Conclusion and Final Thoughts

We’ve gone into extreme detail about the Time Capsule and Airport Extreme updates. I originally intended to have this posted with a hint of irony on WiFi day (8.02.11) but instead ended up spending that special day doing more testing and running even more instances of Iperf to make sure our numbers were solid. What’s changed between both previous generations is simple—the Time Capsule gets an official 3TB option, and both the Time Capsule and Airport Extreme now have a much more powerful, modern, and better-performing BCM4331 based WiFi stack.

The result of the move from Marvell to Broadcom is twofold. First, performance and range is definitely better thanks to more transmit power and the improved sensitivity afforded by newer generation chipsets. Second, the combination of lots of Broadcom in Apple’s hardware lineup (from the iPhone, iPad, and MacBooks, to iMac and Mac Mini) with Broadcom in the access point likely allows for the use of frame bursting or some other packet aggregation technique that speeds things up in some scenarios. It’s another example of how having that complete hardware control can in fact result in some benefit—in this case, faster WiFi.

Before this update, there were so many rumors about both iOS based Airport products, that the Time Capsule would cache software updates locally, and that the whole thing would somehow tie into Apple's iCloud solution. None of that exists right now, and it's looking like (for now) the rumor mill has some egg on its face. I waited patiently for Lion to launch and half expected things to turn on and render half of the review null; instead that day came and went without much change at all. As of this writing, the core functionality of the Airport line remains the same as it was before—sans any iCloud/iOS magic/local update caching.

There’s a stigma that Apple gear is more expensive, and for the 3TB Time Capsule that may be the case, but the Airport Extreme is actually right near where it should be. Take for comparison the Linksys E4200, which is a 2x3:2 device on 2.4GHz, and 3x3:3 on 5GHz, and also Broadcom based. That device runs for $179.99 and features similar functionality including a USB 2.0 port for sharing devices. At $179.00, the Airport Extreme offers full 3x3:3 on both 2.4 and 5GHz, albeit the E4200 does have considerably more Tx power, which we'll investigate in a forthcoming article.

I guess the reason that I personally use an Airport Extreme (in conjunction with another device for NAT) is that it's really one of a small number of 802.11n dual-band APs I've tried that actually works without locking up, becoming unstable periodically, dropping the session from overheating when being pushed to 100% for hours, or requiring a daily reboot. There are just so many other consumer level 802.11n APs that either fall short or are incredibly frustrating and unreliable. Thus far, I've been using an Airport Extreme Gen 5 and Time Capsule Gen 4 as my primary AP with over 12 devices attached to each one for the greater part of a month without a single instability. It's that kind of stability that really sells it for me, even with 3x3:3 out of the picture.

That kind of sums up WiFi in general—ideally, it should work and be something transparent to the user instead of a constant consideration. I wager the vast majority of Airport Extreme and Time Capsule owners have no idea what 3x3:3 is or how to even check their physical link rate, and for the most part that's a testament to how stable these devices are. Maybe that's the reason why Apple doesn't make a super huge note about changes like markedly improving their WLAN connectivity. One thing is for certain, Apple's wireless division is either playing it incredibly cool, or honestly not getting the credit it deserves.

Airport Utility and Networking Functions
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  • ThomasA - Saturday, August 06, 2011 - link

    Yes, I read of MRT/Cacti. Also looked into replacing AE with a Netgear WNDR4000 that offers the data usage meter. I'd prefer the Apple, but must look ahead. Too bad. Reply
  • Jacob Marley - Saturday, August 06, 2011 - link

    On page 3...
    "Marvell 88E6350R 7 port GigE switch, with 5 physical interfaces, all of which support up to 10 KByte jumbo frames."

    So the hardware supports jumbo frames, but does the software?

    I have yet to find a home router that supports and enables jumbo frames at the switch level.

    Jumbo frames make no difference for internet bound traffic but it seems to make a big difference for LAN based large data transfers.
    Reply
  • jay2901 - Saturday, August 06, 2011 - link

    brian,

    why do you use a separate box for nat? better firewall? curious as to what that device is...

    thanks.
    Reply
  • Brian Klug - Sunday, August 07, 2011 - link

    I prefer the wealth of configuration options that going that route provides. Specifically software like Tomato, DD-WRT, or if you're really feeling daring, a FreeBSD based solution with a PHP wrapper like m0n0wall or pfSense.

