Wednesday, April 17, 2024

It’s Time for a New AirPort

Joe Rosensteel (Mastodon):

Jason didn’t get that speed boost from an Apple-made wireless router, because Apple got out of making those long ago. He didn’t get that speed from a wireless router currently for sale at the Apple Store because the only two options are the Linksys Velop AX4200 WiFi 6 Mesh System, and AmpliFi Alien Router (with optional mesh extenders). Linksys does make a version of their Velop mesh network with 6E, but it’s not for sale through Apple.

Jason used an Eero 6E router, and wasted half a day trying to change his network topology to allow for it so he could see that speed difference.


Designing networking solutions in every device to work around the one component Apple doesn’t want to make is a lot of effort. The R&D can’t cost more than a self-driving, bread-loaf saloon, and the benefits of an Apple wireless router will lift all of Apple’s products. It’s time to head back to the AirPort.

Matt Birchler:

Apple doesn’t need to be in every market, but I do agree with Joe’s point that basically everything Apple makes relies on good wireless networks to deliver the best experience, and it makes sense for Apple to get back in the game.


28 Comments RSS · Twitter · Mastodon

I don't think Apple could add anything to the router game.

I bought some D-Link mesh routers on sale four years ago, spent ten minutes setting them up, moved one the next day because it dropped the connection, and haven't touched them since.

Hard disagree.

One, do people really only use their iPhones on WiFi at home? "The iPhone is a cellular device, but when you’re at home, you’re on your Wi-Fi network." What?!!? I literally know people who don't even have home Internet because they have unlimited mobile data (and generally some bucket of data for tethering). Right now, with an LTE only model cell phone on my first floor I see 71.1 Mbps down and 9.15 Mbps up. Sometimes I see almost 100 Mbps down. On bad days it's still generally like 15 Mbps down. At good locations it's often closer to 150 Mbps down. My daughter's new 5G cell phone is getting almost 300 Mbps down. I actually use my mobile connection to offload capacity from my home Internet. Since Apple sells more iPhones than every other non iPhone device combined, I really don't think it matters a ton from the iPhone perspective. But even if the iPhone becomes your "smart home remote control" when at home, what routers don't work with the iPhone? This is such a bizarre misunderstanding of the requirements for home networking, I can't even imagine how this got published as an article.

Two, Apple's Airport models were rarely competitive for longer than a year or two and Apple was generally slow to update the hardware with revisions languishing for years. The fact that the thrust of the article is how people really should upgrade because 6e is such a big deal, when the market is starting to already move to WiFi 7 kind of shows the issues with being stuck in a single vendor world. 6e has been a thing for years now (going on 4 years if I have my math right), is Apple really only now incorporating the chips into their devices? Either way, there's been 6e clients on the market for a while now with 6e routers available to support them. Even if Wifi 5, aka 802.11ac, and WiFi 6, aka 802.11ax (non 6GHz variety) still has a strong foothold of course. I readily acknowledge the reality of supporting devices for years.

Three, Apple's management software for their devices kind of sucked. If you had a non Apple client device, I don't think you could manage the last model AC routers at all with those non Apple clients. No, not even with Windows with Airport Utility. Also, Airport models didn't offer a ton of features compared to their competitors. They were generally stripped down affairs says my memory as an owner of multiple Airport models, especially with the newer management software (that literally removed features!). The client software was pretty mid, like pretty much all app only management solutions (let me tell you how much I loathe all these half baked tools, hate, hate, hate app only management).

Four. There are a lot of really good current WiFi 6e devices on the market, how do these tech writers not understand how to configure one and connect a backup drive to their existing routers and toggle drive sharing? There's a whole thing in this article about how they need network backup and Apple could solve this vacuum; yet, existing solutions allow backup targets and/or network data sharing. My router has options for Samba, Time Machine, and even rsync. These aren't your average users mind you, yet they don't understand how to make this work right now? "And just think of how much they could charge for that embedded solid-state storage! They’re leaving money on the table! Bleed us dry, Tim! Sell a line of them: AirPort Express mesh nodes, AirPort Extreme with ports, AirPort Ultra with Time Capsule" This thinking is so stupid, I don't even understand how single source consumers can manager to make any purchasing decisions given the reasoning. You have good options for backup now, use them. Don't let Apple bleed you dry!

Agreed. There are simply so many easy to use and robust models on the market and made by companies who actually care about the product line.

