Apple AirPort Extreme

As a systems administrator, I frequently like to tinker with operating systems, software, configurations, firmware, hardware, and anything else that might make me more proficient in using technology to make life easier. In the past, I would use any home computing device at hand to test out a new upgrade or to beta test an application or even to load up the latest pre-release operating system, all in the name of bleeding edge features and getting the most out of technology. These days, I separate my computing devices at home into production and development categories. While this may sound like overkill, it is not and for good reason. New technology frequently crashes, fails, or behaves in a manner most unexpected, and it will do this at the most inconvenient time possible.

In my younger years, when I felt that I had time to spare, I would take all of the quirks, bugs, and “working as intended” features in stride and start from scratch if all else failed. Now, I cherish every last moment I have available, and the last thing I want to do with my personal time is to waste it fixing yet another technology failure or shortcoming.

With that in mind, I found myself resetting my Linksys E2000 router on a weekly basis to ensure steady performance for all of the wireless devices on my home network. Since January, the AppleTV was getting horrific streaming throughput, my wife’s iPhone was frequently slow to load sites and applications that required Internet connectivity were bogged down. I would also lose Internet connectivity entirely at random times.

I spent loads of time running network diagnostics, re-configuring DHCP reservations, port mappings, and finally, calling Comcast technical support because I thought at this point, it must be their issue. Over the course of six months, I worked with Comcast to troubleshoot these issues and bit-by-bit, they replaced every last cable and device from the street to my home. And the connection loss would still occur until the router was reset.

On one hand, the router very well may have been beginning to fail. After all, my home network is very heavy on traffic, and I had been running that router for over a year. On the other hand, I am at an age where I require anything that is attached to my home network to “just work”.

As I was perusing the web for the best price on a Linksys EA3500, I thought to myself, “There are a lot of Apple devices on my network. Apple makes routers, and I’ve always heard good things about them. Maybe I should try one.” Since I was headed to the Apple Store to pick up the AppleCare+ for my wife’s iPad, I decided to pick up an Apple AirPort Extreme while I was there. Boy, am I ever glad I purchased this router for my home network.

The AirPort Extreme has been and absolute configure-and-forget-it dream come true. Setting it up is the standard for a router. Plug in the WAN cable, any LAN cables, and power cable. Install the AirPort utility on your PC, Mac, iPhone, or iPad and set up your network. Done.

I am simplifying when I say, “set up your network,” but it’s really no different than any other router configuration. All the options are there — from DHCP reservations, wireless security settings, private and guest wireless networks to port mapping and access controls. Once I configured everything to my liking, a simple click of the “Update” button reset the router and made my settings live.

Not only is the AirPort Extreme “just working”, but it is also powerful. At 100% transmit power, the 5 GHz network gives an umbrella that looks to hit portions of the neighboring yards. Since I keep my network locked down to only my devices, I decided this was not only unnecessary, but also impolite to my neighbors since my wireless could potentially interfere with their own networks. I scaled that transmit power back to 50% and am still getting fantastic coverage across my entire house and yard.

Apart from the overall simplicity of administration, the AirPort scored another point (or rather Cisco scored a point for Apple) with the Cisco Connect Cloud debacle earlier this week. One of the worst experiences with the Linksys E2000 router when I purchased it was the included Cisco Connect software. This software was supposed to ease router administration, but what it really did was fence off features depending on your administrative skill level.

If you wanted to run a guest wireless network, you could open up Cisco Connect, give it a name — and password if you wanted to secure it — and activate it. Simple. However, if you also wanted to set DHCP reservations for devices on your home network, you could not do that with Cisco Connect and would instead have to use the traditional web interface for the router administration.

But there was a problem. If you used the web interface and set DHCP reservations, then the guest network was wiped, and if you went back into Cisco Connect and re-activated the guest network, the DHCP reservations were gone again. You could only choose one or the other administration method for the Linksys E2000, so you could either have simple administration and few features, or standard administration with advanced features, but not a simple guest wireless network. This was yet another reason I was glad to get rid of the old router.

Imagine my surprise at reading that Cisco turned the Cisco Connect software into a cloud solution and also made it the default configuration manager for all of their new consumer routers. In the Ars Technica article, Jon Brodkin describes his surprise experience when updating the firmware on his new EA3500:

When the firmware update (which also applied to the EA4500 and EA2700 router models) rolled out, attempting to connect to the browser’s internal administrative Web interface brings the user instead to a signup page for the “Cisco Connect Cloud”…

The service basically replicates all the features router administrators already have, but moves them from your home network to Cisco’s cloud. The supposed benefit is that you can manage your router even when you’re not at home. I can’t imagine many circumstances in which I would need to do that; connecting my router’s administration features to a Web account also seems like a needless security risk (albeit a small one).

In exchange for the convenience of Connect Cloud, you have to agree to some pretty onerous terms. In short, Cisco would really hate it if you use the Web to view porn or download copyrighted files without paying for them.

He doesn’t mention whether or not you can actually have both a guest wireless network and DHCP reservations with the latest revision of Cisco Connect software, but either way, it was not an application that was begging to become a cloud solution. If anything, it needed a rewrite to be more like Apple’s AirPort Utility. Regardless, consumer backlash has apparently given Cisco a change of heart, and you can now opt-in to Cisco Connect Cloud instead of having it forced upon you.

While I applaud the change, it seems to still be too little too late, and quite honestly, even before this happened, Apple had already converted me on yet another piece of hardware that is designed beautifully and functions well so I can use my devices and get things done. This is not to say that I still won’t keep dd-wrt and Tomato Firmware handy for hacking old routers and tinkering on my development devices and network, but from now on, any devices on my home production network need to be capable of fading into the background of my work flows.

I highly recommend the Apple AirPort Extreme if you’re in the market for a new home router. Also, if you have family or friends who would like to have you set up their wireless networks, get them an AirPort Extreme — or the new AirPort Express Base Station which is wonderful if they only need one wired LAN connection — and set it up for them. That’ll be one less technical support issue for you.

Ben Brooks posted about his wireless router issues, and he came to the same conclusion about the Apple AirPort routers.

I have installed DD-WRT on routers. I know, and can vouch for, just how fast non-Apple routers can be. The problem: they require a lot of work, and more than that, a lot of maintenance. I had one router that needed to be reset every time ~10GBs of data passed through it — no really.

I know a lot of people who constantly have trouble with their ’wireless internet’ and after I convince them to get the Apple router I don’t hear another peep from them.

I know these routers aren’t for everyone, but they are for most everyone.

Go get yours, set it up, and then forget about your network for a couple of years.