Performance Testing

Before I go any further, just a warning that this is dense, and even for me there are an almost overwhelming number of tables. I struggled with how to present data and settled on the format below, which consists of individiaual tables and a few graphs at the end in case you're a visual person. There's a third option however, which is the google docs spreadsheet I used while collecting data. I've made it public for your enjoyment and it contains the exact same data. (Update: Google Apps is acting wonky and not letting me share the spreadsheet quite yet—it will be posted in a little while. Update 2: Here we go, finally got the link to the spreadsheet for your persual)

First up is the received signal strength, which will show just how much difference that extra ~140 mW will buy. In reality, it’s surprisingly hard to see the difference, but again that increase in strength is only a few dBm, so I suppose it not being very dramatic here is to be expected since this is also a logarithmic scale. That said, the Gen 5 does post numbers correspondingly above the Gen 4 on average; remember that closer to 0 is higher power and thus better. The difference is actually more visible on 2.4GHz than 5GHz based on these numbers.

agrCtlRSSI (dBm) Comparison—2.4GHz (Closer to 0 is Better)
  2011 MacBook Pro (BCM4331,3x3:3) 2010 MacBook Pro
(BCM4322,2x2:2)
Apple Airport Extreme 4th Gen 5th Gen 4th Gen 5th Gen
Office (1) -46 -44 -45 -40
Hallway (2) -52 -50 -52 -52
Downstairs (3) -71 -70 -77 -77
Kitchen (4) -84 -81 -85 -84

agrCtlRSSI (dBm) Comparison—5GHz (Closer to 0 is Better)
  2011 MacBook Pro (BCM4331,3x3:3) 2010 MacBook Pro
(BCM4322,2x2:2)
Apple Airport Extreme 4th Gen 5th Gen 4th Gen 5th Gen
Office (1) -47 -48 -44 -47
Hallway (2) -59 -60 -54 -52
Downstairs (3) -81 -81 -82 -81
Kitchen (4) N/A N/A N/A N/A

Next is MCS (Modulation Coding Scheme) which shows how fast the card is connecting to the 802.11n network. Here we can see how much the 5th generation airport extreme improves MCS selection in a number of cases, especially the three spatial stream scenarios on the 2011 MacBook Pro.

MCS Comparison—2.4GHz (Higher is Better)
  2011 MacBook Pro (BCM4331,3x3:3) 2010 MacBook Pro
(BCM4322,2x2:2)
Lenovo X300
(Intel 6300 3x3:3)
Apple Airport Extreme 4th Gen 5th Gen 4th Gen 5th Gen 4th Gen 5th Gen
Office (1) 22 23 14 15 23 23
Hallway (2) 11 22 13 15 22 22
Downstairs (3) 4 12 0 11 21 13
Kitchen (4) 0 8 0 9 5 12

MCS Comparison—5GHz (Higher is Better)
  2011 MacBook Pro (BCM4331,3x3:3) 2010 MacBook Pro
(BCM4322,2x2:2)
Lenovo X300
(Intel 6300 3x3:3)
Apple Airport Extreme 4th Gen 5th Gen 4th Gen 5th Gen 4th Gen 5th Gen
Office (1) 23 23 15 15 23 23
Hallway (2) 21 22 15 14 12 22
Downstairs (3) 1 9 1 2 5 5
Kitchen (4) N/A N/A N/A N/A 3 3

Locations 3 and 4, which are in challenging environments, see massive increases, previously going from the lowest possible (or not even 802.11n) rate up to much faster rates on both MacBooks.

AFS is our next test, where we transfer a 500MB zip file up and down from an AFS server and average the throughput. On the downstream side of things, the improvements aren’t substantial until we’re in a challenging RF scenario downstairs;, here the new generation wireless card in the Airport Extreme makes a huge difference in throughput on 2.4GHz, and similarly on 5GHz, though at the farthest location it’s still impossible to connect to 5GHz.

