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5 Ways to Get the Most Out of Your AirPort Extreme

AirPort Extreme Base Station
Apple’s AirPort Extreme is best known as a slick, easy to use wireless router for sharing an internet connection with computers and mobile devices in your home. But like many Apple products, its seemingly nondescript appearance belies its awesome capability. Here are five ways you can get the most from your existing AirPort Extreme – and even your hard drive-equipped Time Capsule or diminutive AirPort Express as well.
Add Printer window

Share a USB Printer with Your Household

Despite the abundance of cheap USB inkjet printers, there are very good reasons to avoid buying one for every computer in your home. For one, the longer a printer sits unused, the more ink you’ll waste having to clean the cartridge(s) the next time you want to use it, wasting costly ink. Thankfully, AirPort Extreme, AirPort Express and Time Capsule all come with a single USB 2.0 port capable of attaching a printer or hard drive (more on that in a moment), allowing everyone in your home to have access to the same printer.
To go wireless, simply plug the printer’s USB cable into the USB port on back of your AirPort device and connect the other end to the printer. You’ll have to install the appropriate printer driver software onto each computer you plan to use, as well as take a visit to System Preferences > Print & Fax and add the newly-wireless device to your printer roster. Click the + symbol and select the printer from the Add Printer list – your printer will be now recognized as a Bonjour device. Select it from the list, allow Mac OS X to populate the printer settings, click Add and you’ll now have wireless access to the printer.
Printopia settings

Make Your Networked Printer Work with iOS AirPrint

After enjoying wireless liberation for your USB printer, you’ll likely want to experience such freedom from your iOS device as well. Sadly, Apple has limited AirPrint functionality introduced with iOS 4.2 to a handful of newer Wi-Fi enabled printers from HP, but there’s an inexpensive way to get AirPrint working with wired or networked printers.
eCamm’s $9.99 Printopia is the most elegant way to make your printers available via AirPrint, although it does have one major caveat (aside from the modest cost) – it runs on a Mac OS X computer, so if that particular system is shut down or otherwise unavailable, so is your ability to print from iOS.
To surmount this limitation, enlist an always-on computer in your home. For example, if you already use a Mac mini in your home theatre setup, it’s likely that you keep it on 24/7. Since your USB printer is now network-connected thanks to AirPort, you can install Printopia on just such a system and have AirPrint capabilities for the networked printer, available at all times.
After purchasing and installing Printopia, open the settings in System Preferences, make sure the switch is set to On, and that your AirPort-connected USB printer is checked (along with any others attached to the same computer). Now, when you attempt to print from an iOS device running 4.2 or later, you’ll see all of your Printopia-shared printers as an option, including the one being shared from your AirPort Extreme.
AirPort Utility AirDisk settings

Network Storage for the Whole Family

USB 2.0 hard drives are also perfectly compatible with the AirPort Extreme’s USB port your printer is now attached to. But how can you plug two devices into one port? The answer is simple: with a multi-port USB hub. By attaching even a simple four-port hub to the AirPort’s USB port, you can immediately expand your horizons with multiple printers or hard drives. Best of all, those small, unpowered hubs will also work just fine with AirPort, drawing necessary power from the USB port itself.
Apple calls an AirPort-attached hard drive an “AirDisk,” and to make yours available to any computer on the network, first launch Applications > Utilities > AirPort Utility, select your AirPort and click Manual Setup. Select Disks from the top of the window, then the File Sharing tab. Here you’ll want to check “Enable file sharing” to make the AirPort storage visible to your computers; you’ll also find options to secure your disk with a password, if necessary. Be sure to click Update to commit these changes on your AirPort when finished.
Next, plug the hard drive into an available USB port (either directly or via hub), open a Finder window and look for your AirPort under the Shared section at left. Click on it, enter your password (if required) and your AirDisk will now appear mounted on your computer with a blue drive icon, and can be accessed from any other computers on your network the same way. As always, you’ll get the best results from a wired network (preferably Ethernet 1000baseT) or an 802.11n wireless connection.
AirDisk selected in Time Machine

Use an AirDisk for Time Machine Backup

With a USB hard drive (or two) connected to your AirPort network, the door is open to new possibilities. That includes using your new AirDisk as a central Time Machine backup drive for all of the computers on your home network. With your AirDisk mounted and available on your computer, simply head to System Preferences, open Time Machine settings under System and click on Select Disk. Like magic, your AirDisk will show up in the list of available hard drives, even showing you which AirPort network the drive is connected to. Select the drive, click Use for Backup and you’re ready to go.
If you have many gigabytes of data on your computers, an 802.11n network should be considered a minimum requirement for Time Machine use. Also, the bigger the USB hard drive, the better for Time Machine use – if you’re using an AirDisk to back up more than one system, you’ll want to consider more than 1TB in order to have plenty of backup space for the future.
AirPort Utility - Express settings

Extend Your Wireless Range with an AirPort Express

Now that you’ve successfully added a printer and hard drive (or two), you may want to beef up your wireless network to maximize your range, particularly in larger homes or apartments. The most effective method is to add an inexpensive AirPort Express to extend your wireless range. While a second AirPort device can pick up the signal from another device and carry it further, the best way to accomplish this is to connect the two AirPort devices using an Ethernet cable.
Assuming your current AirPort Extreme is already set up and working, you’ll want to run a Cat 5 or 6 Ethernet cable from any one of the three jacks on the back to the Ethernet port on the AirPort Express; plug the Express into an available AC power outlet to power it up.
Next, launch Applications > Utilities > AirPort Utility, select your AirPort Extreme and click Manual Setup. Select the AirPort icon, then the Wireless tab and make sure “Allow this network to be extended” is checked – it’s under Wireless Network Name. Take note of all of your settings under the Wireless tab, since you’ll want to enter most of them again for the Express. Click Update to lock in your changes.
Now select the AirPort Express in AirPort Utility and click Manual Setup; you’ll be asked to switch wireless networks, so click Switch. Select the AirPort icon, then under the Wireless tab make sure Wireless Mode is “Create a wireless network” and that your “Wireless Network Name” matches that of your AirPort Extreme. Select a different channel, preferably one that’s at least two numbers above or below the one used by the Extreme; Wireless Security should match your AirPort Extreme. You may also want to visit the Base Station tab to give your Express its own unique name and password.
Finally, click on the Internet icon at the top and change Connect Using to “Ethernet” and Connection Sharing to “Off (Bridge Mode)” – this will bridge the two AirPorts to carry the connection for your Extreme to the Express over Ethernet. Click Update to commit your changes. Now your AirPort Express will seamlessly appear as an extension of the same network you already use – as you move about your house with a laptop or mobile device, it will intelligently pick up the Wi-Fi signal that’s closest, whether it comes from the Extreme or the newly-added Express.