Apple's AirPort in the age of mesh networking

Apple AirPort Extreme Time Capsule
Apple AirPort Extreme Time Capsule (Image credit: Rene Ritchie / iMore)

The original AirPort wireless basestation was introduced by Steve Jobs at MacWorld New York in July of 1999. The current version, which supports the 802.11ac wireless networking standard, was released in June of 2013. That's more than 3 years ago. Since then the standards haven't evolved much, but wireless networking has — it's gone mesh.

Mesh-works

I started noticing it when conversations turned from AirPorts, TP-Links, and Netgears to Ubiquiti's enterprise offerings. They were beyond most consumers, though, so I didn't pay much attention. Then Ubiquiti launched their much friendlier Amplifi (opens in new tab), and eero (opens in new tab) came to market. Now Google has announced Google Wifi and mesh is on the verge of going mainstream.

The advantage of mess routers is that they're not designed to be single, solitary, stand-alone points of access. They're designed to be part of a team. Instead of getting one and then, if you really need another, having to channel your inner IT admin to create a bridge or dual access points, you can simply add another mesh router to your system, tap or click a few buttons, and your network gets bigger and better.

My colleague, Jerry Hildrenbrand, wrote a great explainer about how mesh networks function on Android Central.

If you have a SONOS (opens in new tab), then you already have a mesh network, and if you've ever added a speaker to the system, then you already know how easy it is to expand.

AirPort renovation

Apple's AirPorts are currently pre-mesh. You get an AirPort Extreme and, if it doesn't reach every room in your house, you get an AirPort Express — or another Extreme — and cobble it all together. It's… quaint. Perhaps even antiquated. And it's no longer the best experience for Apple's customers.

What if, instead, Apple got into the mesh networking game? You could get a single AirPort — or a Time Capsule, because they're handy enough I'd still want that around — and then simply add more if and when you need them. Plug a new AirPort in, the AirPort app for iOS or macOS detects it, you tap or click to add it, you're mesh network expands, and you're done.

It's been three years since Apple updated the AirPort line, and it's starting to show. Maybe Apple felt they needed to help jumpstart Wi-Fi routers back when they made the first wireless Macs, and had to keep pushing the technology as it got faster and more robust. Now that fast Wi-Fi networking really is ubiquitous, though, maybe Apple's happy to let others, like Amplifi, eero, and Google Wifi lead the way?

Maybe Apple wants to do more — their own line of Beats or Apple-branded SONOS-style speakers that also let devices connect to the internet? But then it would need to be a high-quality speaker and that adds to the cost. Also, Apple just added that big SONOS showcase at Apple Retail...

Maybe Apple wants to add some smarts to the router? Let it cache macOS and iOS updates, iCloud files and photos, and otherwise add some and nearline to Apple's online services? A next-generation Time Capsule that gives the best of local and off-site backup?

Maybe Apple could give it a bunch of beam-forming mics, build in a multi-personal Siri, and make it a full on HomeKit hub?

Or Maybe Apple could do all three — simple router, next-generation Time Capsule, and full-on Apple Home hub with speaker — and you get what you need, when you need it, and expand it all as needed.

Owning the experience

Google is making Google Wifi for the same reason they made Chrome and Google DNS — to accelerate people onto the internet and into Google services. Not everyone wants the internet on Google's golden highway, though. Some people prefer Apple's technology and the company's stance on privacy.

Likewise, as iPhone becomes a mature product, it's the iPhone — and the iPad, Mac, Apple Watch, and Apple TV — ecosystems that become growth markets for Apple.

A modern AirPort that once again becomes extreme, this time with the use of mesh networking and strong ties into Apple's own services, does just that. It adds value to everything.

