Apple's latest Airport Extreme offers just more than connecting to you to the Internet, but is it any good and what features does it offer? We got connected to find out.

The Apple Airport Extreme 802.11n Wi-Fi Wireless Base Station to give it its full name has undergone plenty of change. For starters it’s a different shape, its got more technology in it and its even lost some of the functionality of previous models.

Out is the cone shape design, modem support and the ability to extend the range via an external aerial. In is a new design, new features including the promise of greater range and a new wireless connectivity protocol that promises to be 2.5x faster than the previous Base Station.

Lets start with the design. About the same footprint as the company's miniature desktop the MacMini or newer Apple TV and the whole thing is no bigger than an old 7-inch record and about 3cm deep.

Now flat, it means you can stack to your heart's content and hiding it behind your desk is now considerably easier to do rather than as previously with the design statement that was the original Airport Extreme.

Being Apple everything is kept to a minimum - there is just one light on the front of the device and those who like feedback through a panel of lights like the Starship Enterprise need to look elsewhere.

On the back and the biggest difference is the inclusion of three rather than one LAN ports and more importantly the inclusion of a USB socket.

The USB socket means two exciting things - yes I know it's hard to get excited about a USB socket - one, that you can connect a printer to it so you can then print from any computer on the network, and two - and this is the exciting bit - so you can plug in a hard drive, be it a USB memory key or full blown hard disk drive and then access it via any computer on the network.

Where the Apple Airport Extreme 802.11n Wi-Fi Wireless Base Station succeeds is its simplicity, not only in design, but setting up. Coming with a new Airport Utilities tool, the new software takes on the iTunes interface with your Base Stations listed graphically down one side and the information down the other.

For those not knowledgeable about networks, and lets face it, who wants to be, there is a series of wizards that allow you to set up the Base Station with little or no knowledge of what you are doing. It even automatically sets up a password protected network for you.

Of course if you do want to get into the nitty gritty you can and there is everything here for the networking fan, within reason, although the device still doesn't support UPnP for connecting your Slingbox or wireless cameras with ease.

But the new USB socket and design aren't the only reason you'll want to invest. Apple has, like other manufacturers, used this latest update to introduce 802.11n a new wireless protocol which has complicatedly yet to be approved by the body that looks after all things wireless (it's not supposedly happening until 2008).

What it means to you and me is the promise of faster network connectivity as long as you've got a wireless n enabled device. Apple, being ahead of the game on this one as well, is shipping its latest MacBook Pro laptops with wireless n chips.

However before you think - damn I don't have one of those - it doesn't matter as the Base Station will automatically downscale so wireless g or wireless b, but the speed won't be as fast.

Eitherway performance on all three protocols should be ample for the home user hoping to transfer files between machines or accessing pages on the Internet.

Connecting via a wireless g enabled PowerBook it took us 30 seconds to transfer a 20MB file to a standard USB memory drive attached to the router.

Verdict

Over the previous edition this is a massive improvement, however we were disappointed that Apple hasn't put the 3.5mm jack as found on the Airport Express so you can stream your iTunes tracks to a stereo.

Other grumbles are the expense, Apple being Apple it's twice the price of a wireless n router from Linksys, however in its defence the software and installation is incredibly polished.

If you're a die-hard networking fan then this isn't for you. However if you're a Mac (or PC for the matter) owner looking for a simple, but highly effective wireless offering for your office or home then this is great. And that USB drive element makes all the difference if you need to share files around your house.