AFS File Transfer Performance (Downstream)—2.4GHz (Mbps—Higher is Better)
  2011 MacBook Pro (BCM4331,3x3:3) 2010 MacBook Pro
(BCM4322,2x2:2)
Apple Airport Extreme 4th Gen 5th Gen 4th Gen 5th Gen
Office (1) 97.3 96.8 64.2 76.6
Hallway (2) 85.5 90.5 65.3 71.8
Downstairs (3) 2.67 68.7 2.1 39.4
Kitchen (4) 1.34 33.6 N/A 16.5

AFS File Transfer Performance (Downstream)—5GHz (Mbps—Higher is Better)
  2011 MacBook Pro (BCM4331,3x3:3) 2010 MacBook Pro
(BCM4322,2x2:2)
Apple Airport Extreme 4th Gen 5th Gen 4th Gen 5th Gen
Office (1) 140.6 148.4 95.3 122.9
Hallway (2) 86.3 130.9 84.9 99.5
Downstairs (3) 16.1 39.3 6.6 19.5
Kitchen (4) N/A N/A N/A N/A

When it comes to upstream, the results are dramatic both on 2.4GHz and 5GHz. Throughput is almost always over double, thanks probably in part to the better front end and receive sensitivity of the Airport Extreme’s new wireless stack.

AFS File Transfer Performance (Upstream)—2.4GHz (Mbps—Higher is Better)
  2011 MacBook Pro (BCM4331,3x3:3) 2010 MacBook Pro
(BCM4322,2x2:2)
Apple Airport Extreme 4th Gen 5th Gen 4th Gen 5th Gen
Office (1) 54.0 128.6 52.6 81.5
Hallway (2) 45.3 105.1 30.9 78.1
Downstairs (3) 4.0 37.6 2.8 32.7
Kitchen (4) N/A 10.5 N/A 15.3

AFS File Transfer Performance (Upstream)—5GHz (Mbps—Higher is Better)
  2011 MacBook Pro (BCM4331,3x3:3) 2010 MacBook Pro
(BCM4322,2x2:2)
Apple Airport Extreme 4th Gen 5th Gen 4th Gen 5th Gen
Office (1) 186.7 214.5 150 134.2
Hallway (2) 175.2 195.8 145.7 119.5
Downstairs (3) 19.8 34.3 11.6 21.6
Kitchen (4) N/A N/A N/A N/A

Iperf is finally up, which we can run on the X300 in addition to both Macs. Here on downstream the results are improved pretty substantially for the 3x3:3 2011 MacBook Pro, and across the board for the challenging downstairs RF scenarios. The same applies on 5GHz as well, and in the best case, we can push nearly 300 Mbps on the new MacBook Pro. It’s a dramatic improvement in best case throughput if you have the right card, though the Intel card ends up performing similarly on 5GHz with both the new and old Airport Extreme card. More on that in a second.

iperf 2.0.5 (Downstream)—2.4GHz (Mbps—Higher is Better)
  2011 MacBook Pro (BCM4331,3x3:3) 2010 MacBook Pro
(BCM4322,2x2:2)
Lenovo X300
(Intel 6300 3x3:3)
Apple Airport Extreme 4th Gen 5th Gen 4th Gen 5th Gen 4th Gen 5th Gen
Office (1) 112 161 71.9 87.4 88.3 84.8
Hallway (2) 91.7 138 69.1 78.1 75.8 84.7
Downstairs (3) 5.89 117 2.22 46.9 51.9 68.7
Kitchen (4) 1.49 35.2 N/A 23.7 14.4 46.1

iperf 2.0.5 (Downstream)—5GHz (Mbps—Higher is Better)
  2011 MacBook Pro (BCM4331,3x3:3) 2010 MacBook Pro
(BCM4322,2x2:2)
Lenovo X300
(Intel 6300 3x3:3)
Apple Airport Extreme 4th Gen 5th Gen 4th Gen 5th Gen 4th Gen 5th Gen
Office (1) 213 311 92.2 136 101 112
Hallway (2) 119 243 95.4 97.2 98 106
Downstairs (3) 17.5 47.9 6.83 21.3 41.5 57.5
Kitchen (4) N/A N/A N/A N/A 13.8 11.1

