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First Look: Apple Airport Extreme with 802.11ac

updated 03:47 pm EDT, Wed June 19, 2013

New router promises better speed, longer range than previous models

Despite the slightly late adoption of the 802.11g standard -- which had more to do with the hardware refresh product cycle than anything else -- Apple has been on the forefront of wireless home networking. From the first failure-prone Airport base station with an Orinoco Silver PCMCIA card to the newest equipment with custom chipsets built for Apple, Cupertino has seen the value of Internet access not tethered by a cord. The latest effort is the Airport Extreme and Time Capsule 802.11ac model, which brings some advances to the line. Electronista takes a first look at the new networking peripheral from Apple.

Where the last unit was similar in dimension to the original Apple TV, the new unit is more akin dimensionally to an height-extruded current-generation AppleTV. At 6.6 inches tall, both the Airport and Time Machine tower over the existing Airport Extreme. Apple hasn't chosen an extraordinary form factor for the router -- several other companies are using the "tower" form factor for draft-AC devices due to the necessary arrangement of antennas. Ports are the same on the back of the unit as on the previous-generation Airport -- three Gigabit Ethernet LAN ports, a Gigabit Ethernet WAN port, and a single USB 2 port. Differing from the previous generation, the power supply for the unit is built into to the tower itself rather than in an external brick.

We've been evaluating the new 2TB Time Capsule for nearly a week, but have had to delay this first look because of some non-Apple issues. Simply put, existing USB 802.11ac adapters are generally terrible, and PCI-E card ones are only mildly better. Try as we might, the first adapter we tried wouldn't connect at anything other than 802.11n speeds. The second and third adapters we used fried while in use, notably hot to the touch, and when customer support was queried about the failures, both companies said little more than "yeah, they do that."

Some of the problems we experienced are clearly due to bad hardware, but some is the draft nature of the 802.11ac spec. Apple has provided draft-level support before for new networking protocols, with fewer issues with third parties than this time around. While the 802.11ac specification is still "in draft," it is at the stage where any changes before becoming final can be fixed through a firmware update.

One initial concern we have with the Airport Extreme is the current lack of a Windows-based configuration tool for the router, relying on the Airport tool in the iOS and OSX. Also, we would have liked to see a USB 3.0 port replace the USB 2.0 carried over from the Airport Extreme 802.11n model, but this isn't a dealbreaker. An additional Ethernet port would also have been nice.

At first glance, the "beamforming" inherent to the 802.11ac protocol does as advertised and noticeably boosts speed and range to other 802.11ac devices. Important to note is that most of the architectural and other changes with the 802.11ac protocol will have little benefit to older protocols. Users shouldn't expect to see an improvement in service quality with older devices, like what was seen with most in the shift from 802.11g to 802.11n. Having said that, unlike older protocol shifts, speed to AC devices don't seem affected by the presence of non-ac protocols on the wireless network.

We have just acquired a new MacBook Air for proper testing with the router, and initial results from the combination are very promising with both it, and an HTC One handset. We have a battery of tests in progress, including outdoor max range versus data transmission rate, and ping to the router. Some other more real-world tests are also underway, such as interior floor-to-floor speed checks in homes and office buildings and potential interference sources. MacNN Labs welcomes reader suggestions for tests desired for our full review of the product-- leave a comment on this post with your ideas.

By Electronista Staff
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