    Just a ton more options for firewall, reporting, bandwidth tracking, QoS, e.t.c.

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

    Use D-link, or if you really have to Netgear.. Although only D-link I know for sure makes 5/2.4ghz N routers that never EVER have to reset and run for years. Netgear I've only seen that sort of reliability with their Wireless G routers

    Linksys is rotten filthy garbage just like everything else Cisco makes, avoid it. They've not made a single wireless router in the past 2 years that doesn't shit itself and need a reset nearly every day.

    -Your helpful networking tech.
    Reply
  • thingi - Sunday, August 07, 2011 - link

    Apple infuriate me sometimes. It would appear that the 'new' time capsule still can't join a wireless network without it's Ethernet ports becoming being disabled if nothing has changed apart from the wifi card :-(

    My iPhone is my only source of net connection which is 80Gb (yes thats eight-zero gigabytes) of 'fair usage' per month which is oodles for a 3G connection so here's what I want to do:-

    'iPhone Personal Hotspot' > Time Capsule > Airport Express (wifi-to-eth) > xbox

    The trouble is that when a time capsule joins a network it's ethernet ports fall asleep. So instead I have to do the following:-

    'iPhone Personal Hotspot' > Airport Express (wfi-to-eth) > Time Capsule > 2nd Airport Express (wfi-to-eth) > xbox.

    The really stupid thing is that a Time Capsule is more powerful piece of network equipment than an airport express, there is no reason why the ethernet ports should fall asleep just because Apple have deemed that users must connect a Time Capsule directly with an iPhone personal hotspot without crippling it.

    The other slightly annoying thing about this setup is that Apple in their infinite wisdom have deemed to force iPhone personal hotspots to set up a 'g' connection instead of an 'n' one (ok it would still be an 2.4Ghz due to the iPhone radio but that would be better than being stuck at 'g' for no good reason in a totally 'g' saturated neighbourhood!

    thingi
    Reply
  • repoman27 - Monday, August 08, 2011 - link

    When you tell an AirPort Express / Extreme or Time Capsule to "Join a wireless network" it becomes a client on that network and ceases to perform as a router. This is really only useful to share attached USB or audio devices wirelessly.

    When you enable Personal Hotspot on an iPhone 4, it creates a wireless network (802.11n (b/g compatible), 2.4 GHz band, single spatial stream, WPA encryption) and provides DHCP and NAT to share your cellular internet connection. 802.11n connections are actually possible according to this article: http://www.anandtech.com/show/4163/verizon-iphone-... but if you're in a neighborhood where 2.4 GHz is saturated, as many are, there's not much you can do about it. Not many phones have 5 GHz WiFi radios these days.

    If you just want to provide an internet connection for your Xbox, the simplest solution is to buy a WiFi adapter for it and configure that to connect to your iPhone's Personal Hotspot. In order to bridge your Personal Hotspot to your wired network, you would have to set your Time Capsule's Internet Connection: Connection Sharing setting to "Off (Bridge Mode)", set the Wireless: Wireless Mode setting to "Extend a wireless network", and then choose your Personal Hotspot as the network to extend. For various reasons, I'm going to guess that this will never work though. Besides, the iPhone Personal Hotspot only supports a maximum of 3 (GSM models) or 5 (CDMA models) clients via WiFi, so you can't really have much else on your LAN unless you put it behind yet another router.

    It might be easier to tether your iPhone via USB to a Mac or PC, turn on internet connection sharing over the ethernet adapter, and then connect that to a Time Capsule set to bridge mode.
    Reply
  • ginghus_khan2000 - Sunday, August 07, 2011 - link

    I was a little surprised you didn't test the wifi and hard drives as a system. I'm sure the wifi is the limiting protocol here but there were a few spots where wifi would be faster than the hard drives. Reply
  • stephenbrooks - Sunday, August 07, 2011 - link

    Can you stack the two Airport Extremes on their side and put the Time Capsule across the top? Reply
  • Brian Klug - Sunday, August 07, 2011 - link

    Wow, that's an awesome idea. I'm going to see if I can set it up ;)

    -Brian
    Reply

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