On the upstream with Iperf things improve dramatically across the board on 2.4GHz, and marginally improve on 5GHz with the new WLAN card inside the Airport Extreme.

iperf 2.0.5 (Upstream)—2.4GHz (Mbps—Higher is Better)
  2011 MacBook Pro (BCM4331,3x3:3) 2010 MacBook Pro
(BCM4322,2x2:2)
Lenovo X300
(Intel 6300 3x3:3)
Apple Airport Extreme 4th Gen 5th Gen 4th Gen 5th Gen 4th Gen 5th Gen
Office (1) 57.7 159 64.2 97.7 65.1 126
Hallway (2) 33.1 120 24 98.4 42.3 113
Downstairs (3) 4.42 36.7 4.26 33.6 20.6 38.4
Kitchen (4) 1.89 11.6 1.50 8.51 7.39 21.1

iperf 2.0.5 (Upstream)—5GHz (Mbps—Higher is Better)
  2011 MacBook Pro (BCM4331,3x3:3) 2010 MacBook Pro
(BCM4322,2x2:2)
Lenovo X300
(Intel 6300 3x3:3)
Apple Airport Extreme 4th Gen 5th Gen 4th Gen 5th Gen 4th Gen 5th Gen
Office (1) 215 302 168 191 154 148
Hallway (2) 196 252 169 174 150 144
Downstairs (3) 15.4 41 7.97 22.9 26.8 39.4
Kitchen (4) N/A N/A N/A N/A 7.55 8.66

At the end of the day, the new Airport Extreme dramatically improves throughput in the best case and in a few regions where signal was previously unusable. In the worst case (location 4), performance improves from being essentially unusable to totally fine, and in the case of the 2010MBP goes from not being able to connect at all to pushing 23 Mbps.

So the unanswered question is how the 3x3:3 2011MBP manages to be much faster compared to the 3x3:3 Intel 6300 card, and I suspect the answer might be that the combination of BCM4331 on the client and BCM4331 on the AP enables Apple to use Broadcom’s frame bursting high speed modes—aka modern speedbooster. Careful observers will note in addition that while Iperf over 40 MHz 802.11n (with a link rate of 450 Mbps) delivers 311 Mbps of downstream, the same test on AFS is around 150 Mbps down, possibly due to compression. In addition, note how the Intel card lags behind in locations 1 and 2 until signal gets lower and then becomes competitive again. To me, this definitely seems to indicate some Broadcom-to-Broadcom enhancements are at play. Frankly for Apple this makes sense considering their top to bottom ecosystem control; if you have the ability to choose the card in the AP and the client, why not go with a solution that offers benefits?

Airport Extreme vs. Time Capsule

The next question is how the Time Capsule compares. Rather than re-run all 128 data-points (and then multiple tests per scenario for the purposes of averaging and removing outliers), I decided to use a subset and see whether performance and range is the same on the Time Capsule in those cases. As we showed before, the Time Capsule and Airport Extreme use the same exact wireless card, though gain is different on the Time Capsule antennas than the Airport Extreme.

For this testing, I just used the 2011MBP with its 3x3:3 radio, and ran through signal measurements and Iperf. First up is how signal strength looks.

agrCtlRSSI (dBm) Comparison (Closer to 0 is Better)
  2.4GHz 5GHz
  Airport Extreme Time Capsule Airport Extreme Time Capsule
Office (1) -44 -41 -48 -49
Hallway (2) -50 -51 -60 -60
Downstairs (3) -70 -68 -81 -83
Kitchen (4) -81 -81 N/A N/A

You can pretty much immediately tell that things are very similar. On 2.4GHz and 5GHz the two are very comparable except in a few odd cases. Of course the propagation isn’t going to be identical between the two, but subjectively it’s close.

Next is MCS, and here things are again close, with the Time Capsule narrowly edging out the Airport Extreme on 2.4GHz, and things being very equal on 5GHz. It’s looking the same so far.

