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AirPort gives 'Express' route to Internet, audio streaming

  • Story Highlights
  • New, faster 802.11n wireless standard at same price as old model
  • Unique audio streaming capability; imminently portable because of small size
  • Not as fast as other 802.11n routers; can't connect to external hard drive
  • No Ethernet ports for wired clients
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By Rich Brown
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CNET.com

(CNET) -- Apple's AirPort Express Base Station has always been remarkable in that it is networking hardware that people actually seem to get excited about.

art.apple.airport.express.base.jpg

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 $99, 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.

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 (3.7 inches high, 1.1 inches wide, 3 inches deep), weight (.4 pounds), and shape (little, boxy) 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.

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 OK 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. Other vendors sell non-Gigabit 802.11n routers for between $50 and $100, which made Apple's older 802.11b/g version of the AirPort Express look dated and overpriced. 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 meters for 802.11n versus 35 meters 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

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.

We also found that the AirPort Express takes a significant hit compared with other 802.11n devices when you use it at 70 meters, or the theoretical limit of the standard. 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 200 feet. 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.

Service and support

Because the AirPort Express is so easy to set up, chances are the clearly written manual is all you'll need to get up and running. If you screw up the network settings, you can always try again through the AirPort Utility, although it's possible that novices may need to look up some of the trickier networking terms.

Apple covers the AirPort Express with a one year parts and labor warranty, as well as a year of 24-7 toll-free phone support, a welcome boost over the typical 90-day phone support we're used to from Apple. You can also find a fair amount of support resources on Apple's Web site, including the active Apple forum. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

© 2009 CBS Interactive Inc. All rights reserved. CNET, CNET.com and the CNET logo are registered trademarks of CBS Interactive Inc. Used by permission.

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