Hands on: Going wireless with the 802.11n Airport Extreme

Better speed and range are nice, but wireless storage is where it's at

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

Apple's new Airport Extreme base station, which offers wireless connections using the still unofficial 802.11n standard, promises greater transfer speeds and better signal range than its 802.11g predecessors and -- for the first time -- wireless storage.

After four weeks with the stylish new base station, I can say that it delivers. The wireless storage feature, which I consider the best thing about the hardware, works flawlessly. Transfer speeds are indeed faster when moving files around. And as for that extended range -- more about that in a minute.

First, a bit of background. The Airport Extreme was announced in January at Macworld and hit store shelves only last month. The list price is $179, which is higher than most other wireless base stations, including those that offer 802.11n connections. For that price, you get a router that looks a lot like a Mac mini (the old UFO look is out), easy-to-use software to get your network going and the ability to plug in a USB hard drive for readily available storage whenever you're using your own network.

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The Airport Disk Utility allows users to set the options for wireless hard drive access. (In this case, the base station was named "Den.") (Click image for larger view)

And if you've used your Apple base station in the past for wireless printing, fret not. You can plug a USB hub into the single USB port on the Airport Extreme and connect both a printer and a hard drive, according to Apple officials.

For my use, I swapped in the Apple hardware for my Linksys WRT300n router, which I bought last fall after seeing reports that Apple's newer laptops had wireless cards in them that would eventually allow 802.11n connections. The software that comes with the new Apple base station includes an enabler that "turns on" that feature. Or you can download and install just the enabler for $1.99 from Apple.

Setup, as you'd expect from an Apple product, was a breeze. Unlike the Linksys router, which offers more options and network choices than I knew what to do with, Apple makes what can be a cumbersome process really easy. A handful of clicks and your network is ready.

After that, plug in a USB hard drive, launch the Airport Disk utility -- it's installed with the new base station software -- and decide whether you want your computer to "automatically discover Airport disks" (I did); whether you want a little menu bar icon you can click on (I wanted that, too); and whether you want users to enter a password when accessing your wireless storage (absolutely).

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Users also decide whether the hard drive should automatically mount on your desktop when it's discovered. (Click image for larger view)

After you access the disk and enter the password, it shows up on your desktop for easy drag-and-drop copying of files. I found this feature to be the most useful of the changes to the base station. I have three different laptops at home and often move around small files -- photos, MP3s, documents and the occasional application -- between them. But what happens when you want to grab or copy a file and the other computer, which is located, say, upstairs at the other end of the house, is turned off? With the Airport Disk enabled, you copy the files to Airport storage drive and just grab them the next you use the other computer.

I had hoped to use the disk for laptop backups using SuperDuper, a great little app. No luck. SuperDuper didn't "see" the wireless disk. I have high hopes that Apple's forthcoming Time Machine backup software, however, will succeed where SuperDuper fails.

Time Machine will be part of Mac OS X 10.5 "Leopard" and is designed to make it easy to back up your system and help recover lost files. When Leopard was unveiled last August by Apple CEO Steve Jobs, I wondered then how Time Machine would work for laptop users -- most of whom aren't that interested in having a portable hard drive connected to their laptops 24/7. Now, I think I know. (I say "think" because Apple is notoriously mum about products not yet released, and it has said little about Time Machine since last year.) The combination of the Airport disk and Time Machine may just solve the problem: As long as you're on your own network, Time Machine -- and presumably future versions of various backup apps -- should allow you to make backups wirelessly. We'll know more when Jobs officially unveils Leopard this summer.

Given the importance of making backups, and the fact that most people don't do them regularly, if at all, anything that makes it easy to duplicate and save important files is a boon for users.

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The disk, here named "Airport Storage Disk" shows up right on your Mac desktop.

As for the speed and range offered by 802.11n, I found that copying files was generally faster using the "n" specification instead of the older "g" wireless standard. The speed difference was more apparent as the size of the data being copied grew. And speeds were more consistent when copying single large files rather than a collection of files of various sizes.

For my informal speed tests, I copied three sets of files to my Airport-connected hard drive. The smallest was a 26.5MB QuickTime movie file. Next was a 211.9MB folder containing a number of applications and files of varying sizes. And finally, I copied over my entire documents folder -- 1.41GB of data. (Yes, I use WPA2 for security, and my network is password-protected.)

