you to assign a new SSID (or base-station name in Applespeak). The base station also includes built-in firewall protection. If you're not interested in letting your base station become a local hot spot, the AirPort Admin Utility lets you actually decrease the range of the AirPort by lessening its power output to the antenna--handy if, say, you're hosting a conference, and you don't want to broadcast your network to the entire hotel.
Under the general-settings page of the Admin Utility, the AirPort Extreme offers standard security choices, couched in Apple's usual nonstandard terminology. An option called "Create a closed network" lets you disable SSID broadcasting, which makes it hard for hackers to locate your wireless network. People who want to join the network must know the SSID and enter it exactly. On this tab, you can change the base station name, or SSID; enable WEP encryption; or set and change a password.
The AirPort Extreme also includes some advanced security settings, which neither the Admin Utility nor the manual explain sufficiently. Under the Access Control tab, you can restrict access to all but a specific list of clients by entering the AirPort ID, which is actually the MAC address, for those of you with a PC-and-Mac network. For a larger network--one that's too big to enter specific MAC addresses for filtering--the Authentication tab lets you enable server-based RADIUS (remote authentication dial-in user service) authentication. It all adds up to impressive security, even if it's hard to muddle through.
The AirPort Extreme uses the 801.11g draft-compliant standard, which is still under development and by no means complete. The unfinished state of the standard means a couple of things: One, you can expect frequent firmware upgrades as the standard itself changes and moves toward completion. Two, you'll get faster performance if you're using the AirPort Extreme with other 802.11g devices.
In our tests, the AirPort Extreme achieved impressive speeds when set to g mode. It delivered 16.8Mbps of throughput at distances up to 25 feet, compared to 14.5Mbps for the Linksys WRT54G Wireless-G broadband router. However, performance dropped off quickly as the range increased; we couldn't even get a consistent signal at 100 feet, even though Apple claims that the base station's range is 150 feet.
Like most wireless-g devices we've tested, the AirPort Extreme's performance also plummeted once we introduced an 802.11b client and moved into mixed mode. Speeds in our tests hovered around 5.7Mbps--typical for an 802.11b network--and dropped like a stone when we moved more than 50 feet from the base station. In short, invest in the AirPort Extreme only if you plan to create a whole new wireless-g network; it's not worth upgrading if you're happy with your 802.11b AirPort base station.
For practical throughput tests, CNET Labs uses NetIQ's Chariot 4.3 software with Chariot 4.4 Endpoints as its benchmark. For wireless testing, the clients and routers are set up to transmit at various distances from the access point and to automatically select the best transmit speed. All tests are run with Chariot software using the TCP protocol and are run in our CNET offices over channel 11. Our tests indicate the range that you can expect in a typical office environment, but range in your own home or office may differ. You may be able to achieve better performance in situations where you can establish a clear line of sight. For more details on how we test networking devices, see the CNET Labs site.
Wireless networking is a complicated subject, and we'd like to see Apple offer a lot more help on the topic. The AirPort ships with inadequate printed materials, which are often confusing and will leave novice users almost totally in the dark beyond the most basic setup instructions. Apple backs the AirPort Extreme with its typically short, one-year parts-and-labor warranty, which is upgradable only if you buy an extended warranty for a Mac and use the AirPort with that machine. Toll-free phone support ends after 90 days, but there's no service charge for the call (just the toll charge), and after the warranty expires, you'll pay at least $49 per incident. By contrast, Linksys offers 24/7, toll-free phone support for the lifetime of the WRT54G Wireless-G broadband router.
Apple's support site offers lots of information, but not all of it is specific to the AirPort Extreme.
The Apple support Web site offers a fair amount of self-service resources, including a knowledge base, firmware updates, and forums, though you must submit to free registration before you can access most of the information. The site doesn't, however, include a wealth of knowledge specifically for the brand-new AirPort Extreme; most of the articles you'll find relate to previous models. No e-mail support is offered, either; overall, Apple has a disappointing tech-support package.