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AirPort Express Becomes Simultaneous Dual-Band Hockey Puck

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On the heels of a rash of WWDC announcements, Apple quietly slipped out a major revision to the AirPort Express Base Station that dramatically improves its usefulness while leaving the price at $99. The new model brings simultaneous dual-band support to the device, and shrinks it to precisely the same size as an Apple TV: 3.9 inches (98mm) square by 0.9 inches (23mm) tall. (The Apple TV is a bit heavier.) Apple is clearly engaging in some benefits of scale by switching its power adapter-like AirPort Express case design with one that is identical to the Apple TV. They’ll stack and pair nicely. There’s one difference: The Apple TV is black and the AirPort Express (like all Apple Wi-Fi devices) is white.

The new model also finally has two Ethernet ports: one for a wide area network (WAN) and the other for a local area network (LAN), replacing the single dual-purpose jack in the previous models. The Ethernet ports are both only 10/100 Mbps, about which I have reservations, discussed later in the article.


(Before you ask, I won’t need to do an extensive update to the “Take Control of Your 802.11n AirPort Network, Third Edition” that we just revised to cover AirPort Utility 6.0 and AirPort Utility for iOS; see “‘Take Control of Your 802.11n AirPort Network’ Updated,” 24 May 2012. All the advice that applies to an AirPort Extreme, except for attaching peripherals via USB, now applies to the AirPort Express as well.)

AirPort History -- Apple originally introduced the AirPort Express in 2003 as a cheaper, portable alternative and extension to the AirPort Extreme Base Station. The AirPort Extreme could support dozens of simultaneous users and boasted good range. The AirPort Express was rated for just 10 users, and was compact enough to travel with, but the range at which it worked was substantially more restricted than the AirPort Extreme. You could attach it to a power outlet directly with a flip-out plug, or buy a $39 audio/extender kit that let you attach a lengthy electrical cord.

However, the AirPort Express had three unique features. First, it had (and still has) an audio output jack with both analog and digital optical (TOSLINK) capability. The audio jack streams music from iTunes using what was once called AirTunes (for audio only), and now is part of AirPlay (which handles audio and video). Second, the AirPort Express sported a USB port into which you could plug a single printer to share across a local network. A third, less well-known and less-used feature was an option to make the AirPort Express act like a Wi-Fi adapter to extend a network just for Ethernet and audio streaming. That appears to have been removed in AirPort Utility 6.0.

In 2007, the AirPort Extreme gained 802.11n support, the latest flavor in a series of Wi-Fi updates; a year later, the Time Capsule debuted with 802.11n as well. Both could use either the 2.4 GHz or the less-used 5 GHz band with 802.11n, which supports both frequency ranges, but switching between bands required restarting the base station. Both also included USB from the start, with the option to attach a hard drive or printer, or to connect a USB hub and then plug in multiple drives and printers. In 2008, Apple updated the AirPort Express to support single-band 802.11n, but left the USB limit of a single printer in place.

In 2009, the AirPort Extreme and Time Capsule received another big boost: simultaneous dual-band support. You no longer needed to choose a band nor buy multiple base stations to support older devices that could use only 802.11b or 802.11g in 2.4 GHz, or newer devices, like all iPhone and iPod touch models, that support only 2.4 GHz for 802.11n. (All iPad models and all Macs released since 2006 can work over either band.)

The AirPort Express languished. At $99, it was cheaper than the $179 AirPort Extreme and the Time Capsule (priced at $299 and $499, depending on drive capacity, even as the two drive sizes have been upgraded twice since introduction). But it still had a niche because of its compact size and audio output capabilities, as well as being able to extend Wi-Fi to hard-to-reach nooks in a house or office. I receive questions from TidBITS readers and owners of my Take Control book nearly every week about how to use the AirPort Express to extend networks and stream audio.

Back to the Present -- This update brings two changes beyond the radio improvement. First, the switch to two Ethernet ports, one for WAN and one for LAN, enables you to use the AirPort Express as your sole base station on a mixed Ethernet/Wi-Fi network. Second, having a flat, compact external power cord, instead of an integral one (unless you bought a kit, discontinued last year) makes it much simpler to position an AirPort Express at home or while traveling.

My sole gripe with the revised AirPort Express is its continued use of 10/100 Mbps Ethernet, even though it now has separate ports for WAN and LAN. This outdated standard is also found on the Apple TV, where it makes sense, as one doesn’t need anything like 100 Mbps to stream video to the device. But on a router, it’s a little frustrating.

Ostensibly, and this is testable, Apple hasn’t limited speed for intra-wireless connections. That is, one should be able to use the full raw 75 Mbps and 300 Mbps bandwidth in 2.4 and 5 GHz among devices using either band (true throughput is closer to 30–40 Mbps and 100–150 Mbps, respectively). Likewise, you can plug an inexpensive gigabit Ethernet switch into the AirPort Express’s LAN port and have full gigabit throughput available among wired devices. The limit affects only those rare people who enjoy greater than 100 Mbps throughput to the Internet and those who use the wireless-to-Ethernet crossover, where you are transferring lots of data regularly between wired Ethernet and wireless Wi-Fi devices.

Even without testing the updated unit, I am sure it will be a big hit for folks for whom $179 seemed too high, and who were thinking about purchasing a less-expensive router from another maker, or who want to buy and set up an inexpensive, hassle-free AirPort base station for friends or relatives. This Ethernet port improvement and effective price drop make it affordable to stay in the Apple fold for ease of setup and configuration, plus full support for all things Apple.

I can envision a future merger of the Apple TV and AirPort Express by way of adding an HDMI port to the AirPort Express and relying on an A5 processor to handle video streaming and wireless routing at the same time. They both use the same form factor and connect to consumer electronics devices; a merger is as logical as the Time Capsule’s combination of backup drive and base station.