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The Airport Utility's "manual setup" allows you to change wireless network preferences. (Click image for larger view)

I then copied all three sets back to my four-month-old MacBook Pro one at a time, using three different networking standards available: 802.11n (5 GHz), 802.11n (2.4 GHz) and a mixed network environment available to older computers with 802.11b or 802.11g wireless cards. Changing between networks options was easy: I launched the Airport Utility, selected "manual setup" from the drop-down menu and then chose the network type I wanted. I clicked the "update" button, the base station restarted, and in about 30 seconds I was ready to go.

Using 802.11n in the 5-GHz band -- which Apple said is a less crowded spectrum and therefore has less interference from other devices -- the QuickTime movie took 10 seconds to copy to my desktop, the folder of files took 4:20, and the Documents folder took 7:12. MenuMeters, a nice little app that, among other functions, allows you to track network activity in the menu bar, showed a consistent speed of about 3.5Mbit/sec. for the smaller movie file and 3.8 to 4.0Mbit/sec. for the larger folders.

Using 802.11n in the 2.4-GHz band, the movie took 7 seconds to copy to my desktop, the folder of files took 4:17, and the documents folder took 6:19. MenuMeters reported a higher transfer speed, too: between 4.0 and 4.4Mbit/sec.

With a mixed environment, which allows computers using 802.11g and 802.11b wireless cards to access the network, transfer speeds were largely the same. But when I switched to a first-generation 15-in. MacBook Pro -- the Core Duo model with an 802.11g wireless card -- I saw a drop in overall speeds. The QuickTime movie took 10 seconds, and the 1.41GB documents folder took nearly 10 minutes -- 9:46 -- to copy. Then I ran into an anomaly: The midsize 211.9MB folder actually took less time than before, at 3:38.

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In addition to selecting which 802.11n specification to use, Airport Utility is used to set security preferences.

(Click image for larger view)

I asked Apple officials about that. Their response made sense: Given the number of variables at work in any given network and system configuration, it would be almost impossible to pin down what was going on. Hey, at least the transfer speed dropped.

Finally, I tested the range of the same three network options by starting a download with my MacBook Pro and walking through the house and out the door as far as I could go. I wound up at the end of my driveway, about 120 feet from the base station -- which was beaming its signal through a series of plaster walls -- when the signal dropped below four bars (out of 15) as measured by Apple's Internet Connect app and the connection dropped. (The Linksys WRT300n doesn't go quite that far, dropping its signal about 10 feet sooner.)

I was hoping that, especially using the less crowded 5-GHz band for 802.11n networking, the signal would go farther. It's not that I need a signal that extends to my neighbors' houses; the base station sits at one end of a two-story house, and signal strength is solid throughout the building, both upstairs and down. But 802.11n is touted by Apple and other vendors as being faster and offering better range.

It is, indeed, faster. But about that range -- let's just say your mileage may vary. In fact, given the vagaries of wireless connections, signal strength, outside interference, base-station placement and other variables, it's entirely likely your mileage will vary. So if you're expecting a big jump over, say, an 802.11g network, you might have to check those hopes at the door.

Having said that, the range still allows me to surf anywhere in my house or yard -- or from the sidewalk in front of my neighbor's house. I was more concerned about the ease of use and setup of the Airport disk. It's one thing to have readily accessible storage attached to a desktop machine. Just plug in a big hard drive and remember to do your backups. But with a laptop, that's not as easy or convenient.

Enter the Airport Disk.

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Another Airport utility window allows you to set wireless hard drive preferences. (Click image for larger view)

Just as the arrival of wireless eight years ago heralded the possibility of ubiquitous Internet access, the arrival of wireless storage offers mobile users the promise of easy backups and expanded storage. Given the number of digital photos, music files, videos and full-length movies now jetting across the Internet, wireless storage can only offer more flexibility down the road. This is a good thing.

My advice: If you don't care about easily-accessible extra storage for your laptop, never back up files you want to keep, and are happy with whatever router you have right now, there's no need to rush out for a new Airport Extreme. Older 802.11g -- and to a lesser extent, 802.11b -- base stations should serve you well for the foreseeable future. At the other end of the spectrum, if you're looking for the latest cutting-edge wireless technology, maximum range and supersonic transfer speeds, you might want to wait until the 802.11n specification is actually finalized. That should be sometime next year. Maybe by then the advertised range will meet reality.

But if you're anxiously awaiting Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard -- and particularly the possibilities opened up by Time Machine -- you might get a jump-start on setting up your home storage network now. I know -- I'm making a leap of faith that Time Machine will play well with Apple's base station. But I made a similar leap last fall when I saw unconfirmed reports that my then-new MacBook Pro had an 802.11n-ready card in it. I ran out and bought that Linksys router.

Turns out, I should have waited just a little while longer.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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