The Airport Extreme and Time Capsule were updated today with some new features that, while they don’t change the basic capabilities of the devices, do make them more flexible. Both devices now offer “guest networking” and simultaneous dual-band networks. All of the new features apply equally to the Airport Extreme and the Time Capsule. The Airport Express, sadly, has been left out of today’s update cycle.
While most people won’t run out to exchange their existing Airports, it is worth considering the new features to see if they are something you could use.
In previous models of the Airport, you had to choose either 2.4GHz or 5GHz. If you ran at 2.4GHz you could still offer the increased speeds of 802.11n but it would not be quite as fast as 802.11n on 5GHz. If you went with 5GHz, then your 802.11b/g devices were left out in the cold.
The new Airport Extreme offers the ability to run separate wireless networks on both the 2.4GHz and the 5GHz band at the same time. This means that you should be able to offer maximum connection speeds to all your devices, regardless of type. For many people, this means that your new MacBook or MacBook Pro will finally be able to access your home network at top speeds while you still allow older devices to connect.
In my house, this means that I could allow my Nintendo Wii and an old PC laptop to connect on 802.11g and move my MacBook to 802.11n on 5GHz. This should result in a speed increase on the MacBook when I am accessing my home file server. If you are only connecting to the Internet from your laptop (and not another device on your home network) then this feature is not going to help you because your wireless connection is still going to be faster than your Internet connection. However, if you are sharing files between devices on your home network (Apple TV syncing with iTunes, file server, iPhoto library sharing, etc.) then you will definitely enjoy the higher speed.
This is a good solution for an office environment with a range of devices too. You can enable 5GHz 802.11n for the latest laptops and still support iPhones, Blackberry’s and older computers that can only access 802.11b/g networks.
Guest networking is a new feature that allows you to create a separate wireless network that only allows those users to access the Internet. The practical effect is that they are blocked from accessing devices that are on the “main” wireless network or connected to the Ethernet LAN ports. This is a great feature for someone that wants to create public access in their home or at work. I have a client that uses an Airport Extreme at their restaurant and left the network open for their patrons to use. This new Airport Extreme would allow them to share the Airport and use it for their internal network and still offer guest access. You could also set this up in the lobby of your office too, so that visiting guests could use your Wi-Fi for their iPhone or laptop to get on the Internet, but not on your office network.
You could also disable the guest network temporarily if you needed all the available bandwidth to download the latest Battlestar Galactica episode on Saturday morning – with the series finale coming up soon, you wouldn’t want to have to wait and run the risk of getting spoilers on Twitter before you had a chance to watch it, right? Or is that just me?
The configuration screen for Guest Networking on Apple’s web site only shows password as an option. It would be nice to have additional controls on the guest network so you could limit bandwidth usage or control access by time of day. It could be on during business hours and off at night, for example.
Do You Need One?
The Airport Extreme and Time Capsule updates are great and I see real practical uses for both dual-band and guest networking.
If you would use the Time Capsule at work or at home with a file server, then using dual-band networking to allow full speed connections for all devices probably has a measurable benefit for you. If you are only accessing the Internet and your current wireless connection is faster than your Internet connection, then you are fine with what you have.
For those that want to share their Internet connection with guests at work or at home, or even neighbors, then the new guest networking gives you a way to do that without inadvertently sharing access to your private network at the same time — a really important feature in some scenarios.
Of course, what I really want to know is if these changes are coming to the older models or not. On the surface, they look like software changes (guest networking) but I don’t know if dual-band networking requires hardware support that the previous models are lacking. We’ll find out soon, I’m sure, because I can’t be the only one that would love to update their existing Airport Extreme with these features.