By Craig Ellison and Tim Higgins
Hands down, the Apple AirPort Extreme is the nicest looking wireless router on the market. It has a clean, sleek design, white housing, and a lack of external antennas; these features allow it to look great anywhere you install it.
While looks are nice, it is features and performance that sell wireless routers. But the Extreme is no laggard in both performance categories. It ranks in the top 5 in our Router Charts and at the top of our Wireless Charts for average total throughput in the 2.4 GHz band. And we're willing to bet that had we been able to perform our 5 GHz throughput vs. path loss testing with an Atheros XSPAN-based client, that it would have been at the top of that chart, too.
Its main wireless weakness is high throughput loss when running either WEP or WPA/TKIP wireless security. But this seems to be a common weakness among the current crop of draft 11n products.
Turning back to the positives, we like that the AirPort Extreme features gigabit Ethernet ports, can easily be configured as a router or an access point and can join a WDS network or function as a repeater. With its support for WPA/2 enterprise (RADIUS), it can also fit into a corporate environment. And the Extreme's inclusion of both print and basic file servers adds to its appeal.
But the Extreme isn't perfect. Though it is a dual band router, it's limited by a single radio that restricts it to operating on one band at a time. This tradeoff was probably made to keep cost down, but with draft 11n chipset prices dropping, we're not sure this was the right choice. Although the Buffalo Nfiiniti is currently the only dual-band competition, the price difference has dropped to $50-$70, vs the $100+ that it was back when the Buffalo first hit the market. And with more simultaneous dual-band products due to hit the market before the end of the year, the either/or choice forced upon users by the Extreme could cost it some market share.
We were also surprised at the lack of some features that are commonly found on significantly less expensive devices. For example, the Extreme lacks an SPI (stateful packet inspection) firewall and relies only on NAT for firewall protection. SPI firewalls allow outgoing packets, but only permit inbound packets if they are part of an established connection. While the importance of this feature may be debatable, it is curious that Apple omitted it, since pretty much every other consumer router sports a NAT+SPI firewall.
Turning to more important omissions, the Extreme doesn’t support port triggering—a feature important for the online gaming community. And while it does support WMM for prioritizing multimedia on the wireless network, it lacks QoS controls on both the wired and wireless networks.
We would also like to have seen the Extreme implement Dynamic DNS (DDNS). Bonjour advertisements on the WAN port may someday fill that need, as ISPs and DDNS providers update their environments to accept Bonjour resource updates. But DDNS is the way to go today, if you need to remotely access services on your LAN.
Finally, the use of application instead of browser-based administration seems to be another odd choice. To its credit, Apple has done an admirable job at providing (almost) equal admin function access to both MacOS and Windows users (which is more than can be said of most consumer networking products). But for a company whose OS is open source based, the choice to exclude those users seems to be an odd one.
All things considered, however, the AirPort Extreme is a cost-effective high-performance dual band draft 11n router that will work well in both a Mac and a PC environment. Despite its lack of simultaneous dual band operation and browser-based administration, it's definitely the way to go if you need dual-band draft 11n today.