Apple’s AirPort Utility is a hoary old beast, dating back to 1999 when it was called AirPort Admin Utility. In 2007, when Apple released its first 802.11n base stations, the “Admin” part of the name was retired, and a new, somewhat crisper, utility appeared. It still retained most of the characteristics of the original, though. The latest iteration, AirPort Utility 6.0 for Mac OS X Lion, is a distinct break from the past, picking up elements of the iOS version of the utility added in October 2011. (I wrote an exhaustive look at the iOS app for Macworld.)
The new AirPort Utility was released simultaneously with firmware upgrades for all 802.11n Wi-Fi base stations: the AirPort Extreme, Time Capsule, and AirPort Express. The firmware adds iCloud support, discussed below, and “fixes an issue with wireless performance.” But AirPort Utility 6.0 also cuts off the past. The new version works only in Mac OS X 10.7 Lion and cannot configure pre-2007 802.11g Wi-Fi hardware. However, Apple continues to make older versions of AirPort Utility available, as I explain below.
Instead of telling you how every last feature now works in version 6.0, let me walk you through things I know everyone will like, changes that some of you won’t (especially if you use a mix of 802.11g and 802.11n hardware), and some particular callouts for network administrators who are already turning amber in distress. I have not yet tried to set up a base station from scratch to see what the new assistants look like for walking you through the process, step by step, and that may offer more to like or dislike.
(And, yes, my “Take Control of Your 802.11n AirPort Network” book will need to be updated to include the iOS app and reflect what’s in AirPort Utility 6.0. However, because the 5.5.3 version of AirPort Utility remains available and still works fine, I recommend keeping a copy of that handy, both to use my tome and to access features that have disappeared in 6.0. See below for where to download previous releases.)
What You Will Like -- AirPort Utility 6.0 for Lion opens with a graphical bang: a visual depiction of your network (its topology), including the hierarchical relationship among parts. If you have, as I do, a base station that’s plugged into a broadband modem and that then serves up NAT addresses via DHCP to other base stations on the network, those other base stations are shown below the main one.
Some graphical details appear only after you select and log into base stations, and AirPort Utility reads configuration details that let it figure out how the various pieces are connected.
This visual layout is also functional: click any element and you get a popover (as shown in the figure) with details about the part. For the Internet, you see the router’s address, DNS server information, and the default domain name. The green, amber, or red status dots next to base stations or the Internet let you see any problems at a glance, too.
Base station information is much more accessible here, too. Click a base station, and AirPort Utility 6.0 shows the obligatory IP information, but also gives you the serial number, errors (including those you’ve opted to ignore), and a list of connected wireless clients showing their Bonjour names. Hover over the base station’s name and it reveals the MAC (Media Access Control) addresses for each of the wired and wireless interfaces. Hover over a client’s name, and all the current connection information (such as the raw data rate) pops up.
Click Edit, and a multi-tabbed modal sheet appears that’s similar to the previous version of AirPort Utility. The tabs are somewhat reorganized. If you want the old style stand-alone window, Option-click the Edit button for a base station, and a non-modal dialog appears.
You may like, for most network purposes, the simplicity of version 6. It looks to me as though Apple has pruned at least half of the options available in nested dialog boxes and elsewhere. (You may also hate it for this reason.) For average users, having fewer choices with better presentation is a plus. For network admins and advanced users, you’ll be cursing Apple as you download the previous version.
The change includes a Network tab that has all the various local networking elements formerly spread out on one page: DHCP and NAT settings, DHCP Reservations, NAT Port Mapping Protocol, and Port Mapping features, along with the options for Timed Access Control.
Apple has hidden little bits of information and functionality all over. Just when I think a feature is gone, it pops up elsewhere. For instance, an earlier version of this article stated that you could no longer roll back a base station to a previous firmware release. Not true! Option-click the firmware version number in the base station information pop-out, and the rollback choices are available.
The new version finally adds support for remote access over Back to My Mac using Apple IDs created with or migrated to iCloud. This allows configuration of a base station tunneled through a secure connection between your computer and the base station, and likewise access to any attached hard drives or an internal Time Capsule drive. (To use MobileMe accounts, you must use the older 5.x software.)
