AirPort Extreme

AirPort Extreme replaced with AmpliFi

Background

Some of you reading this who use Apple equipment may have home networks created by Apple AirPort Extreme and/or Express routers, or, in some cases Time Capsules (which are AirPort Extremes with hard disks in them for Time Machine backups).

The big news this past week is that Apple is discontinuing their AirPort line and when current stock is sold, they won’t make any more. I’m not sure what this means for firmware updates but those will eventually stop, maybe not immediately but sometime in the next year.

Most of us think of networking gear like plumbing: it runs in the background and god-forbid we have to fiddle with it (some people do enjoy fiddling with it). AirPort, while a great solution wasn’t perfect although setting it up with AirPort Admin was easy and once up and running, it was and still is rock solid.

There are numerous companies making networking equipment that in some ways is more modern than AirPort: Apple hasn’t updated AirPort devices in years and the rest of the networking industry has marched on.

And, over the years use of the internet has changed: we now stream a lot of video (some of it 4K), have multiple hand-held devices on a home network and some people don’t even have a computer anymore (imagine!).

I knew I would eventually have to replace my AirPort Extreme router but there’s no rush, it still works perfectly.

My setup

  • Cable modem
  • AirPort Extreme wifi router
  • iMac Pro connected via ethernet to a LAN port on the AirPort
  • HP laser printer connected via ethernet to another LAN port on the AirPort
  • Ethernet cable running in the walls downstairs to a wall jack and into an Apple TV connected via a LAN port on the AirPort

We use the AirPort wifi for networking everything else (two iPhones, two iPads and Anne’s MacBook Pro) and the AirPort Extreme covers the entire house easily. Sitting in the far end of the living room which is as far away from the base station as you can be in the house the signal drops a tad but it’s good enough.

So, I needed a router and wifi access point and the router had to have 3 or more LAN ports on the back. If you search around on Amazon there are many devices that fill this need. The two things many of them lack is this: easy to use software to set up the network and control access, and a company that’s on top of things enough to do firmware updates to the router as needed.

AmpliFi

Two of my friends are big fans of the networking company Ubiquiti Networks. This company builds high-end networking gear for offices and larger installations. They only recently got into the home networking space with their AmpliFi system.

The AmpliFi wifi router (just the base station) has all the features I wanted although there was no way to find out if it alone, minus its mesh satellites, would be enough to cover my house short of buying one. It alone costs about $130 which is less than the $199 an AirPort Extreme costs. Adding more coverage costs about $110 per mesh point but there’s no reason to do that up front, you can wait until you find out you need it (or not).

For those who haven’t been following the evolution of home networking, in the old days one could extend an AirPort network by adding another AirPort router (an Express) and the method was either with an ethernet cable or with a wifi connection between the base station and its satellite. It wasn’t hard to set up although it wasn’t great and coverage was improved but still not perfect.

The modern way for a home user to do this is with what’s called a mesh system: a base station router and little mesh antennas that one can plug in around the house to extend the wireless range. Very much like building with tinker-toys, or so we’re told.

I don’t really want a mesh system here: I just need a capable router/wifi base station that has enough range to cover my house. However, the nice thing about the AmpliFi system is that it’s really both: the base unit is a direct replacement for the AirPort Extreme and one can add mesh satellites as one needs them, or, not at all.

Here is the listing for the base station alone: AmpliFi HD Mesh Router.

I ordered one from Amazon two days ago (I figured easier returns to Amazon in case it didn’t work out) and while I dreaded taking down our network, I set it up this morning.

Here’s the executive summary: setup is a snap, it has better coverage than the AirPort Extreme it replaced and my entire network (iMac Pro, laser printer, Apple TV, iOS devices) was up and running again in a few minutes. Seriously, a few minutes! The device is smaller than the AirPort: same footprint, about 2/3 the height.

Setting up the AmpliFi HD Mesh Router

It’s taking me longer to write this up than it will take you to do it.

The box this device comes in is quite amazing, almost feels like overkill but it does give the kind of confidence opening up a device from Apple gives (if packaging can do that for you).

1. Download their app on your iPhone or Android phone before starting. The app is called “amplifi” so just search for that in the app store and you’ll find it. I wish it was built for iPad as well but alas, it’s fine on the iPhone alone. Run the app before starting.

2. Disconnect all the old stuff and power down your cable modem or whatever device you have. In my case I have a battery backup on my cable modem and took that out as well as disconnected its power cord).

