Apple AirPort Then and Now

Four scores seven years ago, Apple had a line of Wi-Fi routers they called the AirPort. This line included the AirPort Express, Extreme, and Time Capsule. Then, in 2018, Apple decided it would discontinue its Wi-Fi routers and dissolve its AirPort division. Since then, Apple’s AirPort routers have started falling behind when compared to the modern competition. Today, I’m sure many users have a plan to replace them. But, could they still be useful? Let’s find out and take a brief look at its history.

Before looking at the state of AirPorts today, let’s first go back to where it all began. 

As the story always goes, we return to 1997, Steve Jobs’ has returned to Apple and is trying to turn around the failing company. One of his groundbreaking announcements, and what leaped Apple back into the mainstream, was the release of the original iMac and Apple’s new focus on highlighting the power of the internet. Jobs’ also introduced a four-box grid with consumer and Pro on one axis and desktop and portable on the other. Altogether, there were a lot of devices of different form factors Apple was trying to take online. It was only fitting that Wi-Fi came along as a convenient way to bring the internet to all these devices. Then, to help push the technology along Apple felt the need to enter the Wi-Fi router market themselves. Hence we had Apple’s line of Wi-Fi routers they called AirPort.

The AirPort line first launched in 1999, with two products, the AirPort Base Station and the AirPort Card. The unique dome-shaped Base Station was Apple’s first attempt at making a Wi-Fi router. And, after five iterations, the AirPort Extreme would replace the Base Station in 2007. Along with a new name came a slim, square design that later transitioned into a tower with a smaller footprint. But, since the beginning, the Base Station and Extreme were Apple’s high-end routers in the lineup, featuring multiple ethernet ports, better WiFi antennas, and later a USB port that could be used to network in a printer or for AirPort Disk, a feature that allowed you to create a network file server, also known as a NAS, by connecting an external drive.

The AirPort Card, on the other hand, was an optional add-on for Macs that gave them Wi-Fi connectivity. You could crack open your compatible Mac, slide the card into the designated slot, and that’s how you would get Wi-Fi. (This was back in the day when users could open their computers and make modifications when needed. That’s not to say it was always an easy process, just that it was possible.) The add-on card, sold separately, would become obsolete by 2009 due to Wi-Fi becoming a standard feature built into Macs. 

Then along came the AirPort Express in 2004, a super slimmed-down low-end version of the AirPort Extreme that only received two updates after its initial launch, first in 2008 and again in 2012. The first two generations looked like a MacBook power adapter with a single ethernet port for connecting the adapter to the internet, a USB port to network connect a printer, and an aux port for AirTunes, the precursor of AirPlay. By the second generation, the design of the Express transitioned into a scaled-down AirPort Extreme, with all the same ports as the previous Express, other than an additional ethernet port to connect one device. 

The last router introduced was the AirPort Time Capsule. The Time Capsule was an AirPort Extreme featuring an internal drive with a capacity of 500GB, 1TB, or 2TB, depending on the model. You could then access that storage from any computer over your local network. Its primary purpose was to serve as a backup drive for your Mac using the Time Machine app bundled with macOS Leopard. This would have been the perfect backup solution for portable MacBook users who wouldn’t have to worry about plugging in an external drive anymore. As long as you were home and connected to your WiFi, your Mac would automatically back up.

Over the 19 years of the AirPort line’s existence, they got incremental updates until the market matured, and Apple decided to call it a day in 2018 after dispersing the AirPort team in 2016. Ultimately they knew when it was time to take a step back and focus on other things. So, they sold off the last of their inventory and instead started selling routers from Linksys, Netgear, and Eero at Apple Stores and online. And that was the last of the AirPort.

So, what was the benefit of going with one of Apple’s WiFi routers? It’s the same reason you pick up any other Apple accessory, integration into the Apple Ecosystem. Now, I can’t speak about setting up the original AirPort devices because that was a bit before my time, but I assume it had a simple setup process. However, when the iPhone came around, the setup went next level. When I was setting up my 2012 AirPort Express for the first time, it was as easy as powering up the router, opening the WiFi setting on my iPhone, and choosing the AirPort setup. Then, quickly go through the wizard, and it’s ready to go. After the initial setup, you can do more customizing using the AirPort app preinstalled on your Mac or downloaded from the iOS App Store. Once in the app, all the AirPorts on the network should automatically be discovered and laid out in a comprehensive tree design. Beyond that, the app was widely disliked for being unintuitive and feature-lacking. Personally, the latter was why my family switched to a Netgear Nighthawk. 

Fast forward to today, and those original AirPorts are obviously obsolete, and the newer ones may have a couple more good years in them. But there are still some features that make an AirPort useful.

For instance, the second-generation AirPort Express from 2012, gained an update in 2018 that brought AirPlay 2 support and support for the Home app.

