I remember a call from Apple PR in October 2000. They wanted me to test their wireless AirPort equipment, and would loan me a spaceship-shaped base station and the associated plug-in card required for my Mac. I was dubious. I’d tested and been disappointed by previous “wireless” (infrared) technologies, and hadn’t heard great things about an earlier, slower version of what was being called Wi-Fi.
Nevertheless, I told Apple I’d take a look. I was blown away by the consistency and performance. And thus began a 16-year-so-far love affair with Wi-Fi and associated technologies, and which led to a blog I wrote for a decade about Wi-Fi.
Now, according to reports that Apple never confirmed, Apple’s Wi-Fi road may be at an end. While it will still include the latest and greatest Wi-Fi technology in the radio systems embedded in its computers, mobile devices, and the Apple TV, it will apparently no longer release new versions of its base stations.
This comes as little surprise. As with other peripherals, like monitors, Apple has opted to exit markets that no longer offer enough exclusive advantages to its hardware owners, and in which it can’t have the high margins it prefers due to competition and commoditization. Apple last updated the AirPort Extreme and Time Capsule models internals in 2013 for the 802.11ac standard; the compact AirPort Express remains stuck in 2012.
(Apple used to label Wi-Fi “AirPort” in OS X and across all its documentation. A few years ago, it shifted to using Wi-Fi everywhere, except in the names of two base stations, the AirPort Extreme and AirPort Express, and in its administration app, AirPort Utility.)
If you’re an all- or mostly Apple household and it’s already full of Apple base stations, you may be concerned about pivoting away and losing features you rely on, or creating a mixed network of Apple and non-Apple routers. This article will help provide guidance on what features Apple allocated exclusively to its base stations, and what kind of options you have to supplement or replace an AirPort-centric home network.
Apple’s proprietary base station features
From Apple’s introduction of the original AirPort until just a few years ago, its base stations were often the best on the market, even if sometimes the most expensive for the set of features. However, for Mac users in particular, the gateways had Apple-specific features you couldn’t get elsewhere.
At one point it included:
- AirPlay audio passthrough (AirPort Express only)
- Easy printer networking
- Network-attached storage (NAS) with AFP (Apple Filing Protocol) and SMB support
- Base station to base station networking (via Wireless Distribution System or WDS)
- Internet access to base station configuration and NAS drives via Back to My Mac
- A network punch-through protocol called NAT-PMP for enabling remote access for applications, like games and servers
- AirPort Utility’s GUI interface
- Automated notification of firmware updates
- Time Machine support built into Time Capsule
Other features found in Apple’s base stations are easy to find in other routers:
- DHCP assignment, offering a permanent local network address to a device on the network
- Separate network names for 2.4GHz and 5GHz Wi-Fi networks
- Guest networking (access to a segregated network for guests)
- Timed and device-based access control
Each of Apple’s advantages has slipped away over the years:
AirPlay audio passthrough. This remains a unique feature of the AirPort Express, which features an S/PDIF-compatible (Sony/Philips Digital Interface Format) analog/digital combination 3.5mm port. Plug in a regular analog cable, and you get analog out. Use a Mini TOSlink cable, and it carries digital information over an optical link to an S/PDIF port in a receiver. Apple TV models used to include a similar port, which was removed in the fourth-generation model. (I wrote an article about extracting the audio from the newest Apple TV in Sept. 2015, and reviewed a high-end HDMI audio splitter/passthrough device about a year ago.) Some receivers and other devices include AirPlay, and you can use Rogue Amoeba’s Airfoil to create AirPlay and similar destinations. (See “The 10 must-have utilities for macOS Sierra,” for more on Airfoil.)
Printer networking. Even quite inexpensive printers now include Wi-Fi networking, allowing a completely cable-free connection. And most Wi-Fi routers include USB-based printer support that’s compatible with macOS (although not always with iOS).
Network-attached storage. Apple’s attached drive support used to be a big deal when OS X was oriented around AFP, and it was difficult to create networked fileservers except Mac OS X Server or personal filesharing in regular OS X. Apple shifted heavily to SMB for network filesharing, which makes it easier to work with Windows-compatible servers. Standalone NAS drives cam be purchased at all sorts of price points. Cloud-based network access reduces the need for network servers. And streaming and on-demand services have replaced some of the need for fileservers that mostly held video. If you still need a router-attached hard drive, most AirPort competitors offer USB-shared drives via SMB.
