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Feature Request: A Magic AirPort Extreme with smart downloads, better debugging + prioritized devices

AirPort Express Extreme 16-9

Feature Request is a new regular 9to5Mac series where authors offer their opinions on how to improve popular hardware or software products.

Apple’s AirPort wireless routers aren’t cheap, but many people — including me — keep buying them because they “just work” most of the time. Connect an AirPort Extreme or AirPort Express to your cable modem and you’ll get a consistently great wireless connection across all of your Macs, iPads, iPhones, iPod touches, and accessories, as well as non-Apple products. But the AirPorts could do more, and Apple knows it. Four years ago, the company was openly working on some cool next-generation router features that apparently didn’t wind up in its devices. These days, with Apple TVs and AirPlay streaming at the peak of their popularity, Apple’s routers need to be smarter about streaming high-bitrate video and audio. Here’s how AirPort routers should take the next steps forward…

Using AirPort To Enable Faster, Lower-Bandwidth Software Updates (And Media Streaming?)

The AirPort family has been a good product line for Apple. Basic $99 and mid-range $199 AirPort routers are an insurance policy against losing hours of your life to solving arcane networking problems. Apple’s $299 to $399 hard drive-laden AirPort Time Capsules go a step further, insuring against losing months or years of your work by quietly backing up your Macs. Integrating a full hard drive into Time Capsules gives them the ability to store terabytes of data, but as $69 Apple TVs (which look virtually identical to current AirPort Express routers) demonstrate, Apple easily could include a flash memory cache in even entry-level AirPort devices.

Why would every AirPort need spare memory? An Apple user’s home or office typically hosts multiple Apple devices — yours, and ones belonging to your family members or coworkers. It’s not unusual for a family of four to have at least two Macs, a few iPads, and several iPhones. Similarly, businesses often have a lot of similar devices connecting to their networks. Why should every device have to individually download the same files (such as software updates) from Apple’s servers, wasting time and bandwidth in the process?

As 9to5Mac’s Seth Weintraub noted four years ago, Apple had a brilliant solution in mind for this.

What we do know is that Apple has been internally testing Time Capsules to cache Software Updates for both Mac and iOS devices. The way we’ve heard it works is that the new Time Capsule learns which devices connect to it via Wifi. It then goes out to Apple’s servers and downloads Software Updates for those products.

Doesn’t that sound great? You get home with your iPhone and the latest version of iOS is just waiting for you — and for every other iPhone in your house. Or, rather than downloading gigabytes worth of OS X over and over again for your Macs, a master file’s just sitting on your AirPort router waiting to install the right pieces on all of your machines. Another 9to5 report noted that Apple was so close to implementing this feature that references were being found in release of OS X. Code in AirPort Utility said:

Apple software updates that are copied to this [device] are available to anyone using this network.

Some people might argue that delta updates, device-specific OS builds, and/or asynchronous device updating reduce the need for a feature like this. But I’d personally rather download a slightly larger iOS or OS X build once and have the right pieces applied to all the devices in my home, than download slightly smaller builds from Apple’s servers over and over again. Think of the bandwidth you could save by having your AirPort router cache app updates and media files this way, as well…

Modern Routers Should Do Better At Prioritizing Media Streaming And Explaining Issues

One of the biggest issues I’ve seen with routers over the past five years is choking of streaming video or audio, an issue that can be external to your network (Netflix’s or your broadband provider’s fault) or internal (your router’s, cable modem’s, or device’s fault). An entire category of AirPlay speaker accessories withered on the vine because of widespread and never quite resolved problems with in-home audio streaming. Similarly, as Netflix and iTunes video streaming have become more popular, stories of stopping or stuttering videos are on the increase. Average people know that their streams aren’t working, but have no idea how to fix or even diagnose the problems.

It would be unfair (and factually inaccurate) to say that Apple has done nothing to remedy these issues. There have apparently been some quiet changes to Apple’s software to improve streaming reliability, but they haven’t been broadly communicated to consumers, and significant problems persist — both with the way routers prioritize streams, and their diagnostic tools. Adults don’t have an easy way to determine, for instance, whether their kids’ video streams or downloads are clogging the network. Nor do they have the ability to set streaming priority for certain devices or applications (say, Mom’s Office Mac or Apple TV wins out over Junior’s iPod touch).

Stuttering, stopping, and buffering happen when a data-hungry device can’t get fed at the pace it needs, and ultimately, the router is the hub where these decisions are made. Apple could make a real difference by giving users — specifically, wireless network owners — easy but powerful control over in-home competition for limited wireless bandwidth. It could also help a lot by improving iOS’s and OS X’s consumer-level diagnostic tools so that problem devices and streams could be quickly detected and labeled green/yellow/red, preferably with suggested fixes.

