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Your Wi-Fi router is the unsung hero in your computer setup. It’s probably the thing you think about the least -- and in many ways it’s the most important link in your electronic chain. After all, your router is what keeps your iMac, MacBook, iPhone, and iPad connected to the internet, not to mention all the other stuff you’ve got sipping bits, like game consoles, TiVo boxes, and internet radios. Apple’s latest AirPort Extreme and Time Capsule are essentially minor updates, but if you’re a Mac user in need of a new router, both are extremely good options.
At 179 bucks, the AirPort Extreme is a bit spendy for a router. But the premium price buys you ease-of-use. We had the Extreme unboxed, configured, and serving up delicious Wi-Fi rays to all our devices in under five minutes, using Apple’s AirPort Utility to quickly configure our network, set passwords, and network a USB printer.
The latest AirPort Extreme is a minor update; it’s got all the same features as the 2009 version. It does output more power, so it may boost your Wi-Fi reception. Like its predecessor, the new Extreme features guest networking, so you can keep your servers, external disks, and other devices on a private network, and offer a second network for roommates and visitors. This handy feature is useful enough that owners of older models might consider an upgrade just for the peace of mind.
Why does everyone else insist on making their routers look like something that belongs locked away in a server closet?
Apple has also quietly updated the Time Capsule. In addition to functioning as a Wi-Fi router, the Time Capsule includes built-in storage to serve as a Time Machine backup and network-accessible drive.
For 2011, Apple has bumped up the storage, offering the 2TB Time Capsule for $299, and adding a 3TB model for $499. The dollars-to-terabytes ratio may not be favorable for Apple customers who already have an AirPort Extreme or other wireless router. But if you’re setting up a new network, the Time Capsule can take care of both your networking and backup needs in one fell swoop. Like the AirPort Extreme, the Time Capsule offers guest networking, printer and external drive sharing, and dead-simple setup -- including starting Time Machine to back up your Mac automatically.
Choosing between the two devices amounts to deciding if you want baked-in network storage or not. Both can support up to 50 Wi-Fi devices, making them best for home or small office scenarios. AirPort Utility works on Macs or PCs, but unfortunately there’s no web interface for making quick tweaks, as most other routers have. And as great as they are, Apple’s wireless base stations lack some advanced features like Quality of Service (QoS) controls, which allow you to prioritize certain kinds of traffic -- say, Netflix streams to your game console, or Skype calls -- to maintain connection quality. And we’re disappointed that both only include three Ethernet ports and a single USB 2.0 port. Wi-Fi may be the future, but there’s still nothing like a hard copper connection when it comes to speed.
The bottom line. Apple’s ease-of-use and tight integration with your Mac are key selling points for AirPort Extreme and Time Capsule. Cheaper solutions are out there, but surely you have better things to do than fuss and fight with router configurations and backups, right?
Requirements: Mac OS 10.5.7 or later
Pros: Easy setup, even for network newbies. Dual-band for top speeds. Guest Networking lets you share securely.
Cons: Pricier than other Wi-Fi routers. Not enough ports. No QoS control or web interface.
Price: $299, 2TB; $499, 3TB
Requirements: Mac OS 10.5.7 or later
Pros: Integrated Time Machine backups. Expanded storage for the same price. Easy setup. Dual band. Guest Networking.
Cons: Pricey. Not enough ports. No QoS control or web interface. Hard drive is not user-replacable.