Base station to base station networking. A decade ago, I used to tout this feature as a great way to work around obstructions like walls and ceilings, and while the WDS that Apple used to make it work was an industry standard, only Apple seemed to have mastered it. But it became less and less reliable over time, even as data rates went up by leaps and bounds. I stopped recommending wireless base station interconnection about four or five years ago, and suggest gigabit ethernet, which can required running cable, or powerline networking, which works through unmodified electrical outlets.
Remote configuration and drive access. Back to My Mac (BtMM) was once a great feature, especially for people with Macs in multiple locations. However, it’s not reliable and not robust, where other remote access tools (like TeamViewer) work with aplomb. It’s rare you’d need to change your base station’s configuration outside of its LAN, and remote-drive access can be accomplished in a lot of other ways, including with many standalone NAS devices. Worst of all, an update to the AirPort firmware several months ago introduced a problem with BtMM in base stations. The feature requires an iCloud account to function, and I and many users had our base stations work in a semi-useless mode until we removed the iCloud account from the base station’s configuration. From some users’ accounts, the problem remains.
Network punchthrough. NAT-PMP has the long expansion to Network Address Translation Port Mapping Protocol. While Apple developed it (in 2005), it wasn’t proprietary: it was submitted as a standard. However, it was barely picked up by any other party. Instead, the computer industry as a whole went for UPnP (Universal Plug and Play).
AirPort Utility. Apple has long had a leg up by offering a friendly face for Wi-Fi router configuration, especially compared with the Web-based administrative frontends for most other devices. Even as Apple added an iOS version of AirPort Utility, it dropped updates for the Windows flavor, locking users into configuring only from Apple hardware. More recently, many router makers (discussed below) have built new Wi-Fi systems around even simpler-to-use apps.
Automatic firmware updates. This remains a big divide between Apple’s base stations and the direct routing competition. Very few routers notify you when firmware updates appear, and I can’t find any that even let you sign up for a mailing list specific to your router. Apple provides alerts in macOS, and it’s a one-click operation to download and install. More expensive multi-device “mesh” systems discussed later automatically push new software to routers or keep most of the intelligence in the cloud.
Time Capsule. When Apple first released the Time Capsule base station, it seemed like a nifty portmanteau, packing two great features into one box at an affordable price. Over time, Apple boosted capacity substantially. But I haven’t recommended the Time Capsule for years, because the integral drive can’t be removed or managed. If Time Machine backup goes awry in a Time Capsule, your only option is to wipe the entire drive; if the Time Capsule dies, you have to crack open a case not intended to be open, extract the drive, and put it in another enclosure. While I don’t recommend Time Machine by itself, either, using a drive attached to a Mac for networked backups gives you much better alternatives. Or you might already be using a cloud-based backup service.
If you still rely on some of the above features, notably printer and drive sharing, you don’t have to give them up, though you might have to reconfigure a device or sort out the best way to make changes. And unless you plan to dump all your working Apple base stations, you can always keep one or more running in a network for AirPlay audio streaming or printer/drive support if you still need it.
Your router choices can come down to whether you want to sweep everything out of the house and start fresh, or you’re looking to replace or extend an existing network. The best cheap routers have effectively the same features and networking philosophy as the Apple base stations. The most expensive routers are sold as sets of two or usually more, which connect automatically among each other using mesh networking, a much more powerful and workable alternative to the WDS on which Apple relies.
This is where your budget has to kept in mind: it’s easy to drop several hundred dollars on a great, new, multi-router Wi-Fi solution that fills every nook and cranny in a house and never needs to be poked. But you can also spend as little as $100 to $200 for two to four routers that could work nearly or completely as well, but require a longer learning curve to configure, plus careful work in placing to get coverage just right.
If you’re looking to just replace a single base station or extend an existing network, your best bet is to find a high-quality AirPort-like router, and grin and bear the configuration part. Several simultaneous dual-band 802.11ac routers can fit the bill and most cost half of the AirPort Extreme.
For a house or apartment that’s a single floor and doesn’t have building materials that block Wi-Fi, you may be able to replace a network of two or three Apple routers with a single new unit.
The TP-Link Archer C7 (version 2 or 3) remains the replacement option that’s easiest to recommend. At under $90 (street price), it duplicates all of an Extreme’s features and has many others. I purchased one over a year ago to replace a dead AirPort Extreme, and despite the amount of details in its administrative interface, it’s required less tweaking and fewer reboots than any AirPort router I’ve owned. It has many options I’ve never touched, including settings to throttle bandwidth to a guest network and limit access to times of day and days of the week. (Just don’t buy a C7 v1, and return it if you receive this outdated model.)
