Airport Extreme (Dual-band) Review

“Once Again, The Apple Tax is Worth It”

As far as my services go, we have AT&T’s Elite (if you can call it that) DSL service. For years my parents have opted to go with the decent but otherwise middle-of-the-road gateway that AT&T (then SBC) provided as a step up from a simple modem. AT&T’s brand of choice for these modem/router combos or “gateways” is 2Wire; and for the past few years we’ve been using their 2700HG-B.

As far as the network goes, our house is of a fairly modest size. The gateway has always been in my room, largely because I’m the techie of the house, plus I have the most devices that require wired ethernet connections. My room consists of:

– Desktop Windows 7 PC (build) – wired

– MacBook Pro 13″ (late-2009) – wireless-N

– XBOX 360 (Pro 60GB) – wired

– PlayStation 3 Slim (120GB) – wireless-G (added since initial review)*

– AppleTV 40GB – wireless-N

– DirecTV HR22 – wired

Elsewhere, other roaming devices in the house include:

– iPhone 3GS – wireless-G

– Dell 1505 – wireless-G

– Dell 1505 – wireless-G

Sometime in the past few months AT&T/2Wire (likely AT&T) pushed out a less than desirable firmware update. I gained WPA2 encryption but it almost literally bricked the 2700HG-B… it meant nothing but frequent restarts of the gateway (sometimes multiple times, consecutively; leaving it unusable), which was usually spurred by my MacBook Pro and/or iPhone using Wi-Fi. I spent hours on forums, and even found out this was a fairly common issue with other 2700HG-B users, but no fix came down the pike from AT&T or 2Wire. After years of only using these gateways, I figured it was finally time we went with a router, in addition to an older single-use modem we had lying around.

At first I had my eyes set on D-Link’s mid-range wireless-N routers, the DIR-655 and DIR-825. I’d heard very mixed reviews about the 655 and even worse things about the 825. Then I stumbled upon Netgear’s WNDR3700; it seems to have very comparable features to the Airport Extreme, and had almost nothing but good reviews. However, ever since thinking about purchasing a third-party router, the AEBS was always my pick. And if I was going to spend that much money on the WNDR3700, I might as well spend the extra ten or so bucks and get the AEBS.

Pros:

+ It’s an Apple product. Packaged well, designed well, built well, and it works well. Plain and simple.

+ Fairly easy setup. Again, this is my first router, and being spoiled with having AT&T’s gateways, I’d never had to tweak anything other than which band(s) of Wi-Fi I wanted the thing to broadcast–and maybe which channel broadcast it in (1, 6, 11). PPPoE was about the only curveball I was thrown during the AEBS setup. I was aware–because of prior research–that PPPoE would have to be tweaked on the modem in order for the Airport Extreme to work. Once I got that fixed, everything was golden.

+ Airport Utility vs. web-based UI. Although some might not prefer it, I find the client-based interface to work well. This means that you need to install the Airport Utility on all of your computers as opposed to visiting the router’s IP address/webpage in a normal browser from any of your machines. I suppose you could connect a computer on which you have no intentions of tweaking the network with, without installing this Utility–but again, you’ll be cut off from changing any settings since they’re only accessible within the Utility. But I have no problems with this system. Initially the Utility gives you a step-by-step method in order to get things working. Whenever you want to tweak the settings, it will use this same step-by-step method. Nonetheless, there is a “Manual Setup” button which brings up an array tabs for options in general setup, wireless connectivity, sharing, disks, printers, internet connectivity settings, guest networking, etc… It takes all of that step-by-step procedure and throws it into a series of menus just like techies are accustomed to. Those who are less technical will probably like that initial step-by-step method better, and find it less offensive when using the Airport Utility’s interface.

+ Guest networking. This is pretty straight forward. The WNDR3700 has this feature as well. The Airport Utility gives you the option to give this network a separate name (SSID) and password–or no password at all.

+ USB device support. As of now, I have an old 2.5″ Samsung laptop HDD hooked up to the AEBS just to test out the AEBS’s network storage functionality. It’s formatted HFS (journaled) and is accessible to all computers on the network–PC and Mac. Albeit, it shows as FAT32-based to the Windows machines, it can even be accessed by guest users (if you want them to be able to). Transferring 48GB took about an hour [via ethernet to the AEBS, and of course USB 2.0 to the HDD] to give you an idea of the practicality of this feature. Disk sharing can be password-protected, and with the Airport Utility installed a dialog will allow a user to sign-in to this feature. There’s also wireless USB printing. My printer (Epson NX110, three-in-one) isn’t compatible with the AEBS, nor have I been able to get my MacBook Pro to print to it wirelessly via my Windows 7 PC (Windows’ printer sharing), so I guess I’m SOL until I can get an HP or something a little more Mac-friendly.

+ Simultaneous dual band (and wireless-N). This is fairly self-explanatory. As of right now, I’ve got my AEBS broadcasting wireless-N/A and wireless-B/G/N (5GHz & 2.4GHz).  This accommodates all of my 802.11 wireless devices, B, G, and N. You can tweak this setting, or leave it on ‘Auto’.

Cons:

– Three ethernet LAN ports. Yes, as per usual, Apple had to cut back on something. With the iPhone, it’s potentially useful buttons (a keyboard); on the AppleTV it’s horsepower under the hood; and on the AEBS, it’s the standard of having four ethernet jacks on a router. This is nothing a third-party accessory can’t solve, but at this price, I’d expect at least the industry standard of four ports.

– Price. I knew how much it was, and what it was capable of doing. I have no problem spending the Apple Tax on a product that I know will be among the best in its class. I purchased mine at one-sixty seven about a week ago. At least I got the Amazon discount to reciprocate that Apple Tax.

– SSID broadcasting bug. One of the more specific issues I have–which is nothing to write home about–is hiding the SSID broadcast. Doing so causes my MacBook Pro (even my iPhone 3GS) to not automatically connect to the AEBS network upon startup. Turning on my MBP while I was still using my 2700HG-B–not broadcasting SSID–had no problem remembering, finding, and automatically connecting to the network. Again, this is more of a pet peeve than anything, but does seem to be somewhat common with the AEBS. SSID hiding is not much of a security feature in my opinion; if someone has the means to hack their way into my home network–they’ve probably got the tech to find my network in the first place, even if I’m hiding SSID broadcast (*knocking on wood*). By the way, Apple’s utility calls SSID hiding, “closed networking”, under the “Wireless Network Options” button.

All-in-all, there’s nothing too bad I can say about the Airport Extreme. Other than my couple pet peeves, I’ve had it setup for two days now and have had no significant issues. I have yet to find myself regretting the purchase of my AEBS, or becoming frustrated with it. For those reasons, I highly recommend this router if you can get past the price tag.

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