Check out the Take Control ebooks that expand on the topic in this article:

Read real-world advice from Wi-Fi wizard Glenn Fleishman on setting up a wireless network using Apple's 802.11n and 802.11ac base stations. Learn to maximize performance, extend range, connect multiple base stations, handle complex configs, share USB disks and printers, and more.

 

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Comments about AirPort Express Becomes Simultaneous Dual-Band Hockey Puck
(Comments are closed.)

Troy Payne  2012-06-12 02:27
If you get one of these for testing, I'd love to know if it can still extend a network when configured with Airport Utility 5.6.x, or if the new update to the 6.x utility added extending back in.
Dave Laffitte  2012-06-12 05:45
I purchased an Express earlier this year and never could get it to work with my Time Capsule to extend a network in our home. It only sync'd up with the TC a couple of times and then would lose the connection. I returned it.
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-06-12 10:44
I've generally found the wireless extension function to work poorly. I had high hopes for it years ago, and used it in network configurations then. But I haven't found in reliable when I've tested or tried to set up a network in the last few years. I don't recommend its use any more.

But you can use an Express via an Ethernet connection to extend a network, which is what I do in my house.
Guy Hermann  2012-06-13 12:35
Is there any way now to extend my Airport wifi network easily? I'd been hoping that a new Express would be just the ticket...
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-06-13 12:41
It depends on what you want to do. The Express (2003, 2008, and 2012 models) have always been able to extend an Apple base station network. Did that not work for you in the past? The new device will likely offer greater range and flexibility as it can extend both bands, and is almost certainly powered by a better processor than the predecessor.
Guy Hermann  2012-06-19 09:51
I was responding to this sentence in the article:

"A third, less well-known and less-used feature was an option to make the AirPort Express act like a Wi-Fi adapter to extend a network just for Ethernet and audio streaming. That appears to have been removed in AirPort Utility 6.0."

I have used my old base station to extend my network in the past and it worked great until the "N" devices started showing up. I would love to have one that worked with my Time Capsule to get good overage throughout the house.

So, I am confused. Will it extend my Wifi network, or is there a distinction that I am missing here?

Thanks!
Dave Laffitte  2012-06-20 05:59
I am not sure how to square this answer with the one you gave me earlier regarding the poor functionality of the Express to extend my networks. They don't even work with Apple's own Time Capsule.
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-06-20 07:16
I don't like the function, but it works for some people. I try not to recommend it, but I also have to describe how it works. Typically, the problem is that the previous Express model didn't have enough range or diversity to maintain a connection. I'll be curious if the new one works better, and I'll be testing that soon.
Guy Hermann  2012-06-20 09:41
So, the function is still there, but it may not work any better than it did in the past?

My Express worked very well with my original Airport base station (the white pyramid one), but not well at all with the Time Capsule. Fortunately, the Time Capsule has much better range than the original base station, so it hasn't been much of an issue, except in the far corner of the house.

I'd also really like to be able to use an Express to play music through my stereo. The original setup worked perfectly for this. The Time Capsule didn't work so well. Now I just plug in the iPhone, but that is awkward, too.

It will be good to hear your experience with it. Thanks!
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-06-21 15:06
I'm testing the new AirPort Express, and the extension function worked perfectly with it and has remained stable over a day. So perhaps this feature is more reliable than it had been in earlier models.
Guy Hermann  2012-06-22 10:22
Thanks for the update. My pointer is hovering over the BUY button, but I'll give it a few days to see if you come back cursing and swearing. Thanks again for the follow up.
Dennis B. Swaney  2012-06-16 12:40
I have the original 802.11b/g Airport Extreme Base Station which works fine with my G4 & G5 iMacs, iPhone 3gs and iPad 3.

I recently bought a mid-2011 iMac which has 802.11n, but I don't know if I'd see an increase in speed as my internet connection speed is roughly the lowest DSL speed. Would replacing the older Extreme with this new Express be worthwhile or would I still be limited to b/g speeds?
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-06-18 12:42
If everything works and your downstream DSL speed is below about 15 Mbps, I don't see a reason to change anything. If you start using more intra-computer/device communication and feel constrained by speed and more of your devices spoke 802.11n, or got a DSL or cable connection above 15 Mbps, I'd recommend an upgrade.
Pete Skura  2012-06-19 09:20
I find it strange to use the hockey puck reference, as I see that used to mean dead and only useful as a hockey puck, i.e. doorstop or paperweight. It is only when I read some into the article that I realized the reference was quite different.
Eddie Forero  2012-06-20 04:38
I like the old all-in-one wall plug style. :-(
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-06-20 07:14
I can see the pluses and minuses, but the wall plug is hard to locate, and this is likely a better all-in-one home and travel solution than the previous option where a separate ($39) kit was required to get a long cord. Also, the long cord is now 2-prong not 3-prong, making it possible (in the U.S. version) to use in old houses and with extension cords.
Doug Stoner  2012-06-22 00:20
Thanks for the great update. I have two questions:
1. Is the dual-band capacity the same strength as the current AirPort Extreme Base Station? I have the previous generation which has a weaker signal.
2. Is there a compelling reason to purchase an AirPort Extreme now? It sounds like maybe the connectivity for an external hard drive might not be present. Other than that, is there something else?
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-06-22 01:05
I have a full review coming in Macworld on Friday, and I'll post a link. But the answer to question #1 is that the Express has a measurably higher signal strength producing greater throughput at farther distances.
Dave Feldman  2012-06-22 19:33
+1 on this question -- my supposedly high-end Linksys 802.11n router has never worked right, and I'm thinking the new Express might be the ticket.