Apple's new sixth-generation AirPort Extreme Base Station is essentially the new AirPort Time Capsule minus the internal storage. In fact without the storage, the two devices -- for the first time since the debut of Apple's AirPort base stations -- are identical.
The new true dual-band Wi-Fi router is now more compact, and prettier than the previous generation. It also supports the much anticipated -- and much faster -- 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard. The device's functions, features, and port offerings, however, remain the same as its predecessor's.
On one hand, the new AirPort Extreme proved in my testing to be one of the fastest and most reliable Wi-Fi routers to date. On the other, I wish it had more features to offer, such as common networking customizations, and -- when coupled with an external hard drive -- support for Time Machine backup and media streaming.
That said, for those who care about the look, the new AirPort Extreme is beautiful enough to justify the $199 price tag that makes it slightly more expensive than its peers. If you have 802.11ac-enabled devices, such as the new MacBook Air, you'll also love this new device's Wi-Fi speed. Otherwise, there's no need to upgrade if you already have the previous model. Don't forget to check out the alternatives on this list for more networking options and features.
Totally new design, same ports, familiar setup process
Like the new Time Capsule, the new AirPort Extreme has a completely new design. Instead of the traditional squarish tile shape that's been used for years, it now looks like a rectangular tube standing 6.6 inches tall and 3.85 inches wide. This means it has the same footprint as the second-generation AirPort Express, which came out last year, but it's much taller. Overall the new router has an elegant appearance, more like a jewelry box than a networking device.
On the front, there's a tiny status light that glows green when all is working well and either flashes or changes to amber to indicate that the device needs attention.
On the back, there are the usual three Gigabit LAN ports (to connect wired clients, such as a Mac Pro), and one Gigabit WAN port (to connect to an Internet source, such as a broadband modem). There's also a USB 2.0 port to host an external hard drive or a printer. This port configuration is exactly the same as found in previous generations of the AirPort Extreme and is disappointing since most routers on the market now have four LAN ports and many already offer USB 3.0. The number of LAN ports determines how many wired clients the router can support out of the box, before you need to resort to a switch. And obviously, USB 3.0 offers better performance when you connect an external hard drive to the router.
Like the new Time Capsule, the new AirPort Extreme doesn't support AirPlay, either. For that, you need to get the AirPort Express, which is, for now, still the only router that supports this music playback feature of Apple's.
If you have owned an AirPort device before, setting up the new AirPort Extreme is a familiar process, but first-time users shouldn't have a problem, either. You need to have the AirPort Utility software, available for Macs, Windows, and iOS, to get the job done. In most cases, the software is already on a Mac, but if not you can easily download it for free. AirPort Utility makes the setup very simple and self-explanatory.
On the downside, AirPort Utility doesn't offer the same depth of customization and features. That said, the new AirPort Extreme has no more features than its predecessor, and just a handful of them.
A powerful Wi-Fi router that's weak on customization and storage support
The new AirPort Extreme is a true dual-band router, offering Wi-Fi coverage on both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency bands at the same time. This means it supports all existing Wi-Fi clients, regardless of their Wi-Fi standard, with the top possible speed. The router supports the current top tier (three-stream) of both the new 802.11ac and 802.11n (Wireless-N) standards. When used with a 802.11ac-enabled client, such as the new MacBook Air, it can accommodate up to 1.3Gbps data speed. Wireless-N clients can be connected at 450Mbps on either band.
Note that these are the ceiling speeds of the respective standards. In real-world use, actual sustained Wi-Fi speeds fluctuate a great deal and are generally much lower than the cap speeds. Nonetheless, support for higher tiers always means faster speeds. (Read more about Wi-Fi standards here.)
The AirPort Extreme offers a set of features common in routers, such as guest networking (only on the 2.4GHz band), IPv6, port forwarding, DynDNS, Access Control, and print-serving and file-sharing capabilities. It lacks many features you might expect given its cost, such as QoS customization for traffic prioritizing, Parent Control, VPN server, and so forth.
And even for what it can do, the AirPort Extreme is a lot less flexible than others. For example, while you can block access to the Internet using a connected client's MAC address, you can't set up Web filtering in case you want to block based on keyword, Web services, or a specific Web site. It's also quite hard to add a device to the block list, or assign a fixed IP address to it, because in most cases you need to determine its MAC address and type it in manually.