For example:
My current router is an AC model that is nearly 10 years old and it still rocks! For one reason, Asus actually added features to it over the years via software update (hello mesh mode!), whereas my Airport gear literally lost features after software updates. Secondly, it has decent support for 3rd party firmware, so there's always an outlet there to keep the routers going if Asus were to drop support. Right now, at least 3 other firmware providers support my model. Choice is excellent and it has kept many of my other network devices running for the same reason, whereas my Airport gear became a dead end once Apple lost interest. In fact, this router model actually started as a locked down T-Mobile branded model that was unsurprisingly abandoned when T-Mobile lost interest (sound familiar?). Luckily the community stepped in and kept the devices running with support.

I have considered WiFi 6 and 6e upgrades to my home networking, but with things more or less just continuing to work, I hate junking functional gear. Yes, my Wifi connection can now bottleneck Internet speed to any one single client given my home Internet is 500 Mbps down, and I can managed about 300 Mbps/400Mbps over Wifi generally with my AC clients. Since I do backups over network, I really could use a speed boost and have considered it, then again, my devices do incremental backups and generally there's not more than 20GB of backup at any given time. It's tempting to upgrade, but I've never clamored for Apple to get back into the game because why single source when there's already excellent gear to choose from that will accomplish the same goals.

@Nathan I'm sorry, I passed out several thousand words into your screed. Did you say anything useful?

On a larger level, I love when the consensus yells about Apple and monopoly and how dare they but they should definitely build a new router / printer / display. How dare they not do the things I WANT THEM TO.

Sam Rowlands

I love the performance and range of my single TP-Link router. But I'd rather have my eye balls pecked at by crows than touch their admin interface.

The one reason that I bought so many Apple Base Stations, right from the moment that Apple starting selling their own, was just how easy it was to administer and maintain from a Mac.

@Nathan Spill the beans then, son: what's the make/model of your all-singing, all-dancing router with Samba, Time Machine and rsync support? I'm in the market for one and could do with some recommendations.

For WiFi backup to work first and for all Apple needs to fix their outdated Time Machine implementation. It’s slow. It corrupts. It wastes so much space.

We had NAS from pretty much every vendor and now and then you get backup corrupted. Connecting external drive will give the same results.

And although on our current Unifi WiFi 6 we still can get easily 600/700 mbit - when Time Machine doing backup it barely uses 10.

WRT your point number four I think it's a combination "what I see is all there is" and learned helplessness.

Julian N Ozen

The pitch is so simple and obvious too

1 - Set up your router like AirPods magically and manage in the home app
2 - Make AirPlay and AirDrop work better
3 - Offer HomeKit, home automation and matter features
4 - Offer offline features / caching for homekit and media streaming services
5 - auto connect new apple devices and third party devices to your icloud and network
6 - Use your phone as hotspot when your cable goes down

I think most Asus routers offer Time Machine and Samba, but if you enable Entware/Optware, you can definitely enable rysnc too. I just loaded up a web simulation of a newer Asus model than my older RT-AC68U model and I see the same options. I have never used the Time Machine support because I low key hate using Time Machine but it's definitely there. I was honestly a SuperDuper! and Carbon Copy Cloner user when I used a Mac as my primary platform. For my Linux and Windows clients, I have used both "rsync directly to drive connected to router" and I have also done the "mount drive as samba share at boot and then rysnc to the drive for backup" with my Asus routers.
Here's the demoui page with the USB settings, feel free to poke around:

I loaded up some TP Link web UI emulator and I see it offers file sharing and Time Machine support, but I can't say for sure if it has rsync somewhere or via package manager:

If a router, be it TP-Link or other brand, can run OpenWRT or DD-WRT you can definitely add many more packages for use. You should be able to run Time Machine over Samba to an OpenWRT router. Not sure how things work with DD-WRT, but I figure it's got to be similar.
OpenWRT Time Machine over Samba:

It's still broken? I used Time Machine for a while over WiFi and it was awful years ago. I figured Apple had to have finally fixed it. I gave up and kept using Carbon Copy Cloner over the network for the Mac systems I maintained because it worked much better. It essentially just used rsync and preshared keys if I remember correctly.

If this is true and the implementation sucks, then it won't matter what router I suggest if they are all super slow and prone to corruption. (Ps I had this problem with Time Machine even over USB drives.)

I imagine it to be true. I use pretty basic home tech honestly, I understand there's many other excellent solutions on the market that meet a wide range of needs and try not to stay close minded to those solutions. I also don't mind digging in a little to see what my current solutions can muster. But I suppose some people are less inquisitive?