Most of the suggestions above could be implemented in software. Since nearly a year has passed since the last AirPort Extreme firmware update, it’s possible that Apple is working on a big fix, or that the same team was busy with something else. Regardless, now that the Apple TV has launched as an independent platform, helping users control the media streaming in their homes is going to become more important than ever before.

Something Else?

Reader Dan Bridgland wrote to us to suggest that he finds it “remarkable that Apple are still selling broadly mono feature devices like the AirPort Extreme and AirPort Express.” Calling them “one trick ponies in an ever evolving and converging world,” Dan suggests that Apple integrate router features directly into cable modems, Apple TVs, and basic AirPlay adapters, getting rid of standalone AirPort routers in the process. What do you think?

More From This Author

Check out more of my editorials, How-To guides, and reviews for 9to5Mac here! I’ve covered a lot of different topics of interest to Mac, iPad, iPhone, iPod, Apple TV, and Apple Watch users. In addition to my popular guide to the best Apple Watch docks and stands, I’ve recently discussed how to safely prepare and wipe your iPhone for resale or trade-in, and how to get the best iPhone trade-in price to help buy an iPhone 6s, amongst many other topics.

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  1. No router is complete without VPN Access.

  2. Apple’s already do this, including iCloud caching. But off course this kind of service works best with a mac that’s always on and never sleeps. For most people caching in AirPort Extreme would be preferable.

  3. Apple’s already do this, including iCloud caching.

  4. Bernt Espelien - 7 years ago

    I wish they would change the form factor to something more wall-mountable and increase its speeds in general. I dont really care about prioritised devices as Ive never encountered streaming issues, maybe due to my 300 mbps internet.

  5. Michael Weisberg - 7 years ago

    It seems like the AEBS and the AE is one product that Apple has forgotten about. The hasn’t been a hardware or firmware refresh in years. And I am not sure that there is going to be one. When the 6th gen AEBS was released it was one of the first routers with 802.11AC and while it was expensive (still is), it was great. Today, there are many top notch ac routers on the market that are much cheaper. Plus the AE is only ‘n’…very much in need of a refresh.

  6. Scott Gerber - 7 years ago

    My topic submission for your next Feature Request – Apple Extended Magic Keyboard

    • Black keys
    • LED backlighting
    • Touch ID – used for login and for times when Admin password is required, including online purchases
    • Switch for toggling between Mac, iPad, Apple TV, etc.
    • Customizable configuration – Numeric keypad and Magic Trackpad could be attached to either side of the keyboard via Neodymium magnets, or “stacked” on one side

    and the basics
    • Bluetooth
    • Built-in rechargeable battery
    • Lightning port

  7. Terrence Newton - 7 years ago

    Apple isn’t exactly at the forefront of router development. Updates to the Airport are few and far in between. If you want cutting edge features, I suggest checking out the huge market of non-Apple routers out there. I wouldn’t hold my breath on Apple leapfrogging the industry in this area anytime soon.

  8. taoprophet420 - 7 years ago

    The Apple TV should have included Airport Express hardware inside the box for tight HomeKit intergration and more robust AirPlay support.

    • standardpull - 7 years ago

      What hardware is missing from the Apple TV that would preclude this?

      • taoprophet420 - 7 years ago

        You could use the Apple TV without a router if it acted as an Airport base station. It would make for a seamless HomeKit experience Connecting devices strait to the Apple TV using it own wifi.It would help make the Apple TV 4 the hub to your home so many companies have tried and failed in the past. Controlling and configuring HomeKit devices from the new Apple TV would make it seem as a value and give you a true hub for your home in one device.

  9. markpetereit - 7 years ago

    I’d LOVE it if I could set a schedule for software updates. I live in a rural area where the only broadband available is satellite. Service is capped at 10GB/month, which can be burned up FAST with one or two OS updates. But they allow unlimited, uncapped high-speed access between midnight and 5am. It would be great if I could set a device to say NO access to iOS or OSX updates AT ALL between 5am and midnight, but between midnight and 5am GO TO TOWN!! It’d be even better if I could restrict video streaming by connected device.

