Whither Wi-Fi? Recommendations in an AirPort-less World

Today, Bloomberg Technology News released a story that heralded the death of one of my favorite products over the years, the AirPort. It is one of the few products currently available at Apple that predates my career as an Apple Admin(1). Over the years, we’ve seen a lot of features crammed into these little boxes, and I have a tremendous fondness for them overall.

My thanks to Apple for building a good, solid little box that did so much. I’ve got some recommendations that I’ve been thinking about for some time, along a couple different lines of thought:

Budget Performance

I have yet to find a device that I like more than the current AirPort Express, just in terms of what it does: Home Router, Home Wi-Fi, AirPlay speaker, remotely managed. There isn’t anything I’ve found that is as easily-managed as the AirPort line is. But there are some good options:

  • Archer C7 (<$99) – 802.11ac, 3×3:3, USB Port for basic NAS

Pros:
* The UI doesn’t totally blow
* Good performance for throughput
* Good coverage for 5GHz for single-floor, drywall construction dwellings

Cons:
* Not great at density
* Not very useful just as an access point
* NAS performance very limited.

Pros:
* Synology UI that you like from your NAS
* Beamforming Support to alter coverage areas
* Good performance for throughput

Cons:
* No USB for direct storage, meant to be used with an existing Synology NAS

Mesh Networking

In the early days of Wi-Fi, Wireless Distribution System (WDS) was an extension of 802.11g that would allow you to use Wi-Fi access points as wireless relays to expand coverage. I wrote a piece for an early edition of Make Magazine on how it works, and it’s been something we’ve used various places over the years, but mostly only when we’ve had to. Each wireless link in the chain can halve your bandwidth, and clog the airwaves. It’s a last ditch effort.

Or, it was, until some new players like eero and Luma started to dip their toe in the proprietary Wi-Fi world, and brought legacy companies like Netgear to the fight. Neither eero nor Luma carry Wi-Fi Alliance certification, but I don’t think that should be the end-all, be-all of the world. I’ve recommended both eero and Luma to clients, and some have adopted it. There are some interesting choices that they’ve made, and there are some consequences to that. Overall, these technologies share the same Pros & Cons:

Pros:
* No wires required!
* iOS App Setup
* Interesting features not found in other platforms
* Works as a Router solution

Cons:
* less configurable radios
* proprietary is harder to troubleshoot
* wireless backhaul is still problematic for throughput

eero 3-pack – $499
Luma 3-pack – $296
Netgear Orbi 2-pack – $397

Prosumer Wi-Fi

There are a couple of good options from the big providers of Wi-Fi for home use, too. They’re a step up in cost, but they come with a good step up in performance, too. These are all pure access points, though, they’re not routers, and they don’t have router-like options. This is all about the best Wi-Fi you can build, not AirPlay, not Routing, not remote management.

UniFi and Xclaim are the two that I see most often, and both represent good values. Xclaim is the budget line from Ruckus, and is meant to be cloud-controlled. It is equivalent to the R300 and R500, but without the 6dB of interference mitigation or any of the beamforming that make their APs my go-to on the Pro side. The UniFi APs from Ubiquiti are solid performers, but don’t carry the interference mitigation a large urban environment may require.

  • Xclaim Xi-3 ($249) – 802.11ac, 2×2:2, Made by Ruckus
  • Xclaim Xi-2 ($220) – 802.11n, 2×2:2, Made by Ruckus

Pros:
* Free cloud dashboard
* Includes POE Injector
* Supports multiple SSIDs and controls
* iOS/Web configuration tools

Cons:
* No beamforming or interference mitigation
* Only 2×2:2

Pros:
* Good value APs
* Works with a local Cloud Key controller or AWS t1 micro instance
* Supports multiple SSIDs and controls

Cons:
* Interference mitigation is a problem in dense environments
* 802.11n AP susceptible to hardware failure after 2 years
* UAP-PRO is only 2×2:2
* UAP-AC is almost $300.
* Needs either a Cloud Key or an AWS instance for best management.

Final Thoughts

The end of the AirPort is a sad day for me, I’ve probably managed close to 100 of them for clients in the last ten years, and I know we are currently supporting 25 of them in daily use. I don’t think there’s a good AirPlay option out there to replace them, sadly, so if that’s your current favorite streaming audio technology, now would be a good time to stock up on extras.

AirPort was a groundbreaking technology when it was released, and the first AirPort-capable Macs were magical in a way that we take for granted now. When people ask me what my favorite miracle of modern technology is, I reply without hesitation: Wi-Fi. Apple lead the way for a long time, focusing on building consumer-friendly products that did a lot. None of the solutions above carry with it the user-friendly function-focus of the AirPort, and that makes me sad. But, new companies like eero and Luma are making wireless do things that Apple has decided not to do, and so the future lives with them, or with the professional access point manufacturers who work down market like UniFi and Xclaim (Ruckus). I think we’re in good hands, even if they’re not Apple’s.

Footnotes

(1) The portables have all changed names, the mini, iPod, iPhone and iPad didn’t exist, the PowerMacs became the Mac Pro, only the AirPort and the iMac carry their original monikers. Crazy, right?

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