I was just surprised any technology blogger would find setting up shared drives hard. For instance, does MacOS no longer allows File Sharing? And you can backup to that Mac via Time Machine right?

Carbon Copy Cloner also has options for this:
Mac to Mac network backup:

CCC backup to other network devices:

Yes, you require a dedicated Mac, but it can be an older model, as long as it meets the minimum MacOS requirements to enable the sharing and backup.

@Stupor I typed up a response but I accidentally posted under your name with a severe copy and paste failure into the name field (it's been one of those days!!!!), so it's been eaten by the blog software I imagine. To clarify, the message was literally there for a second then it disappeared after I posted another response to @Ramzez. Again, it's been a long day. Good gracious.

Bottom line is Asus should be a good place to start. I loaded up their demo UI to see what a newer model looked like and it had the same Time Machine and samba options as my older model. If you install Optware/Entware you can enable rysnc directly too. For some of my clients (as in people who I work with) I have a samba share that shows up on their system (be it Windows or Linux) and then rsync will run as a scheduled task to back up to the samba share, but I've also had clients' systems configured to backup directly to the router via rysnc with an SSH key.

TP-Link also has options for Time Machine and Samba share access. I loaded up their TP-Link web demo to see how the newer firmwares work and they seem fairly easy to configure. I'm not sure about rsync on TP-Link routers.

If a router, be it TP-Link or other brand, can run OpenWRT or DD-WRT you can definitely add many more packages for use. You should be able to run Time Machine over Samba to an OpenWRT router. Not sure how things work with DD-WRT, but I figure it's got to be similar.
OpenWRT Time Machine over Samba:

Watch out: that Amplifi Alien router is $379.95 from Apple but only $199 directly from Ubiquiti. Likewise, the mesh kit is $699.95 from Apple, but $379 from Ubiquiti.

Good catch! People should always shop for best price and a good reminder Apple is often not the cheapest outlet.

TLDR version for you my friend. The premise of the linked article is bizarre. All of the current things they want except maybe one(?) are already possible with a plethora of other models of routers already on the market. I also find it strange to assert that people only use WiFi at home with their iPhones. What's the point of paying for cellular access to not bother using it. With the exceptions of homes with poor cellular reliability and certain locales with very expensive cell plans.

I'm asserting as a person who's used many different routers over the years, that Apple's supposed advantage here is nil and they simply milked a bunch of people out of money for many years with their stagnant model line and expect them to do the exact same thing again if they were to bring back the Airport line. And again, I used Airport router in addition to Netgear, Western Digital (remember those), Vizio (Gemtek rebadge), Asus, Tenda, other some random Chinese brands, and a whole host of ISP provided models. I obviously can't use every model of every brand and am exclusively home and SOHO focused, but it's something.

@Nathan Certain locales like the US? We have OK cellular reliability, but it’s slow and expensive. I don’t think I know anyone who relies on cellular at home. Are these people who only have a mobile device—no Mac, TV, or printer?

@Julian N Ozen
1. Yes, if complex things could be automagically connected, that is wonderful, but many (all consumer?) non Airport routers come pre-configured out of the box for a basic setup. You simply input the default SSID and password and your device is connected. With the app based or web based configuration you are prompted to change the login name and then offered the chance to change SSID and WiFi passwords too. It's pretty simple. But clearly not every use case is covered and even some basic things can be configured incorrectly.

2. When I had AirPlay devices and Apple routers many years ago, I had the same level of problems as when I used non Apple routers, so I wonder if the issue was the protocol, not the hardware. Never used AirDrop, does it not work well currently?

3. HomeKit is something I know nothing about, this might be the best point here, because I'm not sure if there's any particular integration of HomeKit with non Apple routers currently. But I use no smart home devices at all, not from any brand or platform. Woefully ignorant I am, apologies.

4. Yes. The old OS X server options would be useful on a new Aiport. This is another great use case.

5. How do you propose autoconnect? NFC? Bluetooth? Because semi-automatic pairing has existed on routers for years. It either take a button press on each device or inserting a short numeric pin in lieu of the full password. Automatic joining has also used account sign-in to sync credentials (again, not truly automatic given you have to login to an account), but on devices with no prior network connection, hard to login to an account first to automatically pair to the network when you aren't on a network. :) So NFC/Bluetooth type intitial pairing? (I think Chromecasts were using sound waves to do an initial phone to device pairing for setup as an example.

