Review: Apple's new Airport Extreme gets dual-band Wi-Fi

It's a welcome update for users with a mixed wireless environment

It's been two years since Apple Inc. moved its Airport Extreme Wi-Fi router to the 802.11n networking standard -- making the move before 802.11n was even finalized. Now Apple has pushed its take on wireless networking another evolutionary step forward by adding simultaneous dual-band Wi-Fi, guest networking and MobileMe support.

The newest Airport Extreme base station, which I bought and have been using for a couple of weeks, retains its flat, white Mac mini-like look; the same $179 price tag; and the ability to broadcast using the 802.11a/b/g/n protocols on the 2.4-GHz and 5-GHz frequencies. You can still share printers or external USB hard drives, and Apple's software for setting up and tweaking a wireless network is still the best in its class. I remain impressed with Apple's Airport Utility software because the setup options are powerful enough for advanced users, but are simple enough for anyone with even basic networking skills to understand. (If you've ever set up a Linksys network, you know what I mean.)

Best new feature: Dual-band support

But the best feature of Apple's new base station by far is simultaneous dual-band support. Until now, any speed gained by using the faster 802.11n standard evaporated if you connected devices running the older -- and more widely supported -- 802.11g protocol. That's because older base stations could only deliver the fastest connection speed that the slowest device on the network could support. For instance, if you had three computers with "n" wireless support and an iPhone that connected using 802.11g (the iPhone doesn't support 802.11n yet), then all clients connected to that network would operate at "g" speeds. That's fine for general Web browsing, but not so hot for large file transfers.

That's no longer an issue. The latest base station -- and the more expensive Time Capsule -- can simultaneously broadcast in the 2.5-GHz and 5-GHz frequencies, with clients automatically connecting to the fastest available signal. This is a big step forward for anyone looking to squeeze every bit of wireless performance out of a mixed-device environment.

Just don't expect miracles. With a white MacBook, new 24-in. iMac, a new 2.53-GHz MacBook Pro and an older 1.66-GHz Mac Mini at my disposal, I tested the difference in speeds between 802.11n and 802.11g networking. The file -- a 1.36GB movie -- was transferred to several machines from the MacBook Pro, and after copying the file several times, I averaged the results.

It took 12 and a half minutes to copy the movie to the Mac Mini, which can only transfer files using 802.11g. But transfers were much faster to hardware using the 802.11n standard: 6 minutes and 9 seconds to the iMac; 4 minutes and 59 seconds to the base station itself; and an average time of 4:10 to the white MacBook. Yes, transferring files from the new MacBook Pro to the white MacBook turned in the fastest time. I'm not sure why, but the results were consistent.

Apple's new Airport Extreme offers dual-band wireless networking now.
Apple's new Airport Extreme offers dual-band wireless networking now.
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