Apple buyers guide: Which 802.11ac router should you get?
You have an Mac, iPhone, or iPad, and now it's time to Apple-fy (applify?) your network. Apple offers three devices suitable for home network routing: The AirPort Extreme, the Time Capsule, and the AirPort Express. Which one is best suited to your needs, and why? Let's take a look.
At under $100, Apple's least expensive option is the AirPort Express. The tiny AirPort Express is almost the same size as the Apple TV, only clad in white plastic instead of black. It measures less than 4 inches on a side and stands less than an inch tall, and weighs slightly more than half a pound. It's little. But it's quite powerful.
The AirPort Express can broadcast an 802.11n network (it also works with devices that use the a, b and g standards), and supports simultaneous dual-band 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz use, making it suitable for use with older and newer devices without slowing down.
On its back, the AirPort Express has two 10/100baseT Ethernet ports; one can connect to a wide area network (WAN), to connect to your cable modem, for example, and the other is a LAN connection — to attach to a hard-wired computer or even a router to provide network connectivity to other devices that don't have Wi-Fi. There's also a USB port if you have a USB printer that you'd like to make network accessible. There's a digital optical audio connector that takes a 3.5mm cable — suitable for connecting to an audio receiver (that makes the AirPort Express an AirPlay receiver, too).
There's one other thing the AirPort Express is really good at: Extending your AirPort network. If you have an AirPort network already and there are some weak signal areas in your home — if there's a certain room or even a certain floor where you get really slow speeds and few bars — the AirPort Express can help. Using the AirPort Utility in OS X or iOS, you can configure your AirPort Express to act as an extender to your existing AirPort network to help boost the signal, rather than having it broadcast its own network.
Apple's higher-end router is called the AirPort Extreme. Available for $199, the AirPort Extreme costs twice as much as the AirPort Express, but you get a lot more for your money.
The AirPort Extreme stands much taller than the AirPort Express — 6.6 inches — though its base is the exact same size as the AirPort Express. If you're familiar with previous AirPort Extreme base stations, it's smaller and taller than before.
The height of the AirPort Extreme is because of its six-element antenna array, which is used to broadcast an 802.11ac wireless network. 802.11ac can work up to three times faster than the 802.11n Wi-Fi networking found in the AirPort Express (it's still backwards-compatible with the older standards).
That doesn't mean your Internet speed will be three times faster, however — that's because the AirPort Extreme's speed is local to your Wi-Fi (ultimately, your cable modem or DSL router is the bottleneck for your Internet speed, not your Apple AirPort device). If you use Wi-Fi to transfer files between computers locally and they use the new 802.11ac standard, you will see faster machine to machine transfer.
Which machines are we talking about? Apple began supporting 802.11ac on new Macs beginning with MacBook Airs introduced in June 2013. If your Mac has a Haswell processor, it also has 802.11ac. That includes the Mac Pro released in December 2013, and presumably all new Mac models going forward. No iOS devices have switched to 802.11ac yet, but it's only a matter of time.
The AirPort Extreme goes further than just faster Wi-Fi, though. That antenna array can actually beamform. The device figures out where the 802.11ac-equipped devices are, and targets its signal in that direction. The net result is that 802.11ac-equipped devices on your network will experience stronger, clearer and faster connections than older ones.
The USB port on the AirPort Extreme can share a USB printer with the network, but the AirPort Extreme takes it a step further too — you can hook up a USB hard drive to the device and share that on the network too. It's not the same as a full-blown file server or a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device, but it gives you a way of sharing files quickly and easily on the network without having to dedicate a server to the process.
There are three Ethernet ports (plus a WAN port) on the AirPort Extreme, two more than the AirPort Express, and they're Gigabit Ethernet, up to ten times faster than the 10/100baseT Ethernet found on the AirPort Express. The WAN connector is suitable for connecting to your cable modem or DSL modem; the other three can be used to connect other hard-wired devices or other networking gear.
The Time Capsule is, for all intents and purposes, almost exactly like the AirPort Extreme. It looks identical, and it has all the same features: 802.11ac networking, beamforming antenna array, Gigabit Ethernet connections, USB port for printer and hard drive sharing.
But the Time Capsule has a built-in hard drive too. It's available in two configurations: $299 gets you a 2 terabyte (TB) version, while $399 gets you a 3 TB version. And both devices are visible to any Mac on the network that's running Time Machine, as a network-based Time Machine backup.
If you're not already familiar with it, Time Machine is software Apple's included with part of OS X since 10.5 (Leopard). It enables you to create an automatic backup of your hard drive that keeps not just a current snapshot of its contents, but what you've had over time. So if you need to restore a file you deleted last May 1st, you simply go to your Time Machine timeline in April to restore it.
It's incredibly helpful and incredibly easy to use. If you're not using it, you really should be. Here are more instructions:
Who should use the AirPort Express?
If you have a smaller home and if your networking needs are more modest — if you're using 2012-era Apple laptops or just using iOS devices, the AirPort Express may be totally sufficient for your needs.
The AirPort Express is also really handy if you have a desire to connect your stereo system to your network to create an AirPlay receiver. All you need is a 3.5mm headphone connector and the right adapter for your stereo - digital optical input is ideal if it has one; if not, any line-level RCA input or even an MP3 input will work with the right adapter cable, which you can pick up from Radio Shack and countless other places.
Finally, if you have an existing AirPort network that just doesn't cut it in some rooms or locations, the AirPort Express is the perfect device to extend the network to improve data transfer speeds and reduce frustration.
The lack of 802.11ac support and the slower Ethernet LAN/WAN connection makes the AirPort Express a less-than-optimal solution for people looking for the fastest possible speed, but for them, there's the AirPort Extreme.
Who should use the AirPort Extreme?
If you're setting up a brand new AirPort network and you want to make sure that it's future-proofed for a bit, get the AirPort Extreme. If you have a single-family home or another building that's a good size, an AirPort Extreme will cast a wider range than the AirPort Express does, too.
If you have 2013-era or newer Macs that you want to transfer files between, then the AirPort Extreme is the right router for you. It's also great if you have other 802.11ac-compliant devices. The faster networking protocol is catching on with PCs, too, if that's important to you.
Who should use the Time Capsule?
If you're not already backing up your Macs, please, I implore you, for the love of all that is good, get a Time Capsule and get started. Paired with Time Machine in OS X, the Time Capsue is an almost foolproof backup system. Your Mac backs up to the network automatically and you don't even have to think about it.
Just one caveat: That makes your Time Capsule a single point of failure in your back up system. If you don't have a secondary backup method, it's not too late to consider one. That way, if anything happens to the Time Machine, you'll still be able to recover files. For more details, follow these links:
- How to easily clone your Mac using SuperDuper! or Carbon Copy Cloner
- How to easily backup (and restore) using Backblaze or CrashPlan
The bottom line
Apple makes a wide variety of networking devices to suit different needs, and each of them fit a different part of the ecosystem. There's AirPort Express for modest networking or for network extending and instant AirPlay audio support. The AirPort Extreme offers cutting-edge speed without compromise. And the Time Capsule adds worry-free network backup for everyone on your Wi-Fi. Hopefully one of these suits you.
I imagine you still have questions, so fire away in the comments — I'm happy to answer them.