MCS Comparison (Higher is Better)
  2.4GHz 5GHz
  Airport Extreme Time Capsule Airport Extreme Time Capsule
Office (1) 23 23 23 23
Hallway (2) 22 23 22 23
Downstairs (3) 12 13 9 8
Kitchen (4) 8 9 N/A N/A

So what about performance now with Iperf? On the downstream side of things, the Airport Extreme comes out on top narrowly in all but the second location on 2.4 and 5GHz. But the difference is minuscule.

iperf 2.0.5 (Downstream) (Mbps—Higher is Better)
  2.4GHz 5GHz
  Airport Extreme Time Capsule Airport Extreme Time Capsule
Office (1) 161 157 311 306
Hallway (2) 138 154 243 246
Downstairs (3) 117 103 47.9 44.9
Kitchen (4) 35.2 29.6 N/A N/A

Upstream is a similar story, with the two being very close outside locations 3 and 4, where the Time Capsule narrowly edges the Airport Extreme out on 2.4GHz.

iperf 2.0.5 (Upstream) (Mbps—Higher is Better)
  2.4GHz 5GHz
  Airport Extreme Time Capsule Airport Extreme Time Capsule
Office (1) 159 153 302 304
Hallway (2) 120 129 252 251
Downstairs (3) 36.7 55.5 41 32.1
Kitchen (4) 11.6 17.3 N/A N/A

All said and done however, the two are incredibly close and despite the difference in gain that the FCC docs would lead you to believe, are virtually indistinguishable in some real-world testing. In my mind, if you’re concerned about WiFi performance, the Time Capsule and Airport Extreme both perform equally well.

Graphs

If you're a more visual person and find that wall of tables and text too daunting, Anand also made some awesome graphs which I would be remiss to not reproduce here for your viewing pleasure.

First up is AFS performance compared on the 2011MBP between the 4th and 5th generation Airport Extreme.

 

Again the main improvements with AFS (real-world file transfer) happen out at the extremes where previously signal was unusable on 2.4GHz, and likewise on 5GHz. That really tells the story of the (sometimes dramatic) difference that the higher power WLAN solution in the 5th generation makes over the 4th generation.
 
Next are two charts showing again that for WiFi purposes the Time Capsule and Airport Extreme are virtually identical.

Within the margin of error, we see the Time Capsule and Airport Extreme perform very, very closely.

WiFi Testing Methodology Disk Performance - Airport Extreme vs. Time Capsule
POST A COMMENT

103 Comments

View All Comments

  • jigglywiggly - Saturday, August 06, 2011 - link

    time capsule wins an award for stealing your money.
    500$ for a wireless 3tb hd? Don't be sodding st00pid.
    Reply
  • repoman27 - Saturday, August 06, 2011 - link

    $300 for a $150 simultaneous dual-band, three-stream router with gigabit switch, on board SATA controller and an $80 HD, all in one compact little unit along with the PSU? Not a bad deal, really.

    Paying $200 (2/3) more for a $70 HD upgrade that only provides 50% more storage space? Questionable, but Apple knows that most people won't bother to upgrade themselves because they'd be out of pocket an additional $150 for the drive and then have to open a brand new device to make the swap.
    Reply
  • jackwong - Sunday, August 14, 2011 - link

    It is more about the data on the TC, and it runs EXTREMELY hot during Summer...

    This is my setup, Airport Extreme base station, Synology 1 bay with 2TB, and a Sesgate goflex 2.5" 1.5TB to backup the Synology. These cost me ~$550 but if the nas has problem, I can still have all the data on the 1.5TB Seagate.
    Reply
  • name99 - Saturday, August 06, 2011 - link

    Then don't buy one.
    Connect a USB drive to your Airport base station.
    Or use network time machine to back up to whatever home server/HTPC mac you have sitting around. That's what I do.

    I honestly do not understand why people feel compelled to tell the world: "this product is a bad match for me and my needs and therefore no-one should ever use it".

