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Apple AirPort Express Review

Highs

  • Small size; ability to print
  • play iTunes wirelessly; roaming profiles.

Rating

Our Score 6
User Score 7

Lows

  • Not practical to use as a print server and music server at the same time; difficulty with some networks.
The AirPort Express certainly has a lot to offer, but the device's practicality may be relative only to a small subset of users.

Summary

The AirPort Express certainly has a lot to offer in a small package, but the device’s practicality may be relative only to a small subset of users. Those that specifically want to use iTunes for their music streaming and don’t mind having to use their laptop will find the AirPort Express useful. Those that don’t have a wireless network and only want wireless clients (10 or less) may also be interested in the product. The device may be perfect for those that live in a small apartment or dorm room and don’t want a wired network and don’t mind having their stereo in the same room as their printer. But if you plan on using all of the AirPort Express’ features, or already have a wireless network, you may want to reconsider.

And while Apple wants you to believe that the $129 price is a steal, keep in mind that the package does not include any connectors for audio or Ethernet and the connection pack is an additional $39. It seems to us that you are paying a premium for the Apple name in a product that is certainly unique, but just may not be practical for many users.

The AirPort Express has an acceptable wireless range and speed and, for the most part, is easy to set up. It also does a good job of printing with supported printers and playing iTunes music. There’s no denying that the AirPort Express mostly works as described by Apple, the problem is that its uniqueness might overshadow its actual usefulness.

Since it seems like most of the big manufacturers are getting into the networked media game, it was only a matter of time before Apple Computer released their own solution. That product, just released last week, is Apple’s AirPort Express; a palm-sized device that shares digital music on your computer with your home stereo, provides wireless Internet access, and acts as a print server.

 

Compatible with Macs and PCs, as well as third-party networking products, the AirPort Express allows you to enjoy your iTunes music library in virtually any room of your house. It also allows you to wirelessly share a broadband Internet connection and a USB printer, with the ability to create a new wireless network or join an existing network.

 

Small enough to pack on a business trip and retailing for $129, the AirPort Express seems to offer something for almost everyone from students to mobile professionals to digital music aficionados.

 


Apple’s AirPort Express is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.

Design and Features

In typical Apple fashion, the AirPort Express Base Station incorporates a minimalist design with few buttons or interfaces and a white, almost featureless finish. The palm-sized 3.7-inch by 2.95-inch by 1.12-inch box features just a single Ethernet port, a USB port, an audio output and a pin-sized reset button. There is a single status light centered on the front edge that displays green or amber depending on its status, and a silver Apple logo on each side.

The AirPort Express is powered by a built-in, flip-out two prong plug, and it can also be powered by a 6-foot cord included in the optional AirPort Express Stereo Connection Kit. The $39 kit includes the power extension cord, a Monster mini-to-RCA left/right audio cable, and a Monster mini-to-optical digital Toslink audio cable.


The AirPort Express shown with the optional Stereo Connection Kit.

Supporting 802.11g and 802.11b networks, the AirPort Express is compatible both with Apple’s other AirPort products, as well as most other wireless devices. It can be used to extend the range of an existing wireless network, create a new wireless network, or to join a current network and add wireless printing and iTunes playback.

The iTunes playback feature may be the most important to most consumers interested in purchasing this product, since there aren’t many networked media devices that support Apple products. Manufacturers such as SlimDevices and Roku have created networked devices that can play music stored on PC, Mac and Linux computers, but most of the other companies don’t support Apple. AirPort Express supports both Mac and PC, and allows users to share their digital music downloaded from Apple’s iTunes music store, or other MP3, WAV, AAC, or FLAC files. By plugging the AirPort Express into your home theater, stereo, or powered speakers with an analog or digital connection, music stored on your Mac or PC can be streamed wirelessly via the latest version of Apple’s iTunes.

For detailed specifications, please visit the specifications page at this link, or by clicking on the tab at the top of this review.

Setting up the AirPort Express

Setup of the AirPort Express is fairly easy and straightforward, with Apple including an instruction booklet for both Mac and PC environments. The included CD installs a setup wizard and a separate management program, as well as iTunes and Apple’s Quicktime media player. This was a bit annoying to us as there is no way to chose to not install Quicktime and while most Macs may already have it, PC users often have no need, or desire, to install the application.