What You Won’t Like -- There’s a laundry list of changes that people with mixed 802.11g and 802.11n networks and Macs without Lion won’t like:
It works only under Mac OS X 10.7 Lion. Apple has been happy to shed the past, so it is highly unlikely we’ll ever see this version released for 10.6 Snow Leopard. A Windows version is certain, as that’s a separate market that Apple needs to keep up to date. (Nearly the same features are available in the iOS version, too.)
It doesn’t support pre-2007 base stations. AirPort Utility 1.0 through 5.6 worked with both 2007-and-later 802.11n models and older 2003–2006 AirPort Extreme and AirPort Express 802.11g base stations. You can’t use 6.0 to configure 802.11g-only base stations any longer. You can still use and download version 5.5.3 or 5.6 for configuring those devices. Version 5.5.3 works with 10.5 Leopard and 10.6 Snow Leopard; a new version 5.6 is designed specifically for 10.7 Lion. (If you update to 6.0 without first renaming 5.5.3, you must re-download and install the older version.)
iCloud support requires the use of AirPort Utility 6.0 under Lion. The 5.5.3 and 5.6 versions of AirPort Utility can configure and use only MobileMe accounts with Back to My Mac. You cannot use legacy MobileMe-associated Apple IDs with AirPort Utility 6.0.
The static flavor of Wireless Distribution System (WDS) is gone for good. I see this as both a positive and a negative. WDS enables base stations to communicate among each other wirelessly, bypassing the need for Ethernet. Apple offered a static version that you had to configure tediously for 802.11g base stations; it was replaced by a dynamic version for 802.11n devices. You could enable a special, hidden mode, however, and mix and match 802.11g and 802.11n using the static flavor. But I’ve seen only tears and troubles when trying to make this work. By removing the static version, Apple may be doing us all a favor. (Although I have all 802.11n gear, I couldn’t get dynamic WDS to work well in my house; I switched to Ethernet to connect the three base stations I use.)
Because you can still configure base stations with the latest firmware using older versions of AirPort Utility, the lack of older base station support in AirPort Utility 6.0 and its elimination of static WDS options affects you only if you’re trying to mix 802.11g and 802.11n base stations.
What Network Administrators Really Won’t Like -- If you use any Apple Wi-Fi gear in a corporate, academic, or enterprise setup, you’re going to be mad. See the Apple Support Communities AirPort forum for how mad other admins are.
RADIUS-based access control (802.1X) appears to have disappeared entirely. That’s baffling, as it makes Apple’s hardware a nonstarter for enterprises that require authentication in this manner.
Apple removed IPv6 configuration, eliminated a raw log view, eliminated a way to set a Unix syslog server destination for logs, and dropped SNMP network monitoring support. They also pulled the Wireless Clients and DHCP Clients views, which let you see detailed information about signal strength over time for Wi-Fi clients and DHCP expiration and configuration details for all clients.
You cannot set the Bonjour host name of the base station, nor change the Bonjour name of attached printers. (You can change the human-readable name of the base station, which is what appears in the Finder’s Sidebar if the base station has an internal or any attached hard drives.)
Windows workgroup support for attached and internal disks has been removed.
The internal time zone can’t be set manually.
Remember, these features aren’t gone from the AirPort hardware, they just can’t be configured from AirPort Utility 6.0. You’ll want either version 5.5.3 or 5.6 to access such features.
What’s to Come? -- These significant changes point to one of two conclusions. Apple is either entirely abandoning the managed network market, which already was dubious about how hard it was to manage and configure AirPort base stations from a central location, or it has an update coming for its AirPort Management Utility, which has been out of date for years. That utility, like the iPhone Configuration Utility (misnamed, as it works with all iOS devices), exposed otherwise unavailable settings and allowed many base stations to be configured from a single profile.
If Apple’s plan is to provide management tools, it’s an odd choice to not have the tool ready with this release of firmware and AirPort Utility 6.0. But keeping the old 5.x software available for the time being may indicate that AirPort Utility will eventually encompass everything that’s needed.