    Do you apply the same logic to, I don't know, Intel chips? Damn those Xeon's are expensive --- and they even run at slower rates than my i5. Anyone who buys one is obviously an idiot.
    Reply
  • HilbertSpace - Saturday, August 06, 2011 - link

    Did you try putting the mini Broadcom PCIe into the Gen 4 Airport Extreme and seeing if you can do an upgrade that way? Reply
  • Brian Klug - Saturday, August 06, 2011 - link

    I considered it for a long time, but decided that I wasn't sure it was worth spending too much time on (particularly because I have no idea where you could buy just the card) and because there's ostensibly some firmware flash that must go along with the Gen 5. I'm not sure whether there's a way to force a firmware update with the Gen 5 firmware on a Gen 4.

    -Brian
    Reply
  • hechacker1 - Saturday, August 06, 2011 - link

    The only missing feature IMHO is some type of QoS management and uPNP.

    I have a 4th Gen Airport Extreme, and as you say it's a stable router that just seems compatible with everything (everything connects reliably).

    I'd love to upgrade to the 5th Gen for the extra power (that's surprising Apple cranks it up that high), but when it comes to using p2p and gaming at the same time, the lack of QoS prioritization kills it.

    Then it doesn't have uPnP, which more broadly supported than NAT-PMP. The Airport also has a nasty bug of forgetting your port forwardings and MAC address bindings, as soon as the network card sleeps for too long (a few hours).

    So it's back to a router that supports more open features and can also have its radios power cranked up to match the Airport. There's a few good dual band routers out there are are pretty much all open source (even the wireless chip!).
    Reply
  • Zok - Saturday, August 06, 2011 - link

    Like what? I bought a Netgear WNDR3700 quite some time ago because it was one of the highest performing dual band / dual radio devices at the time (supposedly the SoC was faster than it's competitors).

    That said, it's been an absolute nightmare to get DD-WRT on it and stable (radio performance and range gets trashed) and the factory GUI is severely lacking (doesn't allow for PAT, for example). Have any suggestions on something DD-WRT compatible, but can also drive dual radios for both bands (2x2 or 3x3, 40 MHz on both, preferable)?
    Reply
  • hechacker1 - Saturday, August 06, 2011 - link

    I'm using OpenWRT on the 3700v2. Check out the OpenWRT forums for community builds that let you set the radios to their max power output (24dBm on 5GHz 40MHz, 27dBm on 2.4GHz 40MHz). It reaches the hardware limit.

    Surprisingly, the new Airport Extreme has slightly more power output at 5GHz than the 3700v2.

    OpenWRT has been stable on this router for me. It's a great alternative to the Airport if you want LOTS of power output and open source software with tons of features.

    The biggest con with OpenWRT is that its interface sucks; but whatever, you only have to set it up once.
    Reply
  • name99 - Saturday, August 06, 2011 - link

    uPNP I couldn't give a damn about, and neither can Apple.
    They have their solution for devices transparently connecting to each other, in the form of Bonjour, and that's not going to change. Like NAT-PMP it's an IETF standard and, for all the complaints otherwise, Apple is actually a pretty standards compliant company.

    The two obvious (IMHO) missing features (which could both be added with software, at least to some extent) are QoS and transparent caching (most easily by running squid on the device and having it store the cache on any attached storage --- stick in an 8GB USB flash drive if you have nothing better). I continue to think that the rumors regarding base stations being part of iCloud will likely prove true in the long run --- it's to Apple's obvious advantage to be able to offload as much work to base stations as possible via transparent caching.

    I also have no idea what the complaint about "forgetting your port forwardings" refers to. I used a 3rd gen extreme for years, and switch to a 4th gen about six months ago, and I have NEVER had my port forwardings forgotten or borked in any way.

    Personally if someone is going to complain, the real item to complain about is the USB performance which was so crappy it was unbelievable in the 3rd gen, and appears unimproved even today. Come on, Apple --- even if the Marvell chip is garbage, spend the extra buck and buy a decent 3rd party USB controller. I think the best we can hope for is that the 6th gen device uses an upgraded Marvell chip with a USB3 controller that is lousy by the standards of USB3, but gives at least say 60MB/s.
    Reply

Log in

Don't have an account? Sign up now