Apple's new AirPort Express Base Station joins the contemporary world of wireless routers with its new dual-band networking support. It's also arguably the best-looking piece of networking hardware I've seen. Despite its good looks, the new router doesn't exactly offer a wealth of new features.
For Apple fans, the $100 wireless router will make a capable addition to your home, giving you a more versatile network than the previous AirPort Express thanks to its new dual-band capability. For the brand-agnostic, other dual-band routers such as the
Measuring 3.9 inches by 3.9 inches by 0.9 inch, the new AirPort Express seems slightly smaller than the already-compact previous
Dual-band wireless networking means that a router broadcasts signals in both the 2.4GHz and 5.0GHz frequency bands. The difference between the two bands mostly comes down to the fact that 5GHz generally offers better real-world performance thanks to the fact that it uses higher frequencies that other home appliances, such as microwaves or cordless phones, don't use. In theory, both bands have the ceiling speed of the Wireless-N standard.
Most current devices equipped with a wireless networking receiver -- such as laptops, smartphones, and tablets -- operate on both bandwidths, but you may have some devices, such as those made a few years ago, that only work with signals on the 2.4GHz band. With dual-bandwidth support, the AirPort Express broadcasts both signals simultaneously, allowing single-band devices access to whatever band they require and providing dual-band devices the freedom to dynamically choose the 5GHz band for best possible connection.
True dual-band support is a rather ubiquitous feature of wireless routers nowadays, so by adding it to the AirPort Express, Apple is only catching up to the rest of the market. The little device also now has one Ethernet LAN port, in addition to the WAN port and an AirPlay audio port.
Design and features
Apple has introduced the new AirPort Express Base Station almost exactly four years after from the previous model. Its new appearance and dual-bandwidth support are welcome additions, but overall the new router doesn't feel as if it has four years' worth of advances.
For example, the USB port on the new AirPort Express still doesn't support external storage devices, but only some printers. The new router still supports dual-stream 802.11n wireless networking, meaning the router can broadcast signal in two spatial streams on each of its two frequency bands. Each stream of the Wireless-N standard can handle a bandwidth of 150Mbps, making the AirPort Express effectively an N600 router (one that offers up to 300Mbps on each band). There's no support for the latest 802.11ac, and also no support for the three-stream, 450Mbps 802.11n, available in N900 routers.
On the other hand, the new AirPort Express is miles ahead in terms of appearance. It now looks just like a miniature version of Apple's larger wireless router, the AirPort Extreme Base Station, but it's also compact enough to fit in your palm. Coming in the typical white color of Apple products, the new AirPort Express feels solid and looks expensive. I also prefer the separate power cord here to the snap-in design on previous models that forced the router to stay on the power socket.
On the front the AirPort Express has just one tiny indicator light that shines solid green when everything is in order and amber when something needs attention.
On the back, the little device has an Apple-standard power port, one LAN port to connect to a wired client, such as a desktop computer, one WAN port to hook to an Internet source such as a broadband modem, a USB port, and a standard audio port.
The addition of the LAN port is a major improvement over previous generations, since now you can actually use the router as a gateway for a home network that consists of both wired and wireless clients. (You can add more LAN ports via a hub or a switch if you have more than one Ethernet-ready device.)
Previous generations of the AirPort Express were more of an addition to a home network since they didn't support wired clients at all. Unfortunately, the new router's LAN port doesn't offer a Gigabit Ethernet network connection. You can overcome this shortcoming by getting a Gigabit Ethernet switch if you need that much bandwidth, but for most consumers, the 10/100Mbps LAN connection will suffice. The router's audio jack works with standard analog minijack cables or optical minijacks and allows you to stream music from any iOS device or an iTunes-equipped computer connected to the router's network to a set of externally powered speakers (or any audio output system) using Apple's AirPlay feature. This is a very neat feature, since it frees you from having to connect speakers directly to the playback device.
As mentioned above, the router's USB port doesn't support storage devices. In my trials, the support for USB printers was hit or miss, though I suspect that most new printers will work. Note however that if you want to use an all-in-one printer with the router, you can only use the printing function, and not the scanning features of the device. This means you can't turn a hard copy of a document into a soft document, such as a PDF file, for e-mailing or archiving purposes.
