Having pioneered wireless networking, it's no surprise that Apple is one of the first to embrace the new '802.11n' flavour. By delivering five times the speed of previous Wi-Fi tech (up to 200MBps), and doubling the range (to a theoretical 50m), 802.11n is a viable alternative to wired networking – even for high-bandwidth shenanigans like video streaming.
It's no coincidence that the new Airport Extreme base station has been released just weeks before the Apple TV video streamer, which also supports 802.11n. While Apple claims that Apple TV will run perfectly on an old-school 802.11g network, it will require a large amount of caching, meaning frustratingly slow start times, especially if you're streaming high-def content.
As for your current kit, those of you lucky enough to have an Intel Core Duo 2-powered Mac can download an enabler that’ll suddenly give it n-power (the company had sneakily been equipping its latest desktops and laptops with the necessary ‘n’ hardware). Install the little chunk of software (it’s on your new Extreme’s install disc), and you’ll see an instant leap in both speed and consistency of connection.
The new Airport Express has four ethernet ports, handy if you want to hitch it to your Xbox360 (which you may have to: the official Xbox wireless adapter doesn’t work with the new Extreme: we ended up using the Ethernet port from a spare Express to feed our 360).
Aside from the extra Wi-Fi power, the Extreme has grabbed headlines for its Air Disk feature: plug a hard drive into the station’s single USB, and you have a cheap way to get “network attached storage”. And if you’re feeling really ambitious, you could run a four-port USB adapter into the slot, and attach multiple drives. Don’t worry: you can limit access to drives, even down to folder level, and attach a password to each.
iTunes addicts will love this: you can copy that 60GB collection to an Air Disk, and access your tracks from any computer in the house (iTunes 7 can switch between libraries at a click – just hold down the option key when you start the program).
If you’ve got an old Airport Express lying around the house, it will see your new AEBS and extend it (although only at ‘g’ speeds). We found the new Airport Utility a much easier thing than its forebear (which you can now safely toss into the trash): it recognised our network of three Airport Expresses and an old Extreme in seconds, and the setting up each was the work of minutes.
Problems so far? We’re running a 320GB Maxtor drive as the server attached to the AEBS. Mysteriously, our Extreme loses connection to the drive overnight – restarting the base station usually solves the problem, but that’s a bore. A check on the main Apple discussion forums suggested that this is a fast-emerging problem, although it doesn’t afflict every owner. Watch this space for a patch from Apple.