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  • RIP AirPort!

    April 27th, 2018

    I remember when the first Apple AirPort was announced. I was seated in an auditorium at the Macworld Expo in New York City when Steve jobs displayed the company’s first Wi-Fi gear. I must admit I paid little attention to a wireless networking system, since my home was littered with Ethernet cables to keep me connected.

    It didn’t take long for me to see the value of keeping a notebook computer wireless, especially when traveling, as hot spots became more ubiquitous. But throughput was dreadful in those days, and the files that took a minute to copy over on my Macs took far far longer to copy without the cables.

    Over time, as Wi-Fi standards evolved, the speed difference was sharply reduced. These days, you’d barely notice it unless your wireless network is clogged with a number of active devices.

    Apple’s AirPort lineup expanded, with the Express tailored to music servers, and the Time Capsule for network backups. Working with Time Machine, Time Capsule, which came with an alleged “server grade” hard drive built in, was supposed to ease the process on a small network.

    Using AirPort Utility, Apple made it pretty easy to set up your router. Compare that to other companies that relied on a browser-based setup scheme with an obtuse interface. Indeed, I read stories that the router was once the most frequently returned device at a consumer electronics store, because so many customers couldn’t figure out how to use it.

    These days, many of these products have wizards that guide you through the initial setup process, doing the basics behind the scenes. But not all of them assist you in using a strong password. The combo cable modem/router supplied by Cox, the largest local ISP, configures its gear with “password.” At least CenturyLink, second in the market and still relying on aging DSL technology, includes a strong default password to set you up in good fashion. My only concern is that each unit’s password is unique, so your neighbor, or the drive-by hacker, doesn’t have the same login credentials.

    Over the years, AirPort tended to be slightly more expensive than top-of-the-line gear from other companies, but always kept up with the latest standards.

    Until 2013, when the 6th generation AirPort Extreme arrived. I actually had one until I was exposed to much better products embracing enhanced versions of the 802.11ac standard. As my network expanded with wireless connections from iPhones, an iPad, the family TV, an Apple TV, and the Blu-ray player, something had to give.

    Apple stopped upgrading AirPort except for firmware releases. More and more ISPs now lease or sell you a cable or DSL modem with a built-in router. Some are decent enough to very much eliminate the need to buy a separate box. The arrival of mesh routers, designed to easily extend a network to improve coverage, especially in a larger home, also helped to make AirPort less significant.

    Nearly two years ago, it was reported that Apple has disbanded its AirPort engineering team and shuffled the workers to different departments.

    Even if Apple had updated AirPort, would it have made sense with so much cheap competition, and the availability of routers direct from your ISP?

    But as I’ve already written in a previous column, the router your ISP provides may not be up to the task, particularly with more congested networks. When I had Cox, they supplied me with an Arris Panoramic that bundles the cable modem, a router, and a two-line connection for Cox’s VoIP-based telephone system.

    The router was more than powerful enough to sustain a connection throughout my apartment, even at the far ends of the unit.

    But after I moved into a new apartment, I couldn’t use Cox anymore. The new place had been wired by CenturyLink for its broadband and phone service, plus DirecTV. The cheapest Internet connection offers decent speeds, starting in the 20 megabit range, and a guarantee of the same price for life. But, as I wrote, the supplied DSL modem/router, a Zyxel C3000Z, delivers subpar Wi-Fi coverage.

    Having a review product from Amped Wireless to test gave me the chance to try something that was more suited for my setup. Configuration of such a system requires shutting off the Wi-Fi radios on the ISP’s router (usually a couple of clicks or taps on a Wi-Fi settings screen), and attaching an Ethernet cable from it to your external router.

    The long and short of it is that AirPort was a great way to introduce millions to Wi-Fi. There are so many routers out there now that Apple hasn’t been able to make a credible argument for its own solution, although it continues to improve Wi-Fi performance on gear that embeds the technology.

    But if you’re still interested in buying a legacy AirPort Extreme, AirPort Express or Time Capsule, look for closeout pricing. Apple is selling off its inventory, but the price hadn’t changed last time I checked.

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