Airport Extreme Base Station – Should You Upgrade?

One of the major advantages of staying within the Apple Ecosystem is that everything “just works”, and that certainly applies to the Airport Extreme Base Station and the Airport Utility that comes with every Mac. But while we all think about when we want to upgrade our computers and our phones, we tend to let the network hardware that sits on our shelf or in our closets grow old, and because they continue to work, they must be performing properly. But as we’re about to show you, that may not always be the case.

A Brief History of Wi-Fi

To really understand if, or maybe better said, why you should consider upgrading your network hardware, you need to understand how wireless Internet access has evolved over the years.

In the early days of remote computer access in our homes, dial-up service using telephone modems was the standard and were measured in baud rates. The earliest modems were rated for 9600 baud which represents about 0.0096 megabits per second (“Mbps”). A megabit is equal to one million bits. Even “high speed” modems were only rated for 14,400 baud which represents about 0.0144Mbps.

In 1985, the Federal Communication Commission released three bands of the radio spectrum now used for nearly all wireless communication: 900 MHz, 2.4 GHz, and 5 GHz. This new spectrum would eventually become the data highway for the 802.11 protocol which we refer to today as Wi-Fi.

The first versions of 802.11 was released in the early 1990s. It had a maximum data transfer rate of 2 Mbps, which, when compared to the dial-up speeds was considerably faster but which paled in comparison to what was yet to come.

The 802.11 Alphabet

In 1999, two new versions of the 802.11 protocol were released, known as 802.11a and 802.11b.

The 802.11a protocol supported data transmission up to 54 Mbps, but was designed for much shorter ranges at a much higher cost to produce and maintain. The 802.11b protocol had a much lower cost and much longer range than 802.11a, but worked at a much slower speed, maxing out at 11 Mbps. The lower cost was certainly an attractive advantage to both equipment manufacturers and the end consumer and 802.11b quickly became the preferred version.

Once the industry settled on a standard it needed to develop a market and to do that, needed computer industry support. It found that support from Steve Jobs and Apple Computer. Apple proposed to one of the major supporters of 802.11b, Lucent Technologies, that if it could make a wireless adapter for under $100, Apple would incorporate a Wi-Fi slot into all its laptops. Lucent delivered, and in July 1999 Apple introduced Wi-Fi as an option under the brand name Airport and offered an “Airport Card” as an option on its new iBook computers. It also introduced a network router device called an Airport Base Station, to transmit he wireless internet signal to the Airport card. With that, the Wi-Fi revolution was born.

The next major update came in 2003 with the introduction of 802.11g. This new version combined the best of the 802.11a and 802.11b standards. It operated at a maximum transfer rate of 54 Mbps found in 802.11a while providing the longer range and lower costs of 802.11b. In recognition of this much faster product line, Apple updated the Airport base Station rebranded their offerings to “Airport Extreme”.

The next major enhancement to Wi-Fi came in September 2009 with the introduction of 802.11n, sometimes called Wireless-N. There is some debate about exactly how fast 802.11n is. While some configurations claim transfer rates as high as 600 Mbps, more common configurations produce data transfer rates closer to 300 Mbps. Regardless of which one is right, 802.11n provided a huge improvement in speed and stability. In addition, the new protocol also allowed data to be transmitted on both the standard 2.4GHz frequency as well as the less populated 5GHz which led to a stronger signal and less interruption. In addition to the increase in speed, Apple made several improvements to its Airport Extreme Base Station, which by now included the ability to connect a printer for network use, external hard drives for network data sharing and added a smaller Airport Express router which supported Air Tunes (now known as AirPlay), as a way to stream music wirelessly across your network. Apple also started to offer Airport Extreme units with built-in hard drives which supported data storage and sharing across the network and were sold under the name Time Capsule.

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The next, and current version of W-Fi is known as, 802.11ac. This offered another big improvement in Wi-Fi service with the advancements in dual-band technology. Using multiple antenna built into the router, data can now be transmitted across both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands at the same time. This allows for transmission rates up to 1300 Mbps with extended ranges and nearly uninterrupted transmission. This also led to additional improvements like support for Time Machine back-ups over the network, and a new vertical design of the Airport Extreme and Time Capsule units.

Over the years, Apple improved the Airport Card to correspond to the advances made in the 802.11 protocol. In fact, by 2005, Wi-Fi had become so common that Apple discontinued the optional Airport Card and now included Airport as a standard feature, not only in their portable machines, but in every Mac sold.

Airport Extreme Base Station – What to Buy

For anyone buying their first Mac, whether a desktop or laptop, iPhone 6 and above or most current iPads, they all support the 802.11ac standard. Those that don’t will at least support the 802.11n standard. If you up setting up your first Wi-Fi network, there isn’t really much to think about. The current Airport Extreme Base Station is the hands down favorite.

Although Wi-Fi has improved exponentially over the years, the price of the hardware hasn’t increased all that much. In typical Apple fashion, the price of the Airport Extreme Base Station has remained fairly consistent over the years, despite the huge improvement in performance. And while there are less expensive routers on the market, the ease of setting up an Airport Extreme Base Station makes the slightly higher cost well worth it. In addition, the current 802.11ac Airport Extreme Base Station is backward compatible to the a,b,g and n standards, so there is really no reason not to buy the latest and greatest.

But what about everybody else? If you already have an older model Airport Extreme Base Station and you are upgrading your computer, do you really need to upgrade the Wi-Fi router? What about those of us that have older computers that don’t support the 802.11ac standard, is there any point in upgrading the router if your computer can’t take advantage of the latest technology.

We’ll check out those questions in Part 2 of our series. We were surprised at what we found and we think you will be too.

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