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Networking

AirPort 101: Base Station Basics

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Apple has been in the router market for years now. The corporation currently offers three WiFi base stations for your home or office. I’ve used Apple’s prime router for a good eight months now and it’s been good to me. Not only was the initial setup easy, but maintaining the device has been painless and I’ve only had a few minor issues with it over the months. In this article, I’m going to tell you everything you need to know for basic AirPort base station operation. There’s even a bit of history involved, so come join me after the break.


The Base Station Selection — A Brief History

Apple's current selection of AirPort base stations.
Apple's current selection of AirPort base stations.

Before I get into the software configurations of AirPort routers, I’m going to go over the hardware that’s available to you, the consumer.

AirPort Express

Apple originally introduced the AirPort Express on June 7th, 2004. It included analog and digital audio outputs, two Ethernet ports, and a USB port for charging iPods or sharing printers wirelessly. The router took advantage of AirTunes, AirPlay’s predecessor that only allowed audio streaming, and played music anywhere you wanted in the house. Apple released this new compact router that had a similar style to the MacBook charger in July of 2004 for $129.

It's a bit Extreme.
It's a bit Extreme.

Things have changed a lot since the original AirPort Express, especially recently. In June of this year, Apple quietly refreshed its AirPort Express base station to better resemble its superior, the AirPort Extreme. This new router is similar in size to the Apple TV and adds simultaneous dual-band 802.11n WiFi to the device’s capabilities making it an even more desired alternative to third-party routers since the price was now only $99. It’s now pretty much a small home alternative to the AirPort Extreme.

AirPort Extreme

Build for speed.
Build for speed.

After the success of its smaller AirPort Express, Apple thought it was time to bring in a more powerful router for small businesses and larger homes. At Macworld in January of 2007, the Cupertino-based corporation did just that. AirPort Extreme was born with 802.11n and 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz technology, giving it a bit of an edge on the third-party competition. The device included three 10/100 Ethernet LAN ports, one 10/100 Ethernet WAN port, a USB port for printer sharing, and a built-in NAT firewall for your protection.

The latest generation of AirPort Extreme includes Gigabit (1/100/1000) Ethernet ports, easier setup than before, and hard drive sharing.

Time Capsule

Sadly, it looks nothing like those legendary time capsules that were buried under the ground for years.
Sadly, it looks nothing like those legendary time capsules that were buried under the ground for years.

Closely resembling the aforementioned AirPort Extreme, Apple’s Time Capsule hopes to be your new way of backing up everything wirelessly — it’s an AirPort Time Machine with a built-in 2 TB or 3 TB hard drive. Time Capsule has been around since January 15th of 2008 when the corporation announced it at Macworld. Other than that, the only difference between the AirPort Extreme and this remote backup device is that it costs $299 for a 2 TB model and $499 for a 3 TB one. It’s a pricey alternative to purchasing a economical multi-terabyte backup drive of the Western Digital variety as I did on Black Friday last year.


First Things: Setting Up Your AirPort

This is the main screen of AirPort Utility, which you will be seeing often.
This is the main screen of AirPort Utility, which you will be seeing often.

When you first get an AirPort base station, whether it’s Express or Extreme, you’ll have to go through a quick setup process to get things up and running. After you’re finished unboxing the pretty polycarbonate white box, follow the steps below to configure everything.

  1. Make sure you have the latest version of AirPort Utility on your computer by running Software Update. You can download the latest version here — I’ll be using it for this tutorial.
  2. Connect your modem’s Ethernet cable to the WAN port (leftmost Ethernet) on AirPort Extreme.
  3. If you don’t have a computer with a wireless card, then I suggest finding that old Ethernet cable because you’ll need it for the setup process. If you’re using an Ethernet cable, be sure to connect it to the port to the right of the WAN input on AirPort Extreme.
  4. Plug in the device, but don’t worry about turning it on — it automatically does that.
  5. Once the device has started up, click the AirPort icon in your Mac’s menubar and look for your device under the New AirPort Base Station category. Click it to proceed. If you’re using an Ethernet connection, go to AirPort Utility on your Mac and look for the device in the main screen.
  6. If you took the wireless route, you’ll be in the “This AirPort [Express/Extreme] will create a new network” screen of AirPort Utility. Give your network and base station a name and devise a password that’ll protect the device. I italicized those words because it’s important that you know the password you enter here will not affect the security of your Internet connection and is not an encryption. All it does is prevent others from modifying settings in AirPort Utility.
  7. Click Done and you’re finished with the basic setup, but there’s still more to configure if you want your network to be secure.

Secure Your Network

One of the most important parts of networking.
One of the most important parts of networking.

If you live in the middle of nowhere — I mean literally, not theoretically — then you likely have no router-poachers to worry about. Otherwise, you’re going to need to add some security to your network and I’m going to help you with it, since Apple neglected to do so during the basic setup.

