How To Choose The Best Wi-Fi Replacement For Your Apple Airport Routers
Macworld|Macworld March 2017

Amid uncertainty about Apple’s plans for its Wi-Fi routers, what other options work best for Mac, iPhone, and iPad owners?

Glenn Fleishman

I remember a call from Apple PR in October 2000. The company wanted me to test its 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 WiFi and associated technologies, and which led toa blog (wifinetnews.com) I wrote for a decade about Wi-Fi.

Now, according to reports that Apple never confirmed, Apple’s Wi-Fi road maybe at an end. While it will still include the latest and greatest WiFi 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 TimeCapsule models internals in 2013 for the802.11ac 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 pass through (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 pass through. 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. AppleTV models used to include a similar port,which was removed in the fourth-generation model. (I wrote an article about extracting the audio go.macworld.com/atvaudio from the newest Apple TV in September 2015, and reviewed a high-end HDMI audio splitter/pass through devicego.macworld.com/kanexatv about a year ago.) Some receivers and other devices include AirPlay, and you can use RogueAmoeba’s Airfoil to create AirPlay and similar destinations. (See “The 10 must have utilities for macOS Sierra,”go.macworld.com/sierrautil, for more on Airfoil.)

Printer networking. Even quite inexpensive printers now include Wi-Fi networking,allowing a completely cablefree connection. And most Wi-Fi routers include USB-based printer support that’s compatible with macOS (although notalways with iOS).

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