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 Asus RT-N56U and the Linksys E3200 offer more features than the AirPort Express for the same price or less.
Measuring 3.9 inches by 3.9 inches by 0.9 inch, the new AirPort Express seems slightly smaller than the already-compact previous first and second generations and now no longer comes in the wall-wart design. Instead, it's a mini version of the AirPort Extreme Base Station and shares the same power cord as well as support for true dual-band Wi-Fi.
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.