A few weeks ago, I sprang for one of Apple’s new Airport Extreme Basestations. Our overall need to upgrade wasn’t strong, but the new station’s ability to run separate 802.11G compatible and 802.11 N only networks was a real draw for me. My wife’s new MacBook/Apple LED cinema set-up is relegated to network access via wireless connection alone; and I wanted the best for her I could get. While most of our Macs were “N” capable machines, our iPhones are first generation “G” only devices. So, that meant my wife’s connection would never be optimum on our “old” Airport Extreme which now was two generations old. It also only had 10/100 wired Ethernet connections while the rest of our wired network was equipped with Gigabit Ethernet connections; by upgrading to the new base station I could not only segregate my wireless networks but I would also make the router meet the rest of my wired network at 10/100/1000 Ethernet speeds.
The physical set-up was as easy as disconnecting my old unit and connecting the new one. I pulled up the Airport Utility on the CD that came with the unit to discover I already had that version installed, and there was no need to do it again. I launched the utility on my MacBook Pro and selected Manual Set-Up to configure the "new" networks. While it was not necessary to give the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz wireless networks individual names, I did so to make management easy and ensure I got the segregation I was after. I also did not change any parameters in the set-up for our current N network on any of the Macs but did reprogram the iPhones to pick up the G compatible wireless band.
To digress a bit, before I had disconnected the “old” Airport Extreme basestation, I had run a file transfer performance test using my wife’s MacBook. I had placed a 191.1 MB video file on one our Buffalo 500GB NAS hard drives and then copied it to the MacBook’s desktop. It took 2 minutes and 14 seconds for the copy operation to take place. This equated to a 1.42 megabites/second transfer rate. Once I had the new network configuration in place (where my wife’s MacBook was using the “N’ only network), I repeated the copy request. The operation took only 21 seconds! That equates to 9.1 MB/sec, or 6.4 times faster!
I’m not saying for a moment you’ll see that kind of speed increase. I believe that some of what I’ve experienced is due to being able to segregate the networks but I also think some of it is a byproduct of the segregation, i.e., that I had some kind of interference going on that segregating the networks stepped me away from. Apple advertises 5 times faster performance than “previous” 802.11G networks which would seem to indicate that our old Airport Extreme had dropped down to G speeds because of the presence of our iPhones. I am also running one wireless mouse, a Logitech VX Revolution, which runs in the 2.4 GHz Range, the same frequency range as my now mixed G/N network or our old Airport Extreme basestation. It’s possible that the mouse was providing some interference that also helped slow our previous network set-up down.
But, no matter what the cause, the ability to set-up a mixed and pure “N” network on two different frequencies makes the new Airport Extreme Base Station worth the money. It also has a “Guest” networking feature I am not now using but that might also prove to be of benefit to visiting guests, though most of those are family whom I don’t mind allowing full access to our home network. I’ll write about that in the future once I have some experience with it.
The new AE base station also has Gigabit Ethernet networking; and while I am not attributing any of the speed increase I saw to that, it is possible that the extra bandwidth between the file server and the router played at least a small role.
Lastly, I can report that we have not had the problems some users have reported with wireless networking dropping under Firmware version 7.4.1. I updated the router to that firmware version a few weeks ago, and it did not seem to impact its performance negatively.
I haven’t really investigated whether our range has improved. I haven’t seen any differences one way or the other under our “everyday conditions”. I’ll comment on that later once I have a chance to take my MacBook Pro outdoors and outside the house.
Overall, I’m happy with this purchase. It achieved what I had hoped it would by providing my wife’s living room set-up faster file transfer speeds, which was the main thing I was after. I think my only criticism of this unit is that an attached USB drive is still not Time Machine compatible. It’s a silly way of forcing users to consider spending more for Apple’s Time Capsule. It really doesn’t do anything but demonstrate that sometimes Apple and Microsoft are not that different.