  1. In AirPort Utility, click your base station and click Edit.
  2. Click the Wireless tab and select one of the four security certifications under the Wireless Security section’s drop-down menu. I suggest simply going with WPA2 personal since it’s hard to crack and doesn’t require a bunch of idiosyncratic characters. WPA/WPA2 is good to use if you have older devices because sometimes they don’t support new encryption. Other than that, there are enterprise-level certifications, but they require RADIUS protocols and that’s a whole other world.
  3. Make sure you use something unique and hard to guess for your password. Mine came from Strong Password Generator which does a great job of finding random combinations that people won’t ever understand. I only did a 10-character password without symbols so I can actually remember it. Anything beyond 15, which is apparently recommended as a standard, is overkill for most home networks. A strong password would be something along the lines of “e6YvxiS1bt”. You want the correct mixture of upper and lowercase letters with at least a few numbers.
  4. When you’re done with all of this password creation, make sure to check the “Remember this password in my keychain” box and then click Update. Your base station will restart and your new protection will be enabled once it’s finished.

"What Do Those Colorful Lights Mean?"

You might see some blinking and red lights of what you assume to be death, but what do they really mean?
You might see some blinking and red lights of what you assume to be death, but what do they really mean?

You’re probably wondering about that one light AirPort base stations have that’s usually green. Well, no light at all means the device is off, flashing green means it’s initiating, solid green means that it’s running perfectly fine (there’s a setting in AirPort Utility that’ll make flashing green the “everything is fine” setting), flashing amber means that the device can’t connect to the network or Internet, solid amber means that the device is nearly finished initiating, and flashing amber and green means the device could be having a problem starting up.


Go Extreme at 5 GHz

Interference is not an option.
Interference is not an option.

In very congested parts of a city, getting the signal from your wireless network might be hard because there’s so much interference. And that’s not the only problem; the network can oftentimes cut out, rendering that Skype call you made very unproductive. This isn’t a problem where I live, but I do understand the issue of disruption since my home phones have wireless handsets on 2.4 GHz.

If you set up the 5 GHz band, your base station will have better odds of correctly communicating with devices since it’s a less-used frequency. Also, 5 GHz has 23 non-overlapping channels, while 2.4 GHz has only three. For the time being (since there are fewer routers on the band), 5 GHz remains a clearer, better transmission frequency if you wish to transmit the closest to flawless you can. So if you’re a meticulous kind of person, this might do you well. I’ll show you how to quickly set up the 5 GHz band on an AirPort Extreme.

  1. In AirPort Utility, click your router, click Edit, go to the Wireless tab, and click “Wireless Options…”
  2. Check the box beside “5GHz network name:” to enable this band.
  3. You’ll need to rename your network for the different band so you don’t get confused when connecting. AirPort Utility will automatically add “5GHz” to the current SSID and you can modify it if you wish.
  4. Optionally, you can manually set a 5 GHz channel that you’d like the base station to use by selecting one from the “5GHz Channel:” menu.
  5. Once you’re finished tweaking stuff, click Save and then click Update to put this new plan into action.

Tip: You probably noticed that there’s a “Create hidden network” option in the Wireless Options pane. If you wish to make your network movements concealed, be sure to enable this, but be warned that you’ll need to remember the network name to manually join it since it won’t show up when scanning.


Share Your Hard Drive with AirPort Disk

Why not turn your base station into a home server?
Why not turn your base station into a home server?

Warning: Please be aware that you must have an AirPort Extreme to use this function.

One of the coolest hidden features that AirPort Extreme devices have is the ability to share hard drives over the network wirelessly or via Ethernet. It’s as simple as plugging in the device you want to share network-wide and then opening Finder on your Mac, clicking the base station in the sidebar, and double clicking the drive. (If you’re not seeing anything in the sidebar, go to Finder’s Preferences [CMD + ,], click the Sidebar tab, and check the box beside “Connected servers”.) From there you can access the files at a surprisingly quick speed even using WiFi. Now all we need is USB 3.0 support and Little Deer will run swift and sure through forest.

Tip: You can even share a USB flash drive using your AirPort Extreme. Just plug it in like you would any hard drive.

Ah, but there’s more to the disk sharing than just accessing it. You can secure the shared disks with a password if you’d like and that’ll ensure that you don’t get any unnecessary intruders in your personal files. If you want to set a password for your disks, go to AirPort Utilities’ Edit screen and click the Disks menu. You select either to use the base station’s password (misleadingly named “with device password”), a password that you set for the disk, or using accounts that you can configure — you’ll be inserting a username, password, and the usual information for this method. Remember to click Update when you’re done to apply the settings.


Use Access Control to Limit Your Kids’ Usage

Is that Teenager on Facebook too much? Let's have some fun with his access.
Is that Teenager on Facebook too much? Let's have some fun with his access.

Tip:This only works on the wireless network and won’t affect Ethernet connections.

If you head over to the Network tab of AirPort Utility’s Edit window, you’ll see that there is an Access Control setting available. This will limit the usage of certain devices to whatever you choose. Instead of using parental controls on your Mac, why not have this as an alternative? Once you insert the MAC address of a device using the + and put in some times you’d like that device to access the network, it’ll be restricted to exactly those junctures. It’ll also work for iOS devices or anything else that accesses the wireless network.


Learn Even More About AirPort

Read up.
Read up.

Image by AlphaONE666.

Surprisingly, there’s even more to know about Apple’s wireless technology. I’ve gathered a few notable documents and articles that you should read on AirPort and networking in general if you wish to further your knowledge of the subject. Below’s a short list of them.

I hope you enjoyed this article and that it taught you quite a bit about your local network. If you have some of your own suggestions or tips for AirPort networking, let us know in the comments.

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