While most other wired and wireless routers have web-based management consoles, the AirPort Express can only be managed with Apple’s Airport Admin Utility, or the setup assistant. To set the device up, you first plug in the audio cable, Ethernet cable and USB printer cable – you can chose to use all of these or any combination of them. The wizard walks you through the setup of the device and allows you to configure it with your existing network or as its own network.

In our testing, we used both the wizard and the admin utility to set up different networks, including creating our own AirPort Express network and joining an existing 802.11g network. Creating an AirPort Express network is the easiest and the wizard walks you through all of the steps. The device supports all of today’s encryption protocols including 40-bit and 128-bit WEP and several WPA options. It also features common router configuration options such as MAC filtering, the ability to change wireless channels, and naming the network (SSID). Unfortunately, it doesn’t allow you to turn off broadcasting of your SSID, a security measure that we think is important. Apple’s solution for that is to turn the transmitter power down, but that reduces the device’s wireless footprint.

While Apple’s instructions explain how to add the AirPort Express to an existing wireless network, it is not a particularly easy process. We were unable to connect the AirPort Express to an existing non-AirPort network with WEP encryption turned on, and we tried two different routers. We found a few forum posts in Apple’s discussion boards explaining that Apple’s instructions are incorrect and that they should tell you to use a “$” before entering in your WEP password. We tried this and still could not join our existing network. Joining existing wired networks was quite simple, however.

One thing we really liked about the Compex NP54G-USB router was the responsiveness of its Web admin tool and the fact that it doesn’t require you to reboot the device for most changes. Other routers seem to have to reboot upon every little change, and the AirPort Express suffers from that problem too. Worse though is that rebooting the AirPort Express takes a much longer time than any other router we’ve used before.

Apple has implemented a profile option into the admin that we really liked. The feature allows you to save up to five different profiles for the AirPort Express which can be selected from a pull down menu. This allows you to, for instance, set up one configuration for your home, one for your beach house, and one for a hotel you stay at on business trips.

Playing Music

Apple’s iTunes is one of the most popular software music players, and their iTunes store is the most popular online music service. Integrating the AirPort Express with iTunes makes sense for the company and those that have been searching for a way to use iTunes with their home stereo equipment may appreciate the product. However, this is not the ultimate in music streaming.

Streaming music from your computer to your stereo through the AirPort Express is very simple. Once your AirPort Express is setup to stream music, all you need to do is change your output option from the main iTunes page with one click (as shown below). This turns off your computer speakers and turns on the AirPort Express streaming. You cannot play music on your laptop and your stereo at the same time.

But keep in mind that the AirPort Express requires that you use the computer to control the music on your stereo, a proposition that some users may find a bit clunky. There is no remote control, no on-screen display, and no built-in display on the unit.

There is also a bit of a lag associated with streaming music with the AirPort Express. This lag is not as bad as the latency experienced with the Linksys Wireless B Media Adapter or the Actiontec Wireless Digital Media Player, but it certainly is not the instant response we experienced with the SlimDevices products and the Gateway Connected DVD Player. When selecting a song to play, expect a second or so lag before it begins. The same is true when pausing a track or manually switching from one song to another. This is the case for both the analog and digital connections from the AirPort Express, but the digital optical connection adds one more annoyance. When connecting digitally from your AirPort Express to a stereo, there is a noticeable gap that cuts off the beginning of a song. We watched the light of the optical connector as it switched tracks and noticed that the light is actually turned off for a fraction of a second, which certainly is the cause for this gap.

The latest version of iTunes, updated to support the AirPort Express with what Apple calls AirTunes has a few new features. One feature we really liked was what they call the “Party Shuffle” which allows you to pick songs you want to hear from an ever-changing selection that the application updates each time a new song plays. This allows you to pick your favorite from a list and then be presented with a new list each time.

One other thing worth mentioning when it comes to music and the AirPort Express is that the device gets quite hot. Apple suggests that you give it enough airflow and open space to breathe, something that may be tough to do if you want to put it in an audio rack.

Printing with the AirPort Express

Having a wireless print server in your house for all computers to access sounds like a great idea, and for the most part, this feature works fine. Apple’s list of supported printers did not list our test printer – the Epson Sylus Photo 750 – but we knew from using the Compex NP54G-USB and ClarkConnect’s Linux printing that it should work fine.