  10. Scott (@ScooterComputer) - 7 years ago

    The problem with “modern routers” is that they are a “solution” that doesn’t actually solve the problem. The Airport Extreme being a $200 all-in-one device makes about as much sense as saying that everybody who needs a Mac needs an iMac. In reality, most Internet WAN connections are in the WORST location in the house for good wireless. They are usually near walls, behind television cabinets, or next to a computer in a bedroom at a far end of a house. Only the latest generation of wireless manufacturers are starting to figure this out. Crazy as it sounds, “homes” and “families” have much more in common with Enterprise than conventional wisdom would suggest; a smarter solution is one that is more “meshed”, with a firewall/router (–maybe– with wireless functionality) at the WAN location, and smaller, more dispersed (perhaps directional) access points throughout the house. Apple needs to upend their product matrix. They need to make a firewall/router/wireless mesh and wireless extender duo; the first part gets installed at the WAN location, the second where wireless network use is most prevalent, and the two communicate over 5GHz backhaul using 2.4GHz as local WLAN. The 2.4GHz spectrum is just getting TOO full. The Airport Express needs to become more their focus than the kitchen sink Airport Extreme. Further, they could be “innovating” a heck of a lot more, two ideas: 1) every Apple TV should be an access point (they already have most of the hardware), and 2) every iMac should be capable of being an Airport Extreme with a 2nd GigE port, even when “powered off” (and I put that in quotes, because unless unplugged, an iMac isn’t ever really powered off…there is NO power switch on the unit). Considering that OpenWRT can be run on $20 commodity hardware and handle 100Mbps firewall/routing, this shouldn’t be too difficult a task. Apple really needs to start stretching the “value” of the iMac. Also, a nice feature enhancement would be for the Airport Express to have –2– GigE ports. An access point/extender that can be installed at a single-drop gigabit ethernet station is needed in the marketplace.

    The whole paradigm needs re-jiggered. There are a few “enterprise”-grade companies that are starting to do this very thing. Will be interesting to see how Apple will respond. But clearly their “expertise” is in the UX, and making it “just work”, two things they certainly could keep while truly fixing the problem.

    • yoitssenghy - 7 years ago

      Can’t you extend your network using Airport Express in conjunction with your Airport Extreme/Time Capsule?

      • Mike Gates (@cmkrnl) - 7 years ago

        You can. The downside is the newest Airport Extreme support 802.11ac, while airport express doesn’t.

      • yoitssenghy - 7 years ago

        Ahh, yes you are correct.. Bottlenecks…

  11. iSRS - 7 years ago

    With regards to “Reader Dan Bridgland wrote to us to suggest that he finds it “remarkable that Apple are still selling broadly mono feature devices like the AirPort Extreme and AirPort Express.” Calling them “one trick ponies in an ever evolving and converging world,” Dan suggests that Apple integrate router features directly into cable modems, Apple TVs, and basic AirPlay adapters, getting rid of standalone AirPort routers in the process. What do you think?”

    HECK NO. Convergent devices like this are poor, in my opinion. I moved last year. I had Charter where I lived, and they had separate modems for Internet and a separate one for phone. To that, I had my 1st gen 802.11n AirPort Extreme, and an AirPort Express (again, 1st gen n) extending it. Never an issue.

    When I moved mid-year last year, Comcast was my only choice. Since I had to pay for the modem for my phone line, they install a wireless gateway. An all in one device. Phone modem. Internet modem. WiFi. So I put that in bridge mode, and set my network up. No issues. Then it died after 3 months. They brought me a new wireless gateway, one with 802.11ac. Since I have to lease the phone modem anyways, and this all in one was the same price, I figured I would take advantage of the ac speed for my MacBook Pro and iPhone 6. So I disconnected my aging AirPorts. This router has been replaced 3 times since. That is an average of 3 months each time. My devices were always losing connection. Devices that were connected to the 5 GHz spectrum would lose connection all the time. But they wouldn’t fail over to the 2.4 GHz. I would have no connectivity. Every time, with each of the replacements. So I finally went out and bought a new AirPort Extreme, put my modem into bridge mode, and now? No more issues. Ever. Added bonus? Now I don’t have to remember to plug in a Time Machine drive to the two MacBooks in the house. I just use the drive connected to the AirPort.

    As far as my wish list items? I want to be able to assign devices to a particular router on my network. I hooked up my old AirPorts to extend my network. Gave new life to an old 2007 mini. Instead of 11 Mbps and bringing the whole network to a crawl when it was on, i put the old Extreme in there, and connected the mini to it via ethernet. I did the same in my living room with the old express and an Apple TV. Everything is great. I do get a tradeoff on the MacBook Pro and my iPhone 6s if I am connected to one of the extenders. I’d like to have the ability to assign those to only connect to the main/new AirPort so they always get ac speed (it does make a difference, by speed from Comcast is 150 Mbps). I can live with the tradeoffs for a rock solid, large wifi area, but wish I didn’t have to. If they could allow me to specify which devices could or could not connect to which access point, it would be great. That, or update the express to ac (when they do, my two old n AirPorts will get swapped out for them)

  12. likearabbit - 7 years ago

    And a lot of the functionality mentioned is already present with the $20 server app for OS X, though I agree with other commenters and the author that it would be even nicer for more folks if it was baked into the Airport hardware.

  13. James A. Weston - 7 years ago

    The market for Apple routers has been diminished by the proliferation of decent modem/routers supplied by Internet service providers.

    • standardpull - 7 years ago

      Maybe some providers do that. But my Verizon-provided modem/router has been nothing but a load of time-wasting trouble. It has been replaced numerous times and always let me down.