Rene Ritchie
Contributor

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

43 Comments
  • Boy, I would sure like to see Apple move to the next step with their wireless hardware. I have used two versions of the Time Capsule over the years and bee mostly happy with the products. I have a SONOS system and it is sure easy to modify the system, add units, etc. and it would be nice to have the same ease of use with my router.
  • Apple dumps router segment of business :
    https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-11-21/apple-said-to-abandon...
  • Rene, it isn't that difficult to do this with Apple's routers. I'm using 4, because my house is built with brick interior walls, with wood lath, steel mesh, and 1" of mortar and plaster over that. The ceilings aren't much better. Adding another router to extend the network, is just a few clicks.
  • Our environment is somewhat different, but I have 2 AirPort Extremes (one being the latest version and one the older version) and one AirPort Express. It was very easy to extend the network with just a couple of clicks. With the way Comcast had to set up the Modem it ended up in the basement. Thats fine for me as my home office is there... but we have two additional floors that need Wi-Fi coverage. I have the newer AirPort Extreme connected to the Modern in the basement... not choice there. So on the main floor I have the older AirPort Extreme and on the 2nd floor (or third level if you count the basement) I have the AirPort Express. Every point in the house, which is 6,500 sq. ft., has Wi-Fi with out any issues. I have run numerous speed tests and the signal is very strong throughout the house and we can stream movies on the two smart TV's we have without any issues. And my son plays games on his PS4 live without any problems with motion, etc. One of the smart TV's is in the master bedroom which is upstairs and in the far side of the house. No issues with Netflix, Hulu, etc., ... So I for one have no issues or concerns with networking the Apple routers... they work very well in our house.
  • If Apple decides to revolutionize the wireless router, then great. But to say it is difficult now to expand your range using an Airport Extreme is just not so.
  • Yea, not sure where she got difficult from. I manage 3 offices using Apple Airport products (Extreme and Express) and they are beyond easy to link together.
  • Anyone that regularly follows a site like iMore will lave little trouble configuring multiple routers to achieve a mesh-like experience. But for the masses Google has really come up with an affordable simple solution to setup multiple router configuration in the home.
  • That's not a mesh network though so no matter how easy it is to EXTEND the network it will never be as fast as a mesh network. And a **** of a lot more expensive to buy multiple airport routers.
  • Airport express <$100
    AirPort Extreme <$200 Mesh networks cheapest are $400
    How is that cheaper?
  • The fact that you asked the question, while referencing the airport express and extreme says to me that you might not understand the difference between a mesh network and extending a network. You might want to read up on it if thats the case and see why it's financially equal or more to buy those apple products instead of a mesh network system and the degradation in bandwidth that comes along with that type of extension. To do it right you would have to buy 3 airport routers for the same coverage as the mesh network with a router and 2 externals. All of the most popular mesh network setups are sub $400 now and dropping in price as more competition comes along. So you can buy an already outdated router and extender for $300 or 3 extremes for over $400, or a more advanced and future proof system for ~$350-$400 depending on the size of your place. You tell me what the smart choice is.
  • There's a lot of confusion in these comments about the difference between mesh and non-mesh networks. That's because most people don't realize that there's actually 2 non-mesh ways to "extend" a wireless network ... and the 2nd way provides very fast networking speeds - generally faster than what a mesh network can provide. "Extended" networks: this is where you have two access points, one configured to "extend" the WiFi network created by the first. This works by having the 2nd access point listen for and repeat the traffic from the first one over WiFi. This has the downside of halving your wireless bandwidth. This is what most people think of when they are considering hooking two access points together. "Roaming" networks: *this* is the ideal configuration w/two (or more) Airport Extremes. Both Airports are set to *create* a Wireless network. You set the same SSID/network name and password on both AirPorts. One Airport may be configured as a router, while you set the second to bridge mode. *Both* Airports must be wired to your network (you can just run ethernet between them). This configuration will give you very fast WiFi - faster than what mesh can generally provide.
  • The problem typically is that ethernet is not available in the other locations that you're putting the other routers in, so it effectively eliminates the roaming option for a lot of people I would imagine.
