As many of you know, I make my living as a systems architect for a large professional services organization, a job which requires a great deal of travel. Suffice to say, I sleep in hotel rooms 3 to 4 nights a week.
More often than not, the hotel that I am staying at has broadband, but when it does, it's usually "Wireless in the lobby and wired from your room desk". When I get back to the room at night to work, I like my Blackberry to have perfect reception (frequently difficult in big hotels or in spotty coverage areas) and I want to be able to surf and work from bedside, while I snack on evil Doubletree Hotel Cookies. (Hint: you can get more than one per stay at a Doubletree -- you just have to ASK for them.)
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Bedside wireless surfing in a wired-only room requires bringing a wireless access point or a router with you. And considering that my laptop backpack is already stuffed full of enough gear that would make Batman envious, that space is at a premium. So I looked for a handheld-sized wireless access point, and checked all my favorite vendors.NETGEAR: Nope. Linksys: Nope. D-Link: Nope. Belkin: Nope. Buffalo Technology: Nope.
Surely, someone realized there was a need for such a product. I was particularly surprised by Linksys's lack of an entry in the market, as I once owned a miniature Wireless-G router made by the company that sold for about $40 but it broke a few years back. I was surprised they hadn't released an updated model.
(EDIT: It appears that Linksys makes the WRT54GC, which is an updated version of their compact Wireless-G router they introduced several years ago. I have also since been informed of the Cradlepoint products, however they are not price competitive with the Linksys or Airport Express, although they have a number of other features which may be compelling to some users. A number of online vendors still carry the D-Link DWL-G730AP although the product is almost 5 years old. Asus manufactures the WL530G but reportedly it is difficult to find units in stock. A search on Amazon for the Asus unit yeilds the D-Link unit instead (EDIT, again -- unless you look for a different model with a different number. DUH, Amazon!). However. If you're looking for Wireless-N, and don't want the Airport Express, take a look at this Trendnet Wireless-N access point that looks pretty portable and goes for $40.)
The super-thin MiFi indeed looks very slick for setting up impromptu networks for groups of people when no broadband is available, but I don't need ANOTHER 3G device, and it was a bit too rich for my blood. Blissfulglutton, one of my foodie friends from Atlanta, was clearly taunting me with her Airport Express reccomendation.
Me? Willfully purchase an Apple product? Apple, the empire of proprietary everything? No 'friggin way. The last time I bought anything made by Apple was an iPod 120GB for my WIFE, and I never touch the damn thing.
But Blissfulglutton has never steered me wrong with any recommendation she's given me, so I took a look at the specs on the site. Indeed, the unit was tiny, about the size of a cigarette pack, with retractable power prongs so it could be jacked right into an AC power outlet, with 5Ghz Wireless-N draft capability. With the ability to stream iTunes music directly to the unit from my PC, using attached speakers and also act as a wireless USB print server. And Amazon was willing to ship it to me for $98.00 including 2 day shipping. Most importantly, it said it worked on Windows.
I was half expecting to have to return the unit, anticipating that the device shipped with some half-baked Windows support that didn't work right. I plugged the unit into a power outlet, and jacked a Ethernet cable from my home LAN into the device. The status light lit up amber, indicating it was awaiting to be configured. Okay, so far, so good.
Next, the configuration. Unlike most SOHO router/access points, the Airport Express uses a specialized setup utility instead of a web-based configuration. I assume this was done out of practicality in being able to miniaturize the device, or to make it easier for Mac users, so that the setup worked seamlessly within the Mac GUI. Whatever the reason, an equivalent Windows utility ships with the unit. Right after installing it and running it the first time, it prompted to download an updated version from the Apple site, which I did.
The setup utility, at least on Windows, is very well designed. It steps you through the entire process of setting up a secured WPA2 wireless network, with your SSID, and how you want to use the device, whether as a simple access point/bridge to an existing network with Internet access, a full blown SOHO router, or as a repeater on an existing wireless network. I had the device working with my existing home LAN as a bridge device within a manner of minutes. Of course, the device will also work with Linux netbooks and notebooks, but you'll need a Windows system or a Mac to pre-configure the unit with the utility software before using it. The lack of a web configuration UI is about the only major negative I can say about the product.
Despite the size of the unit, the Airport Express has impressive range -- I was able to walk about 100 feet away from it using a Wireless-N enabled laptop, a HP Elitebook, and still get five bars of signal in Windows 7. My Wireless-G work laptop worked reliably from about 60 feet away, and at 100 feet, I dropped down to 2 bars. However, considering I'm going to be using my work laptop from a hotel room, that's not really a huge deal to me. Now I'll be able to get my laptop and my BlackBerry working on a solid Wi-Fi connection no matter what hotel I go to.
I have to admit, I love the Airport Express. Have you found any alternative products that do as well as a job? Talk Back and Let Me Know.