Editors' Note: This is the old version of the Apple AirPort Express. As of March 2008, it has been replaced by the 802.11n version.
We've seen wireless routers shed bulk over the last few years, but Apple's new AirPort Express has shrunk to a new low. And that's a good thing. The compact unit is slightly smaller than a deck of cards and includes a 10/100 Ethernet port, an integrated 802.11g access point, a USB print server, and a mini stereo jack that you can use to connect a sound system to your wireless network. Music streaming via the AirPort Express works only with iTunes, but this feature nonetheless adds an innovative twist to what is already a versatile networking device. The AirPort Express can also connect wirelessly to other AirPorts, which makes it easy for you to expand your wireless network without Ethernet cables or power-line gear to connect the devices. The unit lacks an SPI firewall, and you can't control specific networking ports with it, but for basic wireless networking, the AirPort Express offers a nice array of features at an affordable price. The AirPort Express can play a number of roles on your network. You can use the AirPort Express as a broadband router, as a standard access point, or as a wireless distribution system (WDS) repeater. You can also add print-server functionality and digital-audio streaming to any of these network scenarios. Despite the AirPort Express's versatility, setting one up is quite easy and well within the reach of a networking novice, although setup tasks vary depending on which functions you assign to the unit. The package doesn't include an Ethernet cable, which you may need, depending on your network setup.
A helpful 48-page quick-setup guide walks you through configuring the unit from a connected Mac. The accompanying CD also includes a thorough 69-page manual for configuring the AirPort Express from a Windows PC.
Basic setup is mostly automatic and involves little more than plugging the AirPort Express into an AC outlet, inserting the accompanying CD into a connected computer, and following the onscreen prompts that lead you through the installation of the AirPort Admin Utility and Apple's iTunes software. Depending on the complexity of your network, this may be all you need to do to use the unit. If you have special network requirements that require manual IP-address configuration or the like, you can use the AirPort Admin Utility to tweak the unit to operate with any special settings you might have. Both the Apple and Windows versions of this utility are well designed and easy to use. We were pleased to find that Apple included a number of helpful screenshots in the AirPort Express manual, illustrating how to make network configuration changes on Windows computers and easing setup for those with mixed Apple/Windows networks. Our only setup gripe is that the AirPort Express lacks a browser-based configuration tool, which means that you can access the unit only from computers with installed Admin Utility software. The Apple AirPort Express packs a lot of nice features into a very compact package. The unit itself is only slightly larger than a pack of playing cards, and it includes a single 10/100 Ethernet port, a USB port that acts as a print server, and a standard mini audio jack for connecting the unit to a stereo or to powered speakers. The power adapter for the AirPort Express is built into the unit, and the plug swivels directly out of the top, so there's no additional power brick. This makes the AirPort Express a handy traveling companion that you can transport easily and use on the road to convert broadband over Ethernet into a wireless signal in your hotel room, similar to Netgear's new WGR101 travel router. The integrated USB print server also helps set the AirPort Express apart, and it works with a wide range of printers.
The most innovative feature of the AirPort Express is its ability to stream iTunes wirelessly from a computer to a set of powered speakers or a stereo. (The audio port on the AirPort Express can accept standard analog minijack connectors or optical digital models, but you'll need to supply the cables.) iTunes automatically recognizes a sound system connected to the AirPort Express and allows you to choose that connection for playback. This feature worked flawlessly for us, and it is the perfect way to stream music directly from your laptop to your sound system. An eight-second buffer helps maintain audio quality even when you're simultaneously using the AirPort Express to surf the Internet or share files. The integrated USB print server also helps set the AirPort Express apart, and it works with a wide range of printers.
But there's a significant caveat on the music front. Unlike competing products that are dedicated to streaming digital media (see the Slim Devices Squeezebox, for example), the AirPort Express is missing any sort of onscreen display or remote control. That means the only way to switch songs or play lists is from iTunes--and that's a real drag if you don't have a wireless laptop or live in anything larger than a one-bedroom apartment. Unless and until Apple comes out with a wireless remote along the lines of the one included with Creative Sound Blaster Wireless Music, many will find the audio capabilities of the AirPort Express decidedly half-baked. That said, the AirPort Express has a distinct advantage over its competitors: it's the only way to stream songs downloaded from Apple's iTunes Music Store.
Security features for the AirPort Express include a NAT firewall, MAC filtering, RADIUS support, LEAP support, WEP, and WPA--enough options to cover the bases for many networking scenarios. Note, however, that the AirPort Extreme doesn't include a stateful packet inspection (SPI) firewall. The Apple AirPort Express ranks top among routers CNET Labs has tested. The fastest access point we've tested to date is the D-Link DWL-2100AP, but it achieves its fast speeds in a proprietary turbo mode that's compatible with only other D-Link devices. The Apple AirPort Express reaches its fast speeds while adhering to the 802.11g standard and is fully compatible with 802.11b/g devices from other vendors. With a maximum real-world throughput of 25Mbps, the AirPort Express outpaces even the Buffalo WLA-G54C, and it runs circles around the Linksys WAP54G and the Netgear WG602. In mixed mode with an 802.11b device connected to the network, the AirPort Express mustered a respectable 16Mbps, slower than Buffalo's WLA-G54C but faster than Linksys's WAP54G and Netgear's WG602. We were also impressed with the range of the AirPort Express, which maintained a connection at more than 200 feet in our indoor tests.