3. Connect AmpliFi to the cable modem with included ethernet cable.

4. Power up the cable modem.

5. Power up AmpliFi. Note: the AmpliFi power brick cable is quite short, plan accordingly.

Note: at some point in here (I forget where) I had to quit the AmpliFi app and connect to the new network in Settings on my iPhone. The app uses bluetooth for the initial setup and then uses the new wifi connection.

6. Follow the instructions on the AmpliFi app to name the network and create a password. I used the same network name and password I’d used on the AirPort Extreme.

7. Plug in whatever other LAN stuff you have (I have an iMac Pro, a laser printer, and an Apple TV, all connected via ethernet).

8. Log back into your network on all devices. Even though the network name and password were the same I had to log back in because the access point was new. Apple TV was automatic (nice).

9. The AmpliFi app will tell you all is well and that’s that. The app has ways to control the lighting and feedback on the AmpliFi router and it also gives you your network speed and more information.

Notes

The power brick cable on the AmpliFi is pretty short. Plan accordingly.

Coverage is better than the AirPort Extreme (amazing since its a smaller device). I have complete coverage anywhere in my house and in my driveway. If I need more coverage or over time I find coverage is weak I can always buy an AmpliFi MeshPoint HD or, better, another AmpliFi router and beef up my network.

Apple TV connection was automatic as I had named the network the same thing and used the same password.

Network printing on the laser printer was automatic.

I used the app to change a few settings but the default settings are fine.

If you use AirPort express to connect to home audio equipment I’d slave the same AirPort express to the AmpliFi system. I’m not sure what else to recommend at this point.

If you use a Time Capsule for over the air Time Machine backups I think you’ll probably have to switch to a locally connected Time Machine drive. There may be other solutions coming but I haven’t heard of them yet.

I’d say (so far) that this is the absolute best replacement solution for the AirPort Extreme. Easy to set up, great coverage, and I have faith that this company will keep the firmware updated.

I was dreading this changeover but in fact, it was completely painless. Those of you reading this who are in the same boat, there is no huge rush, just because Apple discontinued AirPort doesn’t mean you have to switch immediately. But, in fact, the AmpliFi setup may give you better coverage with faster speeds and it might pay to make the switch sooner than later. In short, don’t be intimidated by this, it’s doable by most if not all home network users

Feel free to let me know what your experience is in the comments.

AirPort wifi issue solved

For the past few months I’ve had sporadic drop-offs on our home network which is provided by a cable modem and an AirPort Extreme base station. I figured this was our cable provider although to be fair, we rarely have issue with cable unless there’s a severe storm.

Then I read Marco Arment’s piece Wi-Fi connections stalling on AirPort Extreme with 7.6.3 firmware and noted that I was running the latest (7.6.3) firmware. I didn’t do anything about it but saved the link to Marco’s piece.

Last week I was out in California visiting my mother and noticed that the AirPort Extreme router I have set up in her house was also running the latest firmware and in the past I’ve noticed that her network ground to a half at odd times.

So, I followed Marco’s directions and downgraded her AirPort Extreme to version 7.6.1 (extremely easy to do) and everything seemed to work fine. I don’t know if it did anything good but it certainly didn’t do anything bad. Next time I’m out there I’ll know better.

When I returned home I downgraded our AirPort Extreme and while I can’t say it solved the problems we were having they have not re-occurred since.

Marco seems to have been having problems with an iPhone dropping off and we may have had this too but I noticed it on my computer which I use much more at home.

I think this is worth trying if you’re running the latest firmware on an AirPort Extreme and have had any kind of noticeable drop-offs or slow downs.

Speculation on future Apple TV

Guy English: How I’d Build an Apple Television Set

The piece of Guy’s essay that appeals to me most is this:

So if you’re in an Apple based household the odds are good that your new Apple TV will be able to talk to one of your other devices and get the required network info from it. I’d bet heavily that this capability makes its way into AirPort devices and Macs. “Want to let this device on your network?”, is exactly the level of simplicity that Apple tends to aim for.

Setting up and using an AirPort network is much simpler than any of the other wifi routers I’ve played with over the years and my guess is that Apple is going to continue to make it simpler to add new devices to the network, including the Apple TV. It’s easy now and it will be even easier which is part of the puzzle of making a living room appliance that’s easy to use and integrate with other devices you already own.

I’m not entirely convinced that Apple will get into the flat panel TV business but I’m convinced that they’ll expand the capabilities of the current Apple TV, turning a Sony or Samsung flat panel TV set into a dumb HD screen, which is fine by me, I hate the menus on my Sony Bravia.

[via Steve Splonskowski]