Comparing Apple's new AirPort Extreme and Time Capsule to the old models: Should you upgrade?

To accommodate newly introduced MacBook Airs that ship with 802.11ac "Gigabit WiFi" capabilities and Apple's forthcoming redesigned Mac Pro, Apple also introduced a new AirPort Extreme and Time Capsule at WWDC this week. This is the first update to the AirPort Extreme in several years and the first complete redesign since Apple moved from the UFO shape of the original to the Mac mini-like beveled rectangle, so it's worth taking a closer look at what makes the new products worthwhile.

First, let's start with the name: "Base Station" has been excised; Apple now calls it simply "AirPort Extreme" (perhaps to simplify and better align with the AirPort Express, which remains unchanged - it's still an 802.11n-capable box that can hook up to a stereo system and stream audio as well as route data for a small wireless network group).

It's been two years since the AirPort Extreme was last revised, and it's undergone some major changes - the flat box style, cribbed from Apple's Mac mini and measuring 6.5 inches on a side, is gone, and replaced with a smaller but taller cuboid design - 3.85 inches on a side and 6.6 inches tall. It's also about half a pound heavier, weighing in at 2.08 pounds.

The biggest difference, outside of the industrial design and name, is the new networking technology that's under the hood: AirPort Extreme supports 802.11ac, backwards compatible with earlier WiFi protocols but on its own capable of transmitting up to 1.3 gigabits per second - almost three times faster than the rating for its predecessor. Inside the box are six antennas, which Apple describes as a "beamforming antenna array."

The antennas can broadcast simultaneous dual-band 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency bands, just as before. And Apple says the AirPort Extreme can support up to 50 users simultaneously, just as before. Also unchanged are the ports on the back of the device: A Gigabit Ethernet WAN port, three Gigabit Ethernet LAN ports, and one USB 2.0 port, to support a printer or external hard drive.

The price has risen for the new device by $20, to $199.

Just as with the previous generation, the new AirPort Time Capsule uses the same industrial design as the new AirPort Extreme. The Time Capsule is designed for users who want to easily backup data from their Macs over the network using Time Machine, OS X's built-in backup software.

The networking specs and interface port array of the AirPort Time Capsule is identical to the AirPort Extreme; what's different is the hard drive inside. Just as before, the AirPort Time Capsule is available in 2TB and 3TB capacities, but there's been a price realignment: the 2TB model is still $299, but the 3TB model has dropped $100 to $399 - a better value for users looking for maximum Time Machine backup storage capacity.

Even if you haven't put in an order for a new MacBook Air yet, if you haven't jumped on the Time Capsule bandwagon, now's a better time than ever because of the cheaper big version. It'll work with all the older WiFi gear you have in the house, plus you'll be future-proofing yourself a bit for 802.11ac when you're ready.

Peter Cohen