      Sadly, many users of these devices blame their personal equipment, as when they call the company they say “it looks great from our view point!”

      In the mean time the user gets angry. All the while they could have bought a rock-solid access point and dropped and/or circumvented the ISP-provided garbage.

  14. Mark Granger - 7 years ago

    There is no way currently to see what devices on your network are using bandwidth. Apple used to support SNMP which allowed third party apps to see the network traffic and identify the devices that are hogging all the bandwidth and preventing NetFlix from streaming properly on your TV. The usual culprit is a Mac with some cloud service that is trying to upload many gigabytes of data in a way that blocks download packet requests on other devices. Apple’s own Photos app can do this when it syncs images to iCloud. Google Drive was a major upload hog in the past but they added bandwidth restrictions. With dozens of WiFi devices including network cameras, smart phones, tablets, thermostats, smoke detectors and even vehicles you never know when something is going to do a software update. The current situation is a joke. Only Apple can solve this problem in their routers. Removing valuable features is not the answer.

  15. Shaun Legacy - 7 years ago

    How about being able to have the ability to use an external drive for something other than backup? I would love to store my media on a USB drive and connect it to my router then allowing my Apple TV or other Apple devices to pull said media without my ever slowing MacBook needing to be on and connected to iTunes.

  16. minieggseater - 7 years ago

    It will never happen because no one other than developers/graphic artists would buy a mac but it would make so much sense if an Airport Extreme could be a self contained iTunes media server. Yes there is a very good article here on the options but even when setup they are still a load of faff. You just want to be able to come home, flick on the TV and have all your iTunes media (inc local) ready to go with having to wait 5 mins for a NAS drive or and old mac mini etc to boot or have to leave them on for 20hours a day to use them for 4. For this sort of thing I guess the current mac mini with a Fusion drive so it will boot in 20 secs or so is the best expensive compromise but having a full PC and mouse on your tv whilst sitting in your chair is just not relaxing you just want a simple mac tv type controller to access your media from simple lists

    • Jeremy Horwitz - 7 years ago

      This is such a good, logical, and obvious idea — one originally floated years ago, before 802.11ac existed. Prevailing thinking was that Apple wouldn’t do this because it would cut sales of (more expensive) Mac minis, but it’s really long past time that a standalone media server existed.

      • minieggseater - 7 years ago

        Thanks ! the alternative to be some fast booting PC but again your still talking reasonable money if you want decent storage. I did think about the Intel stick idea although I don’t think it’s that quick to boot and you really need a NAS ( usb hd hanging off back of TV. eek!) with all the noise and heat involved not ideal for a quiet living room

      • minieggseater - 7 years ago

        Thinking about it they could still make you run iTunes on a PC/Mac in terms of downloading new content and managing/deleting from the iTunes library but purely in terms of reading the content on an Apple TV iPhone etc it would be so much more convenient to have the library on an extreme for read purposes only

      • minieggseater - 7 years ago

        Actually it appears it isn’t ! Yesterday I spent a frustrated rainy day trying to get a raspberry pi and a USB HD to work as a mini NAS drive. I eventually got it to work and could play video from it on a wifi connected laptop and tablet. However when I put my circa 300gb iTunes library on it although iTunes loaded on the laptop pointed at the NAS it basically just hung with the spinning wheel and that was that. Looking at this tread ( although streaming maybe fine the relative poor performance of any kind of network connection (even cat6) when compared with SATA means you HAVE to have your iTunes library on a local HD. period. Anyone disagree ?

  17. AbsarokaSheriff - 7 years ago

    Good suggestions. I would like to see Quality of Service parameters incorporated. I also think Parental Controls are too broad brush. There are too many false positives. If that could be put into a router/AE it would be nice. Take the Walking Dead show, for some families this would be filtered and for others its must see TV. There’s a spectrum of acceptability and it changes as kids age.

    There are also some undesirable web features such as Flash and popups which lead to me not ever wanting to visit certain sites again. I would love to be able to blacklist sites through the router.

  18. Smigit - 7 years ago

    I’d like one with an iTunes server running on it. Would allow you to store your media on the AirPort Extreme and stream it to say an Apple TV without requiring another system to be running with iTunes open.

  19. opiapr - 7 years ago

    It will be nice if they doubled as HomeKit hubs.

  20. rtd5943 - 7 years ago

    I would like to see battery backup built in the router (of course the modem would need it as well). Living in a hurricane prone area we do get power outages from time to time. And with an ever increasing connected home this would be crucial. Especially when out of town, I could still check cameras, thermostats, door locks etc.

  21. rwanderman - 7 years ago

    Apple’s Time Capsule does not back up iOS devices. The only way to back up said devices is via iTunes onto a computer (which will be backed up to the TC), or, by buying cloud storage from Apple.

    But, it should. The Time Capsule should back up every device Apple makes that might need backing up.