For those who don’t know, AirPay is a feature that allows you to wirelessly send your media from your iPhone, iPad, Mac, etc., to a compatible speaker, like a HomePod or another AirPlay-compatible speaker like select Sonos speakers. You can easily connect to those speakers by going to the media controls in Control Center and selecting your speaker from the list. This solution is WAY simpler than dealing with Bluetooth since you don’t have to mess with pairing devices and such. 

Thanks to AirPlay built into the AirPort Express, you can plug any normal speakers into the headphone jack in the back of the Express, dive into the AirPort app, enable the AirPlay feature, give your speakers a name, and optionally add a password. After clicking save, you are clear to send your audio to your speakers. But, the AirPort Express from 2012 isn’t the only speaker to get AirPlay 2. So, get subscribed to learn of all the devices you can AirPlay to and from.

More specifically, if you have an AirPort Extreme from the 2010s, especially from the last round of updates in 2013, you’re probably in pretty good shape. You will have full gigabit ethernet ports and a solid Wi-Fi broadcast. Time Capsule users, on the other hand, you may want to start looking for replacement external backup drives for your Mac. That internal drive isn’t going to last forever. And, AirPort Express users should only be using it for AirPlay due to its super slow networking speeds, both wired and wireless.

Nonetheless, other than the AirPort Express getting AirPlay 2 support, the rest of the lineup isn’t getting any younger. However, the Wi-Fi versions are backwards and forwards compatible, for the most part. So, even though your older router may be a bit out of date, depending on what you do, you may continue using it without really noticing. 

If you’re looking to upgrade your old router, try checking out a mesh network. I made a video on them a couple of weeks ago. They are super simple, upgradeable, and expandable. I will leave a link to that video below.

So, that was the AirPort, Apple’s dabble in the Wi-Fi router market. 

Thanks for watching! If you enjoyed this video, be sure to like and subscribe. And, if an Apple AirPort still powering your network, let me know in the comments below. Also below, you will find the description where you can learn more about the topic discussed today, along with links to our website, socials, and Patreon where you can directly support the channel. Once again, thank you so much for watching, and I will catch you in the next one. 

Bonus Fact: 

Did you know Apple once charged $5 to unlock the next generation of Wi-Fi, a standard that was already built into their computers? Yes, back in 2007, Apple launched Macs featuring Intel’s Core 2 Duo with a built-in AirPort Express card that gave these computers access to the worldwide web over Wi-Fi using all the latest versions of the 802.11 Wi-Fi standard of the time, a, b, and g. However, there was one that was disabled, and that was n. You had three options for unlocking the n standard. One was to purchase the enabler for $5, later reduced to $2, from the Apple Store, buy the first generation of the AirPort Extreme that included an enabler install on a disk, or wait until it was unlocked in a future software update. Why did they do this? At the time, they claimed they had to “charge customers for software upgrades” according to “generally accepted accounting principles” Did you purchase the enabler? Let me know in the comments below. 

Links: 

  • Wikipedia: “AirPort” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AirPort
  • 9to5Mac: “Apple officially discontinues AirPort router line, no plans for future hardware” – https://9to5mac.com/2018/04/26/apple-airport-cancellation/
  • Make Use Of: “Apple’s AirPort Extreme: What Happened to Apple’s Router?” – https://www.makeuseof.com/apple-airport-extreme/
  • MacWorld: “What is Apple AirPort?” – https://www.macworld.co.uk/feature/what-is-airport-3512759/
  • iLounge: “Review: Apple AirPort Express with AirTunes” – https://www.ilounge.com/index.php/reviews/entry/apple-airport-express-with-airtunes-ipod
  • Apple Support (Archive): “Choosing a Wi-Fi router to use with Apple Devices” – https://web.archive.org/web/20180427012008/https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT208753
  • Apple Support: “Recommended settings for Wi-Fi routers and access points” – https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT202068
  • Apple AirPort Base Station 1999 Ad – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5SPR5jqS_eA
  • MacWorld: New York 1999: iBook & AirPort Introduction – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3iTNWZF2m3o
  • The 8-Bit Guy (on YouTube): “Apple AirPort Extreme for Cheap Wireless!” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a1eXqI2s0Yc&t=247s
  • DetroitBORG (on YouTube): “Apple Airport Extreme and Time Capsule (2013): Unboxing & Setup Demo” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2trs2GMG3NY
  • 9to5Mac: “AirPort Express firmware update adds AirPlay 2 and Home app support” – https://9to5mac.com/2018/08/28/airport-express-airplay-2-homekit/

Links for AirPort Extreme 802.11n Enabler for Mac: https://appleinsider.com/articles/07/01/30/apple_serves_up_199_airport_extreme_80211n_enabler

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