The router also supports Apple's Back to My Mac feature, which enables Mac users to share data over the Internet from a computer with Back to My Mac enabled.
Other than that, the Apple AirPort Express Base Station comes with a basic feature set found in most routers, such as port forwarding, NAT, MAC address filtering, and VPN pass-through. It's compatible with all existing Wi-Fi standards including 802.11n/g/b and a. Basically, it will work with all existing Wi-Fi clients on the market. Like any new router, the router supports IPv6, a requirement since the new version of the Internet protocol is now official.
Most other true dual-band routers in the same price range offer many other features, such as support for USB storage devices, multiple Gigabit LAN ports, comprehensive parental control, and Quality of Service (QoS).
Ease of use and security
The AirPort Express ships with both network bands open by default, allowing any device to connect to them. To password-protect your local network you'll need to run the AirPort Utility from a connected computer. Version 6 of the software is available only for Mac OS 10.7. Windows users or those using Mac OS 10.6 are stuck with version 5. This is not a bad thing, however, since version 5 actually offers more access to the router than version 6.
There is also an AirPort Utility mobile app for iOS devices that offers most functions found in the desktop version. Note that even when you have named the two wireless networks with different names, the two will share the same password; you can hide the 5GHz network from being seen by wireless clients, however.
In addition to the two main wireless networks, you can create a third, guest Wi-Fi network that gives access to the Internet but is isolated from local resources, such as files or printers. You can change this network's name and password to your liking.
Unlike most non-Apple routers, and like the rest of existing networking devices from Apple, the AirPort Express doesn't have a Web interface. This means you must use AirPort Utility to manage it. This won't be a problem for Apple users, but for others it could be a hassle since they must first install the software. AirPort Utility, unfortunately, is not available for some platforms, such as Android or Linux. This wouldn't be a problem if the router had a Web interface, since all modern operating systems have at least one Internet browser built in.
Assuming you have installed the AirPort Utility software (it's part of Mac OS), setting up the router is simple and self-explanatory. The manual walks you through the basics of setup, and you can get it up and running in just a few minutes out of the box.
For security, the AirPort Express supports all variations of WEP and WPA encryption methods but doesn't offer Wi-Fi Protected Setup, which would let you add a wireless client to the network by pressing a button.
The new AirPort Express Base Station performed as expected in my testing. Clients of any platform, be it Mac, iOS, Android, or Windows, can easily connect to its Wi-Fi network. On the 5GHz band, the router scored about 91Mbps in our close-range (15 feet) throughput test. At this speed, it can finish 500MB of data in about 44 seconds. When I increased the distance to 100 feet, the data rate was reduced to 40Mbps. Both of these numbers were about the average on the charts of N600 routers.
On the 2.4GHz band, the router's performance, as expected, was slower, averaging 43Mbps and 19Mbps for the close-range and long-range tests, respectively, landing it slightly below average on the charts.
The router's range was very good for its compact physical size. I was able to connect to it from up to 250 feet away on both bands. Realistically, though, you want to use it within 150 feet or less for stable and lag-free Wi-Fi connections.
Note that the router was tested at CNET's offices where there are other wireless access points and clients that I have no control over. These devices to some extent affect the performance of the reviewed router. This is the same environment in which all I test all routers, though, so the relative performance is consistent.
That said, the new AirPort Express Base Station failed the 24-hour stress test on the 2.4GHz band. During the test it was set to continuously transfer data back and forth between wireless and wired clients. The router's Wi-Fi signal was disconnected once after 7 hours. It did, however, pass this test easily on the 5GHz band, without any hiccups.
Service and support
Since the AirPort Express is so easy to use, I suspect that you won't need much support for it. Nonetheless, the router comes with a well-written manual. You can also always reset it to its default settings and use AirPort Utility to set it up from the beginning, which, as mentioned above, is an easy process.
The new AirPort Express Base Station, while superior to its predecessors, is lacking when compared with its peers. Its supersleek design and ease of use, however, will make it a very good investment for Mac users and home users who need a simple networking device.