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Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

Alternatives to AirPort

Note: This story has not been updated for several years.

The AirPort in happier days.

On Thursday Apple made official what we’ve all known since 2016—it’s out of the business of building Wi-Fi hardware. It made Dan sad.

So what now? When the news broke yesterday I heard from a lot of people who relied on Apple’s AirPort routers, not just for their home wi-fi, but for unique features like wireless audio out and wireless Time Machine backups.

Always ahead of the curve, last year Glenn Fleishman wrote a piece about this at Macworld. I’d also strongly recommend reading the Wirecutter reviews of Wi-Fi routers and mesh networking kits. My friend Marco Arment recommends Ubiquiti networking hardware for true nerds, and Eero for everyone else.

Wirecutter really seems to love Netgear hardware, which I’ve had mixed results with. In fact, I was so unhappy with my Wirecutter-recommended Netgear router that I turned off its wireless features and returned a previous-generation AirPort Extreme base station to service for a while. Later, as part of a podcast sponsorship deal, I got some Eero mesh-networking equipment, which I’ve been using ever since. (Consider this a disclaimer, as Eero continues to be a podcast sponsor of mine.)

Mesh networks can be pricier than just buying a single router, and they are not always available in all territories, but my setup experience was easy, the connection is solid, and all the wireless dead zones in my house have vanished.

What about the Time Capsule? When it launched, it was the definitive way to back up your Macs without plugging in an external hard drive. Very convenient, especially if your primary device is a MacBook! Here’s what I’d say: You’re better off backing up remotely to a cloud-based service like Backblaze, which is The Wirecutter’s pick. A Time Machine backup has the advantage of being fast and on your local network, but if something catastrophic happens to your home or office, you will lose your backup. Backing up to the cloud keeps your data regardless of natural disasters, and has other advantages including being able to retrieve any backed up file from anywhere.

That said, if you want a local backup server, your best option is to buy a NAS, short for network-attached storage. These are essentially giant hard drives with small embedded computers that act as servers when you put them on your local network. Wirecutter has a nice NAS roundup, and you’ll find that many NAS devices support Time Machine. Ideally, a NAS will also be able to back itself up to the cloud.

NAS devices aren’t cheap, but they’re flexible—you can have a large amount of fast, local storage tucked away somewhere in your house to store files that don’t fit on your Mac’s hard drive.

The AirPort Express had the unique ability to act as an AirPlay bridge for audio, connecting your Apple devices to an external device like a set of powered speakers. There are AirPlay adapters out there from other vendors, such as this one from Anewish, but I haven’t tested any of them. If you aren’t going to roam too far from your speaker, you could also buy a Bluetooth adapter that does the same thing. (If you want to use the optical-audio-out feature found on the AirPort Express, I don’t know if there’s a good solution. Find a used AirPort Express or two and keep using them until they die?)

As I wrote yesterday, I’ve got mixed feelings about Apple killing AirPort. Some AirPort hardware I used was really unreliable, but other hardware was long-lived and rock solid. Apple’s setup experience was the best, a major step above the web-page-based configurators often used by other vendors. Things are looking up, though: Many vendors now offer iOS apps that are much friendlier.

Clearly Apple feels that Wi-Fi routers are not an area that Apple needs to focus on, and I think I’d agree. Apple got into the Wi-Fi business in its earliest days because it had to, in order to ensure that there was hardware that worked well with Macs and was easy to set up. While Apple theoretically has all the money and could stay in this category forever, there are probably better areas for Apple to spend its engineering resources. (And no, television executives can’t design routers.)

I’d rather see Apple take on some emerging technology category and make it mainstream by making it more accessible and easy to use, rather than just churn out routers that are more expensive and offer fewer features than those from the hungrier, more nimble competition. Apple long ago did what it needed to do in the world of Wi-Fi; it’s time to move on.

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