And shiny it is: The new base station bears a passing resemblance to a half-height Mac mini and looks nearly identical to the new Apple TV, which will also support 802.11n for streaming iTunes movies and TV shows. You may wonder why Apple chose to include three 100-Mbps Ethernet ports while other home routers from Buffalo and D-Link use Gigabit Ethernet. This port decision just means a network-attached storage device will run much slower, but thankfully there's a USB 2.0 port for connecting any USB hard drive.
Configuring the router is, predictably, about as easy as slicing cupcakes. A utility walks you through basic options, and a simple advanced menu takes out all of the guesswork of settings such as MAC address control and WPA configuration. We wish the new AirPort Utility automatically replaced the outdated AirPort Admin Utility, which is now useless because it does not support the new model. (PC users get a Windows XP version of the AirPort utility that worked well and is also compatible with Windows Vista.) Also, there's no way to access the router through a Web browser, and it uses a strange default IP address (10.0.1.1.), even though it also supports the industry standard 192.168.x.x.
Those minor complaints aside, Apple seems to have positioned its router for the future. It's a dual-channel device, which means it operates in 802.11n mode in the 5-GHz band using two 20-MHz channels (for 40 MHz total). The benefit is that users will experience much smoother performance (especially when streaming video or playing multiplayer games) and less interference from other devices that use the 2.4-GHz band, like cordless phones and microwave ovens. You can also set the router to use 802.11n in the 2.4-GHz band when you want more range but don't need as much speed.
The real-world testing results were quite impressive. With the latest Apple MacBook connected to 802.11n over the 5-GHz band, speed was a blistering 120 Mbps from five feet. With 802.11n set to 2.4-GHz mode, the same MacBook connected at 80 Mbps. That slower speed is by design because Apple doesn't use dual channels in 2.4-GHz mode. The company told us that doing this cripples Bluetooth, which is available on most Mac laptops; for high speeds, 5 MHz works best. It's a smart idea-one that router companies should emulate.
Introducing an old Apple iBook with 802.11b made the MacBook drop to 72 Mbps, and the iBook itself could manage speeds around only 8 Mbps. Hard drive transfers from a fast Iomega external drive were slow-about one minute for a 100MB file, compared with only ten seconds when transferring from a D-Link router over a gigabit Ethernet port to a network drive. We tested an HP Photosmart 7700 printer with the router, and it worked fine. Any device attached to the USB port shows up on a Mac without any user interference, but Windows XP requires some monkeying around.
In terms of wireless coverage, we couldn't get our 802.11n-enabled MacBook to connect beyond about 600 feet. The security support is fairly robust: WPA, WPA2, WEP in either 40-bit or 128-bit.
The Apple AirPort Extreme is meant to be a close cousin to the Apple TV, but it's an excellent router for Mac users who own an 802.11-enabled notebook. It's a smart, fast, and user-friendly wireless wonder.