  • For me, I want a reliable MU-MIMO experience in their next-gen Airport line up, this has more potential of better performance for most folks than mesh networking, especially as mobile devices scale to 2x2 or 3x3 antenna setup in the near future. MU-MIMO means the each AP can process up to 3 devices (or more depending on future 802.11xx specs) at the same time instead of 1 right now. Your current router does not work with multiple devices at the same time (same radio block), it can only process one device at a time. You won't notice much because it transmits each "block" so fast but with MU-MIMO, you'd see less latency, more consistent performance as it is transmitting up to 3 blocks at the same time with different radio transmitters on the same AP. The only benefit of the mesh network is that it extends the wireless coverage without doing too much work but it doesn't offer an increased overall network performance. The Airport Extreme IMO is still one of the best routers for consistency and reliability, although slower than most of the newer routers. For most folks living in apartments, small houses and so on, mesh networking won't do much. However, MU-MIMO with dozens of devices in the same home network will have a bigger impact. It is possible that Apple is waiting for 802.11ad before releasing the next-gen lineup. 802.11ad allows the potential of multiple APs communicating with each other at much faster rate (7Gbps) while each AP works with multiple users at their limited coverage. Only problem, it uses 60Ghz, which means it will have a hard time going through walls and has a much shorter range. Then again, this is Apple who hasn't been updating/refreshing their Macs often either.
  • You seem to be really smart guy about this networking stuff. So I bought two airport extremes and I wire them together and run them in bridge mode. In essence is this the same as mesh mode For retro and google wifi
  • Is it possible they are waiting on the new APFS filesystem in order to update the Time Capsules...? I, for one, want audio ports on the extremes, and smaller expresses... And of course, the ability to play audio to multiple AirPlay devices from iOS please.
  • YES! Everything you said here, please.
  • I agree with @melgross in that this isn't nearly as hard to do with Apple's gear as people (people selling *other* gear, that is) try to make it out to be. https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT204616
    https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT204617 Could Apple make it better, sure. Is the current arrangement a disaster? No. Not even close. A.
  • "Could Apple make it better, sure." Make that "Could Apple make it better, H*** YEAH. I don't mess with my routers regularly, and I hate drilling down, so any time I go into AirPort Utility, it's like the Very First Time. Apple has a habit of not using unambiguous nomenclature. Every time I see the word 'device' in AU or in Apple Support pages regarding networking, I never know if they mean the router or the computer. I tried to add a dedicated 2.4GHz network to my AEBSs and the 5GHz network and I ended up renaming and trying to join the wrong network. I can't take Apple's instructions at face value without knowing if they mean 'this' when they say 'that'. It's the kind of thing that may have caused Dalrymple to lose/misplace his music. The phrasing of various sentences often leaves me scratching my head. Yeah, once you know your way around the block, it's just a 'few clicks'. I'm tired of looking under the hood, and I don't want to change the oil or even the spark plugs. Let me just get in and turn the key or to mix a metaphor, screw in the bulb and flip the switch.
  • I wonder if this is the reason we have got the whole new music/airplay area in control centre in iOS10? It'll be amazing to see that while widget expand with new network hardware. I'd shell out for some new gear if that's the case - especially if they make little Siri hubs for it all.
  • I just got the Amplifi HD from Ubiquiti last week. Once I did a firmware update (it was in the first shipments of the HD model) it has worked flawlessly. And my network at its farthest points is 124 Mbps. Near the main router it's 138 Mbps. I got it with the two mesh units and don't feel any need for a third. This baby can cover 20,000 square feel according to Ubiquti.
  • Thanks for sharing your experience. I've had my eye on the Amplifi series ever since they were announced. The reviews all seem positive. I'm glad we're leaving the idea of one big box with up to 8 (!) spider-like antennas... to a few smaller boxes in a mesh setup. That seems to make more sense anyway.
  • @rene Aren't we missing the point of mesh networks?
    Yea you have multiple but you can use multiple access points now to extend a network. What I didn't see you mention was the real backbone of the mesh is that you're able to access more than one at a time to improve speed and reliability. A typical network you connect to the closest access point and join the network there, wherein a mesh you connect to all in range and split you the connection between them. So the more you have in your home the better things will be not just how many bars you have and a solid connection but improves throughput and reduces bottle necking. This is also not a new technology it's been in enterprise for some time it's just nice to see it trickle down to consumer home use at a reasonable price. Just my 2cents and I would be awesome if Apple included mesh in all their devices. Have an AppleTV ethernet to the wall why not have a mesh built in, Have a mac in your office cabled in why not use it as mesh as well. And yea it's about time Apple bought Sonos already. (by @tfraley)
  • They already offer it. When you add a new Airport to your network, the setup ASKS you. It pops up with the option to extend your wireless network.
  • wftd0gg.. That is exactly what I am saying. Mesh is not extending a network rather than using all access points in range at the same time. Airports you can extend but you are only connecting to one airport at a time. I was explaining maybe not in the best way this diffrence.
