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Articles: MacWorld 2007 Was All About "The Network"

Three new advancements in the Apple universe were announced at this year's MacWorld conference, and the most useful one of them didn't even make it on stage. The much-anticipated iPhone and Apple TV (Formerly iTV) received the Steve Jobs treatment, but the all-new Airport Extreme Base Station wandered quietly into existence.

All three devices focus on connecting to the network in some way. The iPhone is about connecting you when you're out in the world. The Apple TV and the AirPort Extreme Base Station is about connecting everyone in your home in as many ways as possible. Both home devices will be available in February, which will make it a very fun month for a lot of us.

But I was a little shocked as to how little attention the new AirPort Extreme Base Station received in the keynote and aftermath. The network, after all, is the lynchpin of the media-sharing experience that Apple has been developing over the last few years. Without a network, we just have boxes on our desks or laps. Of course, I'm the first to admit that even offline a Mac is the best "box" in town, but connecting with the people and devices in your house takes computing to the next level. That's what a good network can do, and that's what the new AirPort Extreme Base Station does better than any other network device I have seen.

Starting with connectivity, the new AirPort Extreme Base Station already bests the majority of wireless routers available today. It supports all the standards of wireless connectivity: 802.11a/b/g/n. Many 802.11n routers will also support 802.11b and 802.11g clients, but the added support of 802.11a is a special feature. Unlike the other letters in the wireless alphabet, 802.11a uses a different radio frequency. It uses the less-used 5GHz radio frequency, where the others use the 2.4GHz frequency. Microwaves, cell phones, and cordless phones also use 2.4GHz to operate, so in some parts of the city it can be difficult to use 802.11b/g/n equipment. So no matter what your wireless situation is, the AirPort Extreme Base Station can handle it. In addition to handling wireless connections, the new AirPort Extreme Base Station also covers your wired computers. The AirPort Extreme Base Station has four 10/100Base-T ethernet ports. One is dedicated to your outbound internet connection, often a DSL or cable modem. The other three ports are all for your wired computers. This could be for older systems without a wireless connection, or just computers for which you want to have the strongest possible connection to the network. Also, networked printers or other ethernet devices can connect to one of these three ports.

All the features above are nice to have in one device, but they are for connecting computers and that's not exactly revolutionary. What is really new about the AirPort Extreme Base Station is what can connect to the USB port. In the past versions of Airport Base stations, the USB port was designated only for a printer. The USB port on the new Base Station can connect to a hard drive. Most USB 2.0 hard drives available today can connect to the AirPort Extreme Base Station and instantly appear on the network for your Macs and, if you bend that way, PCs.

The AirPort Extreme Base Station may only have one USB port, but now you can use a USB 2.0 hub and connect up multiple hard drives and printers. Anyone who has ever tried to share a drive over a network without connecting it to a computer is now laughing with joy. For those of you who are wondering why you would want a drive on the network, there is one big reason... and it's coming soon to your Mac. In Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard, there is going to be a new backup feature called Time Machine. Everyone is going to want to use Time Machine, but it requires a external drive to write backup files to. For a desktop that's no problem; plug in a USB hard drive and set it as your Time Machine volume: done. Laptops are going to be more complicated because they are often moving around the house. When you're not plugged into a Time Machine drive, your data is not being protected. More accidents happen to laptops than any other computer, so they need the data protection of Time Machine the most. With a little work you can have a drive connected to your AirPort Extreme Base Station mount whenever you join your home network, and instantly start backing up your data, no wires needed.

Passing around files from computer to computer used to eat up storage space with multiple versions of the same files on both computers. Having a network drive puts a shared copy of any file within reach of anyone you want to have access. The AirPort Extreme Base Station comes with a utility that allows you to customize which users have access to data on the attached drive and gives you the ability to protect files from modification. The ability to attach multiple drives and printers to the new AirPort Extreme Base Station gives home users many of the services that were once only available to businesses. All the features are wrapped in a Mac mini-like package that can sit on your desk without hurting your eyes.

With all these new features, something had to be left out to make room. A modem and extra antenna port are no longer part of the AirPort Extreme Base Station. Many broadband users will probably say, "Good riddance," but some of the people who live out of broadband providers' range will miss that feature. The old AirPort Extreme Base Station's modem gave wireless freedom to the people that internet advancements forgot. For those people I can only recommend that you grab up an older AirPort Extreme Base Station before they're all gone. The antenna port was drastically under-used and the 2 time distance that 802.11n possesses makes it an obsolete feature anyway. The one feature that was never part of the AirPort Extreme Base Station was AirTunes. AirTunes was only available on the AirPort Express Base Station and that is still true today. Now when Apple wants to talk about connecting your entertainment system to your network they say, "Use an Apple TV."

The Apple TV is another great network connection device that is used for getting all your iLife files to your HDTV. It is the HDTV part of that sentence that causes the Apple TV to take back seat to the new AirPort Extreme Base Station. If you do not have a HDTV, then you are not ready for the Apple TV. Your TV must have a HDMI or component connection to work with the Apple TV. I am out of luck there and I imagine many others are as well. Not that I needed a reason, but the Apple TV provides an enticing temptation for upgrading my main TV. If Apple ever makes a HDTV, then it could end up being a slam-dunk for me. So what is a standard TV owner to do? Well, it's actually quite easy: get yourself a Video iPod. A Video iPod with a Universal Dock and Apple Remote is a good substitution for the Apple TV.

I have said before that this was going to be the year of IPTV, but Steve has his own ideas. For him it is not only about the media but it is about the network. Connecting people to the each other and the things they want. 2007 is looking to be an exciting year all around, and I'm sure Apple has much more to impress us with in the next twelve months. Just don't call them Apple Computer Inc. anymore. Apple is about the computer and everything that happens between the computers, so now they are just Apple Inc.
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