Apple’s AirPort wireless routers have changed form factors a handful of times over the past decade, shifting from classic iMac-matching pod-like shapes to rounded rectangles and squares. This week, Apple introduced two new AirPort routers: the 802.11ac AirPort Extreme ($199) and renamed AirPort Time Capsule ($299-$399). Both feature the same 3.85” square footprint and white plastic design of last year’s AirPort Express, but now stand 6.6” tall versus the 0.85” Express. Why do they look like fancy little milk cartons? Apple says that the new set of six antennas needed extra space to disperse their wireless signals. More details and hands-on photos are now included here.
While both of the new AirPort models are backwards-compatible with 802.11a/b/g/n devices, they were built specifically to offer serious performance improvements, particularly when used with new 802.11ac computers and devices. Within close distances of the base station, Wi-Fi speeds can reach up to 1.3Gbps—roughly three times 802.11n’s peak—with wider 80MHz channels to enable devices to take greater advantage of the bandwidth. A new beamforming feature enables each AirPort to target its signal to 802.11ac devices, locating them on the network and providing extra power to them. Dual-band support is retained to create 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks, with three antennas dedicated to each band. In initial testing with 802.11n devices, including a 2011-vintage iMac that has long experienced major 802.11n wireless connectivity problems with prior Apple routers, the new AirPort appeared to be able to maintain a consistent connection without any issues.
One big change in this year’s models is Apple’s decision to unify the formerly different AirPort Extreme and Time Capsule designs within a single sized shell. Each has the same three Gigabit Ethernet LAN ports on the back, plus one printer/hard drive-compatible USB 2 port, one incoming WAN port for connection to your cable modem, plus the same long gray power cord. The differences are solely in price and internal storage: the $199 AirPort Extreme has no hard drive—there’s a recess inside the same-sized enclosure—while the $299 AirPort Time Capsule has a 2TB drive built-in, and a $399 model has a 3TB drive. While Apple no longer makes “server-grade” claims about the drives, each can currently be used for automated Time Machine backups from OS X, with zero configuration work beyond the initial naming and passwording of the router, then selection of the drive within Time Machine settings. We’ll have to see how the new AirPorts perform with 802.11ac products, but we’re already very pleased with the performance we’re seeing from older devices.