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Airport – Apple's name for its 802.11 wireless technology (that everyone else just calls WiFi)  – works pretty well. Apple's routers can be a bit pricey, though, so I don't always recommend them to people. Still, if you're new at setting up WiFi, the Apple routers are very easy to set up in a secure fashion.

I used to have an older Airport Express (the small unit) and an even older, saucer-shaped Airport Extreme, running as access points (not as my internet router) on my network. Why two?

Originally, I an an Airport Express that I was using as an access point and for AirTunes. For those of you unfamiliar with the Airport Express, it is a small wireless router that looks like this:

AExpress

The small hole at the bottom-right is an audio out port that can be uses with a normal 3.5" audio plug or an optical plug for digital sound. You can play music from a copy of iTunes running on a computer elsewhere on your local network. So mine was doing both these duties, but with the Express near my sound system, the other half of the house was getting poor WiFi reception.

So I picked up an Airport Extreme. They used to look like this:

AExtremeOld

One reason I bought the Extreme was because it supported an external antenna. I bought one that helped increase the coverage over the built-in antenna, and between the two of them, these Airports covered my whole house (including the basement) pretty well.

At least, they did until a month or so ago. Both of the units started flaking out – they'd look like they were OK based on the lights on them, but they wouldn't show up in Airport Utility unless you powered them down and up, and nothing could connect to them. They didn't go at the same time, but it did get annoying after a while – they only seemed to be good for 5-7 days each before needing a restart. They used to run for months at a time without an issue.

So I decided it was time to replace them. I was waiting for Apple's "sale" on the day after Thanksgiving to pick up a new Extreme and Express.  Now, I no longer needed the Express for the AirTunes capability, as I added an AppleTV near my sound system (which is also hooked to the TV). I just needed coverage over that half of the house.

Fortunately, I mentioned my problem to Terry White beforehand. He mentioned he was buying a couple of new Airport Extremes and was retiring a couple of the previous model (which was still much newer than my old saucer-shaped model). Even though it is one generation back, this newer Extreme supports 802.11n, the latest and fasted standard (along with a, b, and g). So I picked up one of these older units from him and replaced the old Extreme.

Then the older Express flipped out again, and I unplugged it. Rather than plug it back in right away, I decided to see what kind of signal strength I was getting from the new Extreme. Even with just the internal antenna (the new Extreme doesn't support an external) I was getting great coverage over the whole house! 

This has worked out great, as I now don't need to buy an Express for the front of the house. Also, I soon after needed that Ethernet connection that the Express had been using for another device, and the switch was otherwise full (no, you don't get to ask how big the switch is or just how many things I have wired up by the TV – I may need that for a future article!)

So if you have an older access point – or multiples – and are still having problems with reception, you might want to consider the newer Airport Extreme. Again, it's not cheap – Apple lists it at $179 – but it does work well. Setup was very fast too – when it cam up, Airport Utility had my saved-off config from the old Extreme, and asked me if I wanted to use that config on the new Extreme! So I didn't even have to go through the setup routine (not that it's hard). Even if you're starting from scratch, the Utility is very easy to use and walks you through setting up a secure network. So for you users out there who don't think you can set up a secure wireless network, Airport may be a good choice. If you're a more technical user, you can probably get another brand for less that lets you do more.

I will say that I set up a D-Link for someone recently, and it had a pretty easy-to-use setup routine – for Windows, at least. I don't know if they have the same thing for Macs. So other manufacturers are trying to make it easier to set up a secure wireless network too.

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  • Brian M

    The Airport Extremes have one of the strongest antenna power ratings on regular consumer wireless routers…
    D-Link’s 2 main “g” models have 13 & 15 dBa, Linksys WRT main model has 18 dBa, and the Airport Extreme has 20 dBa

    I’ve used a couple Airport Extremes now to provide total coverage for different customers recently where other routers were leaving one or more rooms with weak/no wireless.

  • I’m stoked. Just this morning I opened a b-day present from my wife and it was the Airport Extreme. I’ve been fussing with a many-year-old D-Link DI-614+ along with a D-something-else and two omni-directional antennae to get signal to my whole house. I haven’t set it up of course since I had to get into the office, but I’m anticipating that it will 1) be easier to configure, 2) have more reliable signal, 3) be waaaay faster than 802.11b, and 4) have an easier time with all the variety of devices I plug in or wirelessly connect with (laptops, desktops, iphones, ipods, NetGear Ready-NAS, wireless printers, etc).

    Not that it particularly adds much to the well written article above, but I had to share my excitement somewhere! 🙂

    Up next, I’m excited about the Apple TV. It’s still a ways out before we go that direction, but it seems like it would be a cool addition to the tech-lovers home.

    -cb