We had no problem following Apple’s instructions and getting a PC on our network to see the printer and begin printing. This process takes only a matter of seconds. However, hooking up a Mac client was not as simple. Apple instructs you to use their Rendezvous protocol to achieve this, but following their instructions does not seem to work. Several posters at the support forums reported the same issue. It turns out that adding a printer with the OS X printer configuration utility does not work, but adding it while in an application, like Text Edit does the trick. As of this writing Apple has not issued a fix for this and only users of the product seem to be aware of the issue.

Too Many “Ifs”

While the AirPort Express may seem on paper to be the ultimate device for wireless networking, network printing, and playing digital music, it is the product’s versatility that may be its greatest flaw. There are just too many “ifs” involved in the usage of this product to make it more than just a toy for Mac followers and iTunes fanatics.

First of all, if you think that having one device to stream your music, connect you to the Internet and print wirelessly is a dream come true – wake up. Nobody wants their printer in the same room as their stereo or home theater. This means that you will probably only use one of those features – or have to move the device from one room to another. Of course you could purchase another AirPort Express, as Apple suggests, but then you’re talking twice the price, and for almost $300, there are better solutions. And playing music means that you’ll need to have a wireless laptop within range of your AirPort Express and within listening range of your stereo equipment.

The wireless networking capabilities suffer from a few “ifs” as well. If you already have a network and wireless clients, you may already have a wireless router. If so, why would you spend $129 on a device that will only add printing or limited music playback? If your decision is to extend the range of your existing network, there certainly are cheaper alternatives to that. And, you’re not guaranteed that the AirPort Express will “play nice” with your existing equipment. It seems to be a bit flaky in the way it connects to existing networks and browsing Apple’s community forums, you’ll find many users with problems hooking the device up.

If you don’t have a network yet, this just doesn’t seem like the device for you either. It really only would be of use to those that don’t have current networks if they intend to only have wireless clients. To get a desktop to work, you’ll need to either buy an add-on 802.11b/g PCI or AirPort card, or a USB interface. But again we come back to price, since doing this may make it more expensive than just buying a new wireless router, which at under $100, and often under $60, usually includes four wired ports.

If you’re a traveler, the AirPort Express may look appealing because of its portability and custom profiles. But chances are that travelers will only want the AirPort Express for its wireless capabilities, as a hotel room usually doesn’t have a stereo, and even if you traveled with a USB printer, it would be just as easy to hook that printer up directly to your laptop.

Perhaps if you want to use only one or two of the features the AirPort Express offers, the device may be right for you. Or you may like it if you plan to move the device around and use different profiles for different uses.

For those of you looking to set up a wireless network with USB printing capabilities, we suggest the Compex NP54G-USB router/print server. Those looking for wireless music streaming, we suggest the SlimDevices Squeezebox, which is compatible with Windows, Mac and Linux operating systems. Considering the AirPort Express’ downfalls, we just don’t see any reason for combining two such devices. And those looking for a travel-friendly router, APC and Asus have solutions that are much less expensive.

Conclusion

The AirPort Express certainly has a lot to offer in a small package, but the device’s practicality may be relative only to a small subset of users. Those that specifically want to use iTunes for their music streaming and don’t mind having to use their laptop will find the AirPort Express useful. Those that don’t have a wireless network and only want wireless clients (10 or less) may also be interested in the product. The device may be perfect for those that live in a small apartment or dorm room and don’t want a wired network and don’t mind having their stereo in the same room as their printer. But if you plan on using all of the AirPort Express’ features, or already have a wireless network, you may want to reconsider.

And while Apple wants you to believe that the $129 price is a steal, keep in mind that the package does not include any connectors for audio or Ethernet and the connection pack is an additional $39. It seems to us that you are paying a premium for the Apple name in a product that is certainly unique, but just may not be practical for many users.

The AirPort Express has an acceptable wireless range and speed and, for the most part, is easy to set up. It also does a good job of printing with supported printers and playing iTunes music. There’s no denying that the AirPort Express mostly works as described by Apple, the problem is that its uniqueness might overshadow its actual usefulness.