  • I don't get the difference between adding an Apple Express to my wifi network (really easy to do btw), and these new shiny "mesh" networks? Is it because Apple last updated its stuff back in 2013 and everyone else is just catching up now, that somehow Apple tech journos feel the need to want new stuff to write about? Shouldn't the story be - Apple rolled out some really cool consumer tech about ten years ago, rest of the world now catches up?
  • I'm not sure adding additional AE's to your network will simply speed it up. It's more of an extension than it is a 'mesh' network -- where your device is talking to multiple APs. Talking to multiple APs at the same time may indeed speed it up, but I'm not sure that's what Apple's AirPort routers are doing when you join them together to act as one network.
  • Every time you add an extension to your apple network you cut throughput by roughly 50% at that device. Mesh networking does not follow that rule at all.
  • Really good mesh networks are better than standard extended wireless only networks, but not hugely. Most home networks will have a single hop assuming they have range extenders setup around a central hub, but a mesh will be no where near twice the speed and unless you have multiple nodes that you good connectivity with (meaning you are setting up far more nodes than you might in just an extended network) you will only see percentage benefits. Better yet, you can hard wire your extenders and get better performance than the mesh in most cases.
    I'm not arguing that Apple shouldn't upgrade it's airport line (the express is still only N) but the sky is not falling and those of us with two time capsules and 3 airport express routers (which are great for remote speakers too) should feel like we are missing out.
  • If you have the ability to hardware your extenders you'll see the greatest benefits without a doubt. Sent from the iMore App
  • I'd like to see some documentation that supports the idea that mesh networks don't cause similar delay when there are multiple hops. A.
  • Completely incorrect!!! You don't loose any throughput with Apple's "extended" network. The only time you 1/2 the throughput is if you create a WDS network. Apple uses 1 SSID for 2.4 Ghz and 5 Ghz, and they automatically extend the network by plugging in a second airport device. I have 2 Time Capsules, and 2 Airport Express devices and the setup worked flawlessly, and I have had ZERO downtime since installation over 5 years ago.
  • Read up on it and let us know. There is a big difference.
  • Apple needs to add the ability to back iOS devices via time machines/ time capsule. It would allow me to go back and get previous backups etc. Sent from the iMore App
  • I tried Google's onHub. I had to sacrifice a ton of features to step down to the onHub. I have an Asus AC3200, it has a built in Print Server, Samba share, time-machine (macOS backup), FTP server, Gigabit, and three auto switching networks (which I dont make use of). The OnHub was horrible. No WPS button or software switch, no MAC address filtering, no real way to know what was going on with the router. So I packed it back up and off it went. All this oversimplification is great when you add features, not so much when you take them away. If the Airport does its job, run with it. I give this Mesh stuff a Me'h rating.
  • Your Asus AC3200 sounds a lot like an airport extreme or TimeCapsule in it's feature set.
    Print Server
    Local and Remote (via your AppleID) file sharing
    Gigabit multi-port auto switching router
    No fancy button but really easy to setup software. Not bad for 3+ year old hardware!
  • An "Apple DNS" would be a nice, privacy-oriented substitute to Google DNS and one's ISP. Would be nice if Apple offered that.
  • in a mesh network, if every single node is also used to communicates, all without requiring a single device to rely on, how can this be more secure ?
  • in a mesh network, if every single node is also used to communicates, all without requiring a single device to rely on, how can this be more secure ? I can see where the interference in Wi-fi network may be an issue, but these i understand these 'nodes' are cabled, its basically the same as cabling routers/switches together, and the result will be the same.. The only different would be less configuration with mesh. I could see that as an advantage..
  • I'm assuming Apple are holding fire until a Siri enabled version of Google Home or Amazon's Echo is ready to launch. The difficulty Apple are going to have is Siri competing with Alexa without compromising on data security. Posted via the iMore App
  • I gave up on Airport awhile back and got an ASUS wifi AC router a couple years ago. I regularly acheive speeds of 120 - 150+ mbps down on it which suits me fine. My old Airport router (prior generation in design) was great when I had one or two things connected but it seemed to struggle with multiple connections the new one doesn't as much. As a single floor condo dweller, I can't see how Mesh would benefit me as I already get great signal everywhere in my home.
  • Apple is probably more worried what it looks like, then how it performs.
  • I would love this! A mesh, wireless speaker and Siri device would be awesome! So much better than an Echo! Wireless is still too hard, Apple could make it easy for the masses. Oh please let them not be giving up, but reading this!
  • Apple created this technology many many years ago! The new companies are finally catching up, and still are failing by making setup and requirements so convoluted that the "mesh" networks now advertised are junk!