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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