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Multiple Apple Airport Extremes = intelligent WiFi client handoff?!?

Eug

Lifer
Mar 11, 2000
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Hmmm...

My Airport Extreme 802.11ac works for most of my house, but in one corner I get very weak signal. For the longest time I've been using third party access points connected via Gigabit Ethernet to extend the network. However, doing this was a problem if I used the same SSID, because the access points would always hang onto to the client until the signal died completely, before the client tried to access a new access point. It was a pain so I eventually just changed the SSID. When I get weak signal in that room, I just manually change the access point.

However, I had an old 5th gen 802.11n Airport Extreme in my cupboard so I tried that to extend the network this way (connected via Ethernet) using the same SSID, it seems to do client handoff intelligently, by handing off clients with the other Airport Extreme as needed.

How do I know this? Well, my 6th gen 802.11ac AE (on 2.4 GHz) is channel 6, and my 802.11n AE is channel 1. If I take my MacBook Pro and walk across the house, it starts out on channel 6, and then ends up on channel 1, but the WiFi signal is always at full bars. If I then walk back to this end of the house, it comes back to channel 6 but again it's always at full bars.

Interesting. I never knew this was a feature of Airport Extremes. I could have sworn it didn't behave this way when I first got the 802.11ac AE. Maybe I was just mistaken back then, or else maybe some software updates have added this feature to both these models.

I'm tempted to get a third one to fill out the WiFi mesh. Saves me having to go with something like UniFi. I know Apple has stopped developing WiFi routers, but they're so damn easy to use it may be worth it to get that third unit.
 

Hi-Fi Man

Senior member
Oct 19, 2013
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Apple always had a hidden gem with the Airport Extremes. They are light on features but my two 5th gen Airports "Just work".
 

Ichinisan

Lifer
Oct 9, 2002
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From what I've read, you just match SSID+password+encryptiontype exactly and it's up to client devices to switch to the best network available.
 

Eug

Lifer
Mar 11, 2000
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From what I've read, you just match SSID+password+encryptiontype exactly and it's up to client devices to switch to the best network available.
Well, this is the reason I posted this thread. Never with my non-Apple wireless routers or with a mix of Apple and non-Apple wireless routers would I get seamless handoff. My clients would always just hang onto the first signal it got, until the signal was so weak it was flaky.

OTOH, with a pure Apple Airport network, the transfer from access point to access point is seamless and signal always remains strong.

Note, this is with Apple Mac and Apple iOS clients only. I haven't tested Windows clients, since all my Windows devices at home are desktops, and are hardwired anyway.

So, now I have an 802.11ac Airport Extreme, 802.11n Airport Extreme, and a 802.11n Airport Express all working in conjuction.

The only additional non-Apple router I have now is an el-cheapo and weak 802.11n router that stays in a gazebo in the yard at the other end of the backyard.



However, it's weak enough that it won't interfere at all with the WiFi in the house, and it's on a different SSID anyway. I just use it when sitting on a hot summer day having a lemonade in the backyard. It stays outside 24/7. I'm impressed it's lasted several years now in the elements, ranging from -20C to +35C. The last 802.11g one I had out there also lasted several years, until it got infested with ants.

 

RadiclDreamer

Diamond Member
Aug 8, 2004
8,621
38
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Hmmm...

because the access points would always hang onto to the client until the signal died completely, before the client tried to access a new access point. It was a pain so I eventually just changed the SSID. When I get weak signal in that room, I just manually change the access point.
The AP do not hang on to the client, the selection of access point is a feature of the client. There are some network tricks you can use to influence this selection process, but ultimately whatever the client wants it gets. You can change the roaming aggressiveness on many desktop/wireless client drivers, but for something like a tablet you are stuck with whatever the vendor wants.
 
Feb 25, 2011
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Yeah. The client is king. Unless you do some trickery like Ubiquiti uses for its smart-handoff.* Apple base stations don't do that.

*Which is AWESOME.
 

Eug

Lifer
Mar 11, 2000
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Ok then. With other non-Apple access points, or a mixture of Apple and non-Apple access points, the clients hang onto the access points until they lose signal. This is very frustrating behaviour.

In contrast, when using Apple clients at least, mated to a mesh of Apple access points, roaming from access point to access point is seamless. Doesn't matter if it's an iOS device or a macOS device, the behaviour is the same, and it's awesome.
 

Eug

Lifer
Mar 11, 2000
23,115
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Interesting. The Airport Extremes have no QoS features in the interface, but I was reading online that for Apple clients they will do automatic QoS management.

One person gave the example of the situation where if he starts a big file download on his MacBook Pro, it will throttle way back when an Apple TV movie download starts, and will dethrottle when the Apple TV download finishes.

So it seems that's a second undocumented feature for Apple routers/clients:

1) Seamless roaming over multiple Apple access points.
2) Automatic QoS management.

However, both of these features only work with Apple clients (Mac and iOS). I'm wondering if buying a QoS-enabled consumer-grade Gigabit switch will solve the problem for non-Apple devices, such as for file downloads on my Windows machines (if it becomes an issue for me in the future). Yes, I suppose I could switch to a modern non-Apple router with QoS and buy 3 UniFi Pro 802.11ac WiFi access points that would do the same thing and work for all clients, but that would necessitate me spending something like $1000 CAD, which obviously I'd rather not do at the moment, esp. since most of my main clients where this could matter are Apple devices anyway. So, in the meantime, I have purchased yet another Airport Extreme 802.11ac (refurb), to replace my old school wall-wart style Airport Express 802.11n. The Airport Express extends my network (over Gigabit) for surfing just fine, but its weaker signal means that I max out internal network speeds much quicker when at a distance. The range and speed of those Express units just doesn't cut it compared to the Extremes. Not the end of the world, but getting another Extreme 802.11ac will allow me to place one of them in my home office, which will become useful this spring when I pick up new Apple computers. (My current main Macs are from 2009 and 2010 respectively and are due for a replacement.) I'm sick of using Gigabit Ethernet for my laptop for large file transfers.

Luckily, right now I haven't really needed QoS management much. (No VoIP, no gaming.) Things may change to an extent when the kids get older, but I'll be putting them on mostly Macs and iOS products anyway for the next couple of years so I'm not sure even then it will be a big deal. Furthermore, Gigabit internet is becoming affordable in my neighbourhood, so for most usage, that would make QoS less of an necessity, unless the kids become hardcore gamers or something. Strangely enough, the incumbent phone and cable operators are selling Gigabit access (FTTH for Bell and cable for Rogers) for less than than 150 Mbps access, if you can find an agent that will give you access to the promotional package that is.
 
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Eug

Lifer
Mar 11, 2000
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This seamless handoff for Apple devices on Airports is mentioned in an article here.

https://michaelkummer.com/2016/05/05/handoff-multiple-airport-base-stations/

I'm wondering if it may actually depend partially on the hardware, since it works perfectly on the newer devices, but the oldest device there, the iPhone 6, doesn't seamlessly roam.

Handoff between AirPort Base Stations

Having multiple base stations is fine but can devices transparently handoff from one base station to another?

For example: My main base station is in my office (AirPort Extreme Office), connected to the Comcast modem. If my iPhone is connected to this base station and I leave the office and go to the family room, where another base station is located, would the iPhone automatically handoff to the base station with the stronger signal?

The short answer is yes!

Most modern Macs and iOS devices support roaming protocols, including 802.1r, 802.1k and 892.1v and thus can handoff to base stations with stronger signals. I have made the following experience, using devices we use at home:

Bottom line, handoff works very reliably when roaming in the house.
 

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