6. Mobile phone tethering? Okay, this is something many routers have offered for years, maybe decades. Some models even allow double WAN configured by default with automatic rollover if the primary WAN goes down. However, when I had an Airport router, even though there was a USB port and even though the iPhone existed, (I had a 2009 Airport Extreme model which was supported with firmware updates for years), there was no USB phone tethering support. But I don't think Apple ever added this feature, even to the AC Airport Extreme model released in 2013. Can someone who used the last model Airport Extreme please chime in and clarify.

@Michael Tsai
Yes. Like the US.

I have lived in the same location for 12 years. We have gigantic power lines (not the normal ones, those are buried, the big provider ones), we have lots of trees, and because of all the federal land around us, not like a carrier can just put up another tower easily. Even so, the population density is very high, so there's only a few towers, partially obstructed, and often overly congested. Even with all those problems, most times cellular data was simply fine. And service can vary in surprising ways, like 4 years ago I was getting 40 Mbps down on my LG G6, then same phone last year, was getting closed to 10/15 Mbps down at most. (it's an extra phone line so I tend to keep an older model phone on that line and it makes testing signal consistent being the same model, same location, same carrier.) Now it's like 40 Mbps again and I'm guessing there was a tower upgrade since my personal use LTE Samsung S10e is suddenly getting almost 100 Mbps down instead of 35 Mbps.

When you get 1 Mbps down, yeah that's not usable (been there on occasion), but generally anything 8-10Mbps or more is usable since it's per device. I see no reason not to use the data I pay for and it helps offload congestion on the home network. Also handy if there's an Xfinity outage because I can tether up to 6GB per device (and unlimited if I use a proxy app, but I don't use that often).

As far as mobile only, yeah, I know many people who do not own a printer at all, some don't own computers, some do but simply tether their smart phone for data. Typically younger people who are never home anyway between work, school, and social life. So they have their phone and like one streaming device, and maybe a computer at most.

Even for people who use a lot of Internet and have multiple devices, if they live remotely, there is no home Internet option other than mobile and satellite typically. Satellite, frankly, sucks, even SpaceX stuff is generally worse than any mobile option and the legacy satellite options are typically not even worth using. As such, I'm quite familiar with setting up a mobile hotspot or cell phone to a normal router (think 2600+ square foot house and the big yard around it). I have client who has happily used that for years because it beats paying Comcast $16K-$30K to install service. Again, this was a regular network, backboned by mobile data. Printers, streaming devices, computers, tablets, etc. Now they use T-Mobile Home Internet (5G service) and despite it's drawbacks (carrier grade NAT, aka CGNAT, lack of IPv6 prefix delegation, no real configuration options on the mandated Gateway, etc.) it works very well.

So there's two sides of the mobile data only coin, those who literally only have a phone and then people who have regular use cases, but still only use Mobile data because of lack of Internet options. In fact, even in the case of my mom, she has options for Verizon FIOS, Xfinity, and TMHI, and after years of Xfinity she still went to TMHI since it has the cheapest service and the easiest setup. So I guess that's the third group opting for mobile data in some way, they choose it despite have other options. My mom has a normal network with multiple streaming devices, multiple computer, printer, and even makeshift NAS I built her for network backup.

Michael, if you do a speedtest on your current iPhone while at home, what kind of speeds are you seeing? Is this a 5G model?

Sam Rowlands
What model TP-Link?

@Nathan I’m not at home now, but my recollection is the mobile service is like 1 Mbps and only works when I’m near a window. Much worse than even legacy satellite. And I would have to pay more to get more data, so the idea of using the data I already pay for or offloading from the home network (which is I think unmetered 300 Mbps cable) is hilarious.

I always end up thinking too seriously about this because my first introduction to AirPort was a friend who pointed out that Apple made Ethernet routers, too, and that these can also contain hard disks, or audio output. And, honestly, that was the basis on which I bought one, and the basis on which I expected to use one, much as I had expected a Mac to be a mere pretty UNIX box. I ended up with several of them doing my network's Wi-Fi, and coming to appreciate them for the quality of the engineering and their stability, as well as the terrific emphasis they put on ease-and convenience of-use (yes, even with AU5.6), which for someone with experience of setting up Linux boxes from scratch as routers, I regard as a significant and credible reason to have products like this. I appreciate that others simply don't share that view and that's cool. So do what you (and I, now) do: put together your network from high quality options with lots of configurability, spend over the odds for the privilege, tinker to your heart's content, and enjoy the glow of satisfaction that comes from having what tech reporters dream about, right now, but can't seem to manage for themselves. I recommend MikroTik, Asus or (for their managed stuff) Netgear, possibly running third-party firmware (I dig OpenWRT, FWIW, but my preference is for bare-metal) Linux where available. But, agreed with Nathan here, who provides an excellent starting point for a list. The idea is not to do it _at all_, it's to do it _conveniently_ and all in one box. Just think how much nicer iCloud Relay would be if you could use it bidirectionally, to access the interior of your network. Or how much more useful the sleep proxy or HomeKit would be if you didn't need an always-on iPad or Apple TV. It's just obvious that Apple should stake the claim to "Just works!" in an area where, frankly, the only people who have the chops to make it work are nerds and other social inadequates. Source: nerd and social inadequate.

