Apple's wireless base station is ready for takeoff

Box score

The AirPort Extreme averaged a good 30 Mbps within a 90-foot radius and easily maintained 54 Mbps within 25 feet.

Rick Steele

Back view of the airport

Although the Apple AirPort Extreme Base Station looks like a flying saucer, only the data flies.

At 54 Mbps, this IEEE 802.11g access point can route lots of data up to 150 feet in an ideal environment.

The best way to measure true wireless bandwidth is in an office with carpeted floors, chairs, cubicles, twists and turns. At the GCN Lab, we could reach a maximum 100 feet.

At 90 feet, signal strength was about 2 Mbps, functional for light surfing. The AirPort Extreme averaged a good 30 Mbps within a 90-foot radius and easily maintained 54 Mbps within 25 feet.

Its best feature is easy setup in an all-Mac OS environment. Setup also is easy in a mixed Microsoft Windows-Mac OS infrastructure if you don't use Wired Equivalent Privacy encryption.

One, two, three ...

Three simple steps get a wireless network up and running under Mac OS. Plug the AirPort Extreme into a wall socket, connect the Ethernet cable and run the Setup Assistant under Applications/Utilities. The software automatically detects other base stations and lets you join or set them up.

The AirPort Admin Utility lets users configure their own base stations and control the robust security features. These include changing the service set identifier or wireless network name, requiring a password, disabling Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol or Internet sharing for all wireless clients, and installing a fixed IP address for each computer on the wireless network. Media access control filtering and frequency manipulation are two other security pluses.

Our main problem was getting non-Mac machines to surf wirelessly on a mixed Windows network. We could detect the base station from either type of computer. But with WEP or any other form of encryption, the Windows systems couldn't access the Internet or any other networked machine. No error messages appeared except 'The page cannot be displayed.'

I spent about 20 minutes with an Apple technician who suggested using 128-bit instead of 40-bit encryption. That didn't help. The technician then suggested downloading a Windows version of the Admin Utility. It installed just as easily as it had under Mac OS. I turned off WEP and reinitiated it at the 40-bit level. This time all the PCs and Macs got unrestricted access.

The base station didn't come with an Ethernet cable and had only one RJ-45 port. But the built-in firewall and the added security of being able to mask the SSID, combined with an external antenna port for a stronger signal, far outweighed the few faults.

If you're looking for a good 802.11g access point, the $79 AirPort Extreme is it. Just have patience with WEP in a mixed environment, and remember to install the base station software from a PC first, not a Mac.

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