Apple announced its new Airport Extreme Base Station (AEBS) this week with a bit less fanfare than enjoyed by its other two new products. Sure, the new AEBS won’t change the world, but it does have one new feature that will bring joy to quite a few households. Apple calls it AirPort Disk, and it provides cheap, Apple-simple network storage to home networks.
The current version of the AEBS includes a USB port that allows network sharing of whatever USB printer is plugged into it. The new version uses a similar USB 2.0 port, but now allows you to plug in a USB storage device, which then becomes shared over the network. You can also plug in a USB hub if you need to share both a printer and disk, or multiples of them. Apple’s not the first to do something like this, but as usual, makes it the easiest.
You can attach just about any USB hard drive, formatted either as HFS+ or FAT, and it will become available for sharing using both AFP and SMB protocols and therefore accessible like any other network volumes to Mac, Windows and (presumably) Linux clients on the network.
The Macs on the network have it really easy as they can auto-mount any Airport Disks they find. You won’t need to browse or connect to them manually; they will just appear on your desktop when you log in. I’m still looking for clarification on whether Bonjour discovery will cause new drives found on the network to auto-mount, and also if Bonjour for Windows (included with the APBS) allows auto-mounting as well.
Of course on a large network you wouldn’t want your desktop covered with AirPort Disk icons, so Apple will include a new “AirPort Disk Utility” application that allows you to specify which disks (if any) you want auto-mounted. Additionally, a new version of the Airport Admin Utility will allow you to configure account-base access permissions for your AirPort disks, down to the folder and file level.
Combine AirPort Disk with Wide Area Bonjour and you’ll have your own iDisk-like storage available from anywhere on the Internet. Certainly, the usefulness of this will depend on the your home bandwidth, especially downstream for uploading to the AirPort Disk, but it should work fine for quick and easy backups of small files.
Apple wouldn’t discuss what’s running under the hood of the new AEBS, but given its added feature list, I might think that it’s an embedded OS X. Also unclear is whether AirPort Disk works with the Apple TV; it would be a great solution for those wanting to add to the Apple TV’s 40GB of built-in storage.
I’ll post again with any answers I can get, as well as more on some of the other new features of the new AEBS.
[Update: Apple has confirmed that auto-mounting works with Windows as well, and that, alas, AirPort disks are not available to Apple TV]