Oh, and forgot to add: none of which is by way of saying that Apple were perfect. They were not. Dogmatism and puritanism in matters of OS choice, a flagging faith in technological empowerment and standards and a tragic and inevitable late-stage focus on anything but headline specs (which is precisely how you lose to Asus, or Netgear) would always prove to be the fatal character flaw. You can't compete on the tangibles--not really. That's where all the commodity attention is. So you need to differentiate, whilst maintaining your lead in the other areas. Apple did not do this. And that's why AirPort died, and Apple killed it. They need grown-ups over there who'll build a new AirPort product line on a Linux foundation, to give weenies who need it advanced tools--channel the Mac developer scene, maybe even make a marketplace out of third-party extensions, while keeping up with the jones' on specs, processing power, features and what not, in a distinctly Apple-focussed way that accentuates their platform features. Whatever it would have taken to race credibly. They did not and will not. Tragic.

Airport related question:
Anyone here have a last model Airport Express? The one that sits flat, has simultaneous dual band 802.11n, and a dedicated WAN port? If so, does it have ProxySTA mode?

As noted by Dan Frakes in his review of the plugin to the wall 802.11n Airport Express model:
"To activate ProxySTA, you must set up the Express to join a wireless network and then enable the Allow Ethernet Clients setting; both settings are located in the Wireless tab of AirPort Utility."

I had that model and it worked very well in this mode, but I never could figure out if the newer model Express could do the same thing. It's kind of been a curiosity to me this last decade since the model was released. I never knew anyone who owned one of the upgraded models to get confirmation.

@Michael Tsai
1 Mbps down? Yikes! Is this a carrier problem? Or have you tried all the main carriers and same issue? Is this 5G?

As far as paying for data, I mean, when $30/month gets you 40GB (Mint Mobile) or in my case it's unlimited for $25 per line family plan situation (T-Mobile legacy plan), I'm going to put the data to use. If T-Mobile allowed a 2nd home Internet line (not sure if they do or don't honestly), I might even switch my Xfinity home service over too (I have one TMHI line for my mom's place already on the family plan). It's acceptably fast, like 300 Mbps or so, for a low-ish price, with no installation. Battling the shitty gateways they provide is the biggest issue, so locked down and so limited that I actually had to find a 3rd party app that gave you access to wild and crazy features like disabling the WiFi, changing the WiFi channel, and such.

@Nathan I have and treasure my latest-gen dual-band Express and yes it supports "Proxy STA" mode. It is a great way to add a (slow) Ethernet port over Wi-Fi, as well as AirPlay. But since it has the two ports, it generally makes more sense to just turn off the Wi-Fi entirely and simply use it as an AirPlay-enabled fast-ethernet switch.

@Nathan OK, I just tested it, and the speed is about 1.3 Mbps down and 0.1 Mbps up. This is with Boom Red, where $32/month gets you 10 GB, since I’ve found the Verizon network to have fewer dead zones in my area. Mint Mobile (on the T-Mobile network) is less expensive but has the worst coverage in my area. AT&T is in between.

Thank you!!!! When I had Airport routers, I started using the Airport Express as a WiFi bridge for older 802.11b/g and non WiFi devices and it worked really well for those devices that couldn't be wired easily with Ethernet directly from the router. So good to know the last generation model had the same ability, as underutilized as it might have been.

Another cool feature of Airport routers that basically no one talks about was Bonjour Sleep Proxy, where a Mac on your network could stay asleep until a device called it for a shared service. It was literally a checkbox and things "just worked" is my memory (getting older though, beware the memories); whereas, I feel like setting up a magic packet wakeup on Linux and similar was a little more involved. I loved that feature. My home server was a Mac mini (a couple different models) for many years and it could stay asleep when not running backups or serving media, which was the primary use case for the device. Saved a lot of energy. The trick was the Airport router kept broadcasting all the available services for the sleeping computer so clients could still see them and then request a connection, thus waking up the sleeping Mac.

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