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Apple AirPort Express Base Station (802.11n) review: Apple AirPort Express Base Station (802.11n)

You should consider the new AirPort Express if you're in the market for a new Wi-Fi router that offers portability, ease of use, and the unique ability to stream iTunes over your network.

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Rich Brown
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Rich Brown

Senior Editorial Director - Home and Wellness

Rich is the editorial lead for CNET's Home and Wellness sections, based in Louisville, KY. Before moving to Louisville in 2013, Rich ran CNET's desktop computer review section for 10 years in New York City. He has worked as a tech journalist since 1994, covering everything from 3D-printing to Z-Wave smart locks.

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5 min read

Apple's AirPort Express Base Station has always been remarkable in that it is networking hardware that people actually seem to get excited about. Thanks to an update to the 802.11n wireless networking standard, this compact, easy-to-use device can now add increased wireless networking performance to its list of pros. It might not be as fast as some of the more robust 802.11n wireless devices, and at AU$129, it's also on the pricier side of basic 802.11n routers. Still, for its portability and its integration with iTunes, we recommend it to anyone interested in setting up a wireless network on the go, or if you're after some basic music streaming capability.

airport_express_1.jpg
7.3

Apple AirPort Express Base Station (802.11n)

The Good

New, faster 802.11n wireless standard. Same price as the original model. Audio streaming capability remains unique. Incredibly portable. Easy setup.

The Bad

Not as fast as other 802.11n routers. Can't connect an external hard drive to the USB port. No Ethernet ports for wired clients.

The Bottom Line

Don't pick up a new, 802.11n-enabled AirPort Express if you're looking for superfast wireless networking performance. You should consider it, however, if you're in the market for a new Wi-Fi router that offers portability, ease of use, and the unique ability to stream iTunes over your network.

Design and setup
Aside from the upgrade to the 802.11n, Apple made no other changes to the original AirPort Express design. It remains the exact size, weight, and shape as the original model, which lends the AirPort Express a unique degree of portability. It also has the same snap-in, fold-out power plug, and it retains the same array of ports. You get one 10/100 Ethernet port to connect the AirPort Express to your main wired Internet connection, one USB port that lets you install a printer on your network, and a single audio jack that doubles as an analog and an optical audio output.

As with the original model, setting up the AirPort Express is remarkably easy. You simply plug the AirPort Express into a power outlet, install the software onto a PC on your network, and follow the basic prompts via Apple's AirPort Utility. The experience is basically the same on a Windows PC, the main exception being that it installs Apple's Bonjour network device discovery software as well, if you don't already have it. The AirPort Express supports both the 2.4GHz and 5.0GHz wireless frequencies, so you can opt for the faster 5.0GHz band if you only need to worry about 802.11a/n-compatible devices.

Features
Although nothing aside from the networking standard has changed in the AirPort Express, with Apple's new Time Capsule and the older AirPort Extreme Base Station out there as well, it can't hurt to clarify the characteristics of Apple's family of networking products. All three are 802.11n capable, but the AirPort Express is the only one that offers built-in iTunes audio streaming over a direct connection. The AirPort Express is also the only one that won't support an external hard drive over the USB port, although like the others, it does support a USB printer over the network. The AirPort Express can support 10 simultaneous users, while the AirPort Extreme and the Time Capsule can both support up to 50. And where the others offer Gigabit Ethernet jacks, the AirPort Express also has only a single 10/100 Ethernet jack. That's fine, since the AirPort Express isn't intended to accept any client systems wired directly to it.

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That audio out is one of the main features that the AirPort Express can hold over Apple's Time Capsule, the pricier AirPort Extreme Base Station, and indeed most other wireless routers. If you plug a set of speakers (or any audio output device) into the AirPort Express, you can then use any iTunes-equipped computer on the AirPort's network to stream music to that device. It's no replacement for a dedicated music-streaming device such as Logitech's Squeezebox Duet, but if you're okay with playing DJ through the iTunes interface on your computer, the AirPort Express can provide a straightforward way to pipe music throughout your house. Apple also still hasn't opened up iTunes' DRM to other audio-streaming hardware vendors, which means the AirPort Express and the Apple TV are still the only networking devices that can stream music from iTunes.

Because audio streaming is generally not that demanding on your networking bandwidth, the benefit of the AirPort Express's move to 802.11n feels like more of a "keeping up with the Joneses" kind of upgrade, although its wider bandwidth opens up the possibility for streaming high definition video smoothly across your network.

The 802.11n standard certainly has its benefits. The rated specs for the standard include twice the bandwidth of 802.11g (74 megabits per second versus 23 megabits per second), and also twice the range, with about 70 metres for 802.11n versus 35 metres for the older standards. But, as you'll see from our testing, the AirPort Express's actual network performance sits on the lower end of the 802.11n scale.

Performance

Ixia IxChariot maximum throughput tests (at 4.5 metres)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

D-Link DGL-4500 Xtreme Gaming Router (5.0Ghz)
116.1 

Apple Time Capsule (5.0Ghz)
103.1 

Netgear RangeMax Next WNR854T
85.5 

SMC SMCWGBR14-N Barricade N
83.7 

D-Link DGL-4500 Xtreme Gaming Router
81.9 

Edimax BR-6504N nMax
76.7 

Apple AirPort Express (5.0GHz)
66.5 

Apple Time Capsule
65.1 

Asus WL-500W 802.11n
62.9 

Apple AirPort Express
52.8 

LevelONe N-One WBR-6000
47.3 


Ixia IxChariot maximum throughput tests with mixed 802.11b/g and draft N clients (at 4.5 metres)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Edimax BR-6504N nMax
68 

Netgear RangeMax Next WNR854T
67.5 

Asus WL-500W 802.11n
55.1 

SMC SMCWGBR14-N Barricade N
52.4 

Apple Time Capsule
51.5 

D-Link DGL-4500 Xtreme Gaming Router
50.9 

Apple AirPort Express
50.5 

LevelONe N-One WBR-6000
23.9 


Our testing shows that the AirPort Express is actually among the slowest 802.11n devices. Its speed is still plenty fast for streaming music or HD video, but even under the best conditions, at close range on a 5.0GHz 802.11n-only network, it hit 66Mbps, or just barely faster than the Time Capsule in slower 2.4GHz mode. If you have demanding networking tasks in mind, with many users all streaming various kinds of media at once, for example, you will likely want a more robust 802.11n product.

Ixia IxChariot long-range tests
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

D-Link DGL-4500 Xtreme Gaming Router (5.0Ghz)
49.7 

Apple Time Capsule (5.0Ghz)
42.27 

Asus WL-500W 802.11n
29.7 

D-Link DGL-4500 Xtreme Gaming Router
27 

Netgear RangeMax Next WNR854T
26.9 

SMC SMCWGBR14-N Barricade N
24.3 

Apple Time Capsule
21.36 

Apple AirPort Express (5.0Ghz)
18.4 

Apple AirPort Express
11.7 

Edimax BR-6504N nMax
11.4 

LevelONe N-One WBR-6000
5.3 

We also found that the AirPort Express takes a significant hit compared with other 802.11n devices when you use it at long distance. At the 5.0GHz frequency, Apple's Time Capsule is actually near the top of its class at range, posting an impressive 42.27Mbps from 60 metres. The AirPort Express loses more than half of that throughput, coming in at only 18.4Mbps. Its long-distance 2.4GHz performance is lower still. At those speeds, your HD streaming experience would suffer, so if you intend to work the AirPort Express into a media-streaming situation, you will want to keep the various components fairly close together.

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