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AirPort Extreme Base Station -5th Gen
At a glance
ProductApple AirPort Extreme Base Station -5th Gen (MD031LL/A)   [Website]
Summary5th generation of Apple's 802.11n router with three-stream N support on both bands and Broadcom radios
Pros• Gigabit ports
• 400+ Mbps routing speed
Cons• No web admin
• Can't use 40 MHz mode in 2.4 GHz
• 3 LAN ports
• Limited routing features

Typical Price: $99  Shop Amazon

Overview

Updated 8/25/11: Clarified cost comments

I've received enough requests for a review of Apple's latest overpriced simultaneous dual-band N router that I caved and ordered one from Amazon for testing and a quick review. This review will focus mainly on performance, since the feature set of the fifth generation of Apple's AirPort Extreme hasn't changed from when I looked at its predecessor almost two years ago. This will also be the first time I've seen what Apple has to offer for three-stream N performance. Let's start by looking at what's changed.

Inside

As it turns out, not much. Since I'm not keeping this little gem, I didn't open it up. But Brian Klug over at AnandTech did. The bottom line from his findings is that the Gen 4 and 5 motherboards (Figure 1) are exactly the same, but the dual-band radio module is not.

To recap, the main board uses a Marvell 88F6281 1.2 GHz "Kirkwood" SoC processor, which is normally found at the heart of many inexpensive NASes. The switch is a Marvell 88E6350R 7 Port Gigabit, but you still get only three 10/100/1000 LAN ports.

RAM and flash remain at 128 MB and 16 MB, respectively and there is still a Pericom PI7C9X20303UL PCIe Packet Switch on the bottom of the board to connect the radio module to the CPU.

New Airport Extreme Simultaneous board
Figure 1: Gen 4 and 5 AirPort Extreme main board

Instead of a custom PCIe module with two Marvell 88W8366 802.11n 3x3 SoCs, Apple has once again switched vendors for its 802.11n radio technology, this time tapping Broadcom. Figure 2 shows the FCC closeup of the Gen 5's radio module, which sports two Broadcom BCM4331 802.11n Dual-Band 3x3 SoCs.

Gen 5 Airport Extreme radio module
Figure 2: Gen 5 AirPort Extreme radio module

If this device sounds familiar, that's because it's used in Cisco's Linksys E4200 and NETGEAR's WNDR4000 as the 5 GHz band radio. Neither of these routers produced very impressive performance in the recent three-stream tests using my standard Intel Centrino Ultimate-N 6300 three-stream N test client.

So I didn't expect any miracles from Apple and didn't get any, even with the outboard amplifiers that you can see in photo above. The photo is too fuzzy to completely identify the external parts, but the ones on the left appear to be from SiGe.

Figure 3 shows the Gen 4 radio board, where I could make out the numbers on the larger external parts on the right-hand 5 GHz radio. Those were SIGE 2537L 5 GHz Power Amplifier with Power Detectors.

Gen 4 Airport Extreme radio board
Figure 3: Gen 4 AirPort Extreme radio board

This time, after zooming in on Figure 2 enough, I was able to tell that the external components in the left-side 2.4 GHz radio are from SiGe. But it looks like the right-side 5 GHz radio components are not from SiGe.

The Gen 5 AirPort Extreme retains the funky two single-band, two dual-band antenna design of its predecessor. But this time it seems Apple got everything connected correctly the first time instead of erroneously swapping a pair of connections as it did on the first Gen 4s, killing 2.4 GHz band performance for lower signal levels.

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