First look: Apple offers 802.11n, and a wireless wow

Do you know your n from your b and your g?

Editor's note: This is part 1 of a two-part look at the Airport Extreme. Part 2 is also available online.

What a difference a letter makes.

Just as it did in 1999 when it began pushing 802.11b -- the first wireless networking standard to go mainstream -- and again in 2003 when it was on the leading edge with the faster 802.11g networking, Apple Inc. is moving ahead again, this time with wireless routers that use a standard not yet finalized: 802.11n.

With its latest Airport Extreme base station, Apple has done more than revamp the look of its popular wireless router. (The silky white UFO look is out; the simple, flat Mac Mini look is in.) In addition to adopting 802.11n -- a whole new standard in Wi-Fi that promises faster transfer speeds and better range -- it is also making a foray into home storage networks.

Airport Extreme base station

Airport Extreme base station

Image Courtesy of Apple Now you can add a USB hard drive to your Airport Extreme base station, creating an ever-present storage repository that anyone on your wireless network can access. More about that in a minute.

In case you're not familiar with the vagaries of wireless standards, 802.11b offers a theoretical maximum speed of 11Mbit/sec. and a range of about 150 feet. Its successor, 802.11g, promises about five times that maximum speed, 54Mbit/sec., and a slightly wider radius of coverage. And 802.11n, according to Apple officials, offers five times the speed of its predecessor and about twice the range. Think of it this way: fast, faster and fastest.

Rear view of the Airport Extreme base station

Rear view of the Airport Extreme base station

Image Courtesy of Apple Apple's new hardware can also use 802.11a networking, which is more common in enterprises, and has a built-in NAT firewall and three 10/100 Ethernet LAN ports.

As always, mileage will vary when you set up your wireless network, depending on your hardware, the location of your router and the presence of other equipment that might cause interference. But the Airport Extreme base station I've been using for a couple of weeks has worked flawlessly so far.

Although Apple made a splash earlier this month with the release of its new $179 base station -- it's priced higher than rival systems -- other router makers were out the door first. They began offering "pre-n" hardware last fall that can be updated to the final standard when its adopted by sometime late in 2008. What Apple is touting, as it often does, is ease of use. And as someone who's had a Linksys pre-802.11n wireless router since November -- I got it when I first saw rumors that Apple was putting 802.11n-capable wireless cards in its laptops -- I can say that Apple's solution is indeed simple to set up and use.

Apple officials last month confirmed that the company has been using wireless cards that are 802.11n-enabled since last year in most of the company's hardware. Only the Mac mini and the entry-level iMac are without them now. A $1.99 software update will enable the function in computers with the newer cards. It's included with the Airport Extreme base station.

Apple touts ease of use when setting up a network.

Apple touts ease of use when setting up a network.

That's not to say that the Linksys hardware hasn't worked well. For me, so far, it has. But it can be a daunting task to figure out NAT settings and decipher which security settings to use on a wireless network. If you're in an enterprise environment or like to tinker with arcane settings, you might find those settings necessary or just fun to monkey around with. Me? I want a wireless network that's easy to set up and performs as promised, one that I can generally forget about once it's up and running.

Enter Apple.

"We are way better than the others" when it comes to ease of use, said Jai Chulani, a senior product manager at Apple. "Open the box. There are no rabbit-ear antennas to break off. We believe in a compact design that you can place anywhere in the home. And the beauty in setting it up [is that] we ship it with a very easy utility where in four or five clicks you can set up a secure network.

"You put in the stuff you care about: your wireless network name, your passwords and the way you connect -- that's all you need," Chulani said. "We've made it easy to set up this wireless secure network."

The new hardware allows for multiple network choices.

The new hardware allows for multiple network choices.

He went on to list the various improvements offered by the new base station, noting that it can operate in either the increasingly crowded 2.4-GHz band or the 5.8-GHz band, which promises less interference from other hardware and networks. "We provide an easy way for people to switch. Operating in 5 GHz can be useful in a 'noisy' environment. You have much more bandwidth. There's more space to play with, and each of these [wireless] channels is discrete [so] you've got a much cleaner environment....

"And when you set it in 5-GHz [mode], with 802.11n we do something called channel bonding that takes two adjacent channels" and uses them in tandem for better throughput, he said. "With the new base station, you get a huge increase in performance. We've done real-world testing, and you see about a five-times improvement in performance and a two-times improvement in range."

Not surprisingly, Apple wants to make sure that user networks are secure and offers several options to make sure that new -- and old -- hardware can still connect. "These new base stations support WPA2.... It's a better way to secure the network. You [use] eight characters [for the network password], and the software on both Macs and PCs will just take care of negotiating with the base station."

Security options are easy to decipher.

Security options are easy to decipher.

I chose WPA2.

Chulani also pointed to the ability to plug in a USB hard drive. In earlier models, that port could be used for a printer, allowing wireless network users to print from their computers directly to that printer. Now, that port can also be used to connect a USB hard drive.

"We've been offering printing with that port for a long time," he said. But the new hard-drive option makes it "a really, really easy way to put storage on your network so that a Mac or Windows machine can access this shared drive. You don't have to worry about setting up privileges."

Perhaps as important to users as the promised advances with 802.11n is the fact that Apple -- and other wireless router makers -- have moved forward with a standard that is not yet nailed down. Waiting for that draft specification to mature is one of the main reasons Apple waited to introduce its new base station, Chulani said.

"We strongly felt that it [made] sense to wait and do these 802.11n products -- plus adding all the client support to the computers -- when we felt the specification was settled enough," he said. "The last thing we wanted to do is put something out that doesn't work well. We feel that the standard is pretty much settled now. The standard is not final, final, final. When the specification is final, we will, of course, take a look at it....

"We think it's a pretty solid draft, and we think it's in a good spot in terms of compatibility," he said. "We're making sure we do extensive interoperability testing. We understand that many of our customers have a mixed environment of Macs and Windows machines."

In fact, that describes my own home environment. I have an older Sony Vaio running Windows XP using 802.11g, a Core Duo-based MacBook Pro, also using 802.11g, and my Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro using 802.11n. That means the base station is running in a mixed environment. So far, it's running perfectly -- no hiccups or dropped connections, and the range covers my entire house and beyond.

The new Airport Disk Utility allows for a hard drive addition to the network.

The new Airport Disk Utility allows for a hard drive addition to the network.

I haven't yet hooked up a hard drive, but I plan to do so in the next week or two and report back on how it works. I also plan to look at transfer speeds and range.

In the meantime, here's food for thought, sort of a "one more thing" to keep in mind. Apple is set with its next operating system release, Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard, to include a new backup app called Time Machine. Until now, Time Machine didn't make much sense for laptop users, because it meant always having a hard drive connected to your computer -- and who wants to drag around a laptop with a USB or FireWire drive attached to it?

But with the new Airport base station and a perpetual wireless hard drive, Time Machine should be able to back up files to that drive -- as long as you're working on the network to which it's attached. (Apple won't comment on Leopard until it's released, which is expected by midyear.) To me, assuming I'm right, that's the best thing about the new hardware, the "wireless wow" of this release. Not only has Apple advanced the wireless world, it's now started users on the road to home storage networks.

Do I detect the start of a trend?

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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