Updating the firmware is a minor challenge. In preparing this article, I discovered new firmware was available. While it’s a simple download, the release noted mention in passing that your configuration will be wiped out unless you back it up and restore it. This should have been in giant flashing letters at the top. I caught this note, downloaded the current configuration, installed the firmware, and restored my settings. (We reviewed the Archer C8, which is more expensive and I don’t find is as good a fit for an AirPort replacement as the C7.)
The Netgear R6400 ($110) is a little more expensive, but apparently somewhat simpler to configure, which can be a plus. (If you purchase this router, make sure and immediately apply a security update from Netgear if it’s not installed in the version you received.)
Another option that we haven’t tested yet, and which is ostensibly powerful enough to cover a large home all by its lonesome if placed in just the right spot, is the Netgear Nighthawk X10 AD7200. It’s a whopping $450, but supports the very latest 802.11ac standards that allow better throughput with mobile devices. It has a Plex Media Server built in for streaming media from an attached drive, and offer super high-speed connections for NAS devices. It’s also futureproofed with 802.11ad, a very short-range, multi-Gbps in-room wireless standard coming to TV sets and other media devices.
Mesh is the new hotness
The alternative to the AirPort-style routers, both cheap and expensive, is a mesh networking system. Mesh networks don’t require configuration on each device to get them to find each other, and they don’t require an ethernet drop. Rather, mesh devices self-configure, making the optimum connection for routing data among themselves. The best systems help you place routers for best performance around your house or office, too.
While there’s an industry standard for mesh networking, it’s not used by the many systems in and entering the market. Rather, each relies on proprietary technology and approaches for intra-device connections, while still beaming out standard-compliant Wi-Fi to devices that want to connect to the network.
The proprietary nature of these systems, many of which come from startup companies, coupled with a cloud-brain component in several cases that drives how they work mean you could wind up high and dry with a partially or non-functioning system if the company that makes it goes out of business or shifts direction, or an established maker decides to end-of-life a product line. The Internet of Things (IoT) is littered with such examples already, and being an early adopter here means paying a premium to boot.
With all that in mind, mesh networking Wi-Fi ecosystems really do seem to solve the major gripes of whole-house or small-office coverage. You don’t have to configure each unit to work together, you’re given assistance (sometimes visual) in where to place each base station, and you don’t need to install or run additional cables or use powerline adapters. If you decide you need more coverage (or, in some cases, better throughput), you can just add more units, and the system reconfigures itself to accommodate them. It can make multi-base station Wi-Fi just as easy as plugging into an invisibile ethernet jack, long the technology’s promise.
Most mesh system rely entirely on an iOS (and often Android) smartphone app. You can’t configure via a desktop or Web app. That shouldn’t be a limitation for most people. Some also work poorly if the Internet is erratic or drops, whereas a less-sophisticated set of routers would still leave you with a wireless LAN.
Several well-reviewed systems are on the market
- Eero, $199 for one, $455 for three. Eero is product-testing site The Wirecutter’s runner-up pick.
- Google WiFi (not to be confused with Google OnHub), $129 for one or $299 for three. TechHive’s review found that “it’s super-easy to install and it delivers very good performance across the board.”
- Linksys Velop, $200 for one or $400 for three. Our reviewer says it’s “one of the best mesh networks we’ve tested so far.”
- Luma, $149 for one, $325 for three.
- Netgear Orbi is a $400 two-device system with a dedicated radio system to beam data directly between a broadband-connected and satellite Wi-Fi router. The Orbi gets the nod from The Wirecutter as its best-tested mesh system.
Right now, picking among these systems will come down to budget, familiarity, and word of mouth backed by our and others’ reviews. If I were in the market at this moment, I’d want to find friends with a system already installed to see how configuration and coverage works, and get their first-hand experience with that and reliability.
I also expect with this much competition, we should see some dramatic drops in pricing in the new year from the most expensive, and $250 to $300 will probably become the settled point for a three-unit bundle purchased at once.
With Apple having fallen well behind in Wi-Fi innovation and potentially never updating its line-up before, you’ve got many options to supplement, replace, and overhaul your network. Mesh networking is extremely appealing, but it’s also a leap of faith for systems that rely on the cloud: what works today may have an unknown expiration date on how long it functions in the future.
This story, "How to choose the best Wi-Fi replacement for your Apple AirPort routers " was originally published by Macworld.