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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  • Amia - Wednesday, August 17, 2011 - link

    Under 5g my Mac air is getting 270mbps but my another laptop which used to get 300mbps using my previous router can only have 150mbps. Maybe just like Mac air apple doesn't want you to use dual band (40mhz) under 2.4ghz Reply
  • MobiusStrip - Wednesday, August 17, 2011 - link

    It would be nice to see a comparison of Airport with other brands of wireless routers. Reply
  • Flachr - Friday, August 19, 2011 - link

    I noticed that the 5g Extreme's country field in the airport utiliy is limited to very few countries while all my previous TC's had a long list of countries to choose from.
    Is Apple now tailoring devices to regions? Is there a way to get the longer list of countries back to select from?
    Reply
  • IdBuRnS - Monday, August 22, 2011 - link

    I have been using my Airport Extreme (MD031LL/A) for about a week and a half now and I'm loving it. It replaced an old Netgear G router so it's like night and day between the two when it comes to streaming wirelessly.

    Since I have FiOS I only use it as an AP (FiOS router is in my wiring closet in my garage which puts it out of range for all my devices) but so far I couldn't be happier.
    Reply
  • Jack iCaseReview - Friday, August 26, 2011 - link

    I don't think the AirportExtreme will ever be a good solution for massive network backups. For small backups it great, but anything too big, and it somewhat slow....

    Jack
    editor - www.iCaseReview.com
    Reply
  • MarsMSJ - Sunday, September 04, 2011 - link

    I had bought an E4200 to replace a WRT310N that started acting up (going unresponsive.) I had issues where I would get abysmal download speeds on wired. I moved my cable modem to as few splits as possible and that resolved most of the issue (though I argue that my speeds were fast for a year until 2-3 weeks ago and the split had nothing to do with it. Now I get 8-12 where as I had 12-15 for though it's better then the .5 I was getting.)

    Anyway I noticed right away that when connecting the E4200 my speeds are cut by a 1/2 in comparison to connecting directly to the modem. I upgraded to the latest firmware which not only did not fixed the issue, but broke other features of this router (media server does not work among other things.) Cisco is testing new firmware that won't be available until the end of September if everything goes well.

    I found this out because I got an the new Airport Extreme Gen 5 for my side of the house recently. I got curious and switched out the new AE and saw that my speeds were as fast as connected directly to the modem. I spent my Saturday night testing these both by themselves and my notebook and confirmed the E4200 is cutting internet speeds in half. When I hooked everything up the speeds were similar to when I was the only device connected to it.

    Right now I have the AE Gen 5 connected to the modem on the other side of the house while the old WRT310 is on my side with my devices wired in (no wireless on my side for the moment.) Wired into the WRT310 which is wired to the AE Gen 5 (we have a 100 foot cable that runs outside along the roof) and using speedtest.net (used them and the same server for all testing) I get 7-9 Mbps compared to the 2-4 on the E4200.

    Something is definitely wrong and luckily I got the E4200 at Best Buy on sale (130USD though it's back up to 180) and they have a 45 day return policy for Reward Zone Silver members (Dad bought a mac book pro from them thus spent enough to qualify.) I will be returning it and maybe getting another AE Gen 5 or just waiting it out to see if the new firmware fixes the E4200 download/upload speed issue. (I can live without wireless in my room for month.) If you're debating, now is not the time to buy an E4200.
    Reply
  • milan03 - Saturday, September 17, 2011 - link

    You can totally share a printer using Airport Express. I've been doing it since the 4th Gen. Reply
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