Apple Airport Express: Okay, Okay, I love the damn thing.

Apple Airport Express: Okay, Okay, I love the damn thing.

Summary: The Apple Airport Express, a pocket-sized wireless access point and SOHO router was refreshed with 5Ghz Wireless Draft-N capability in March of 2009. Click to view the gallery.

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Apple Airport Express, Wireless-N edition (March 2009 version) Packaging Exterior

The Apple Airport Express, a pocket-sized wireless access point and SOHO router was refreshed with 5Ghz Wireless Draft-N capability in March of 2009. Click to view the gallery.

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.)

Click on the "Read the rest of this entry" link below for more.

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.)

So I invoked a spell upon the Twittersphere about what to get. Almost Immediately, my buddies 'Twote back:

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.

Also See: Apple Airport Express, 5Ghz Wireless N version (Gallery)

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.

Damn you, evil Infinite Froot Loopers in the stupid black turtlenecks. Note to Apple execs: that fashion was out when the Dieter movie died its premature death.

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.

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Topics: Mobility, Apple, Networking, Wi-Fi

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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101 comments
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  • AirTunes

    It's worth every penny for AirTunes alone!
    Len Rooney
    • Yep. And also.....

      wireless printing!
      Userama
    • I agree

      We have 2 Airport Expresses in our house.
      Music on the iMac gets played in either the living room or the master bedroom. All controlled from my wife's iPhone.
      davebarnes
    • AirTunes iPhone as Remote!

      I bought the AirPort Express just so I could stream music from my iTunes
      library to speakers in my kitchen. The best part about the system is that I can
      use my iPhone's outstanding "Remote" app to wirelessly select my playlists and
      search/filter my library through the AirPort Express!
      Boulder_Bum
  • I got burned with the original Apple Airport ...

    ... since the unit had bad capacitors that overheated and expanded just out of warranty. It was a known problem that Apple tossed onto their customers by not recalling the units.

    I ended up repairing it by soldering in two new capacitors. I vowed never to buy another thing from Apple ever again.

    MisterMiester
    • bad capacitors affected several companies...

      lots of companies got burned by the bad capacitor saga, so your anger is misplaced. apple makes great stuff, so you are only hurting yourself.
      Pederson
      • In all fairness

        I have to agree with that. However, with the lousy
        economy hitting Asia particularly bad now, plenty
        of consumer electronics products are dying before
        their time because Q/C manufacturing methods are
        taking a back burner to sales and marketing.
        Whether it's Apple or Acer, a lot of these
        products are all made in the same manufacturing
        plants in China and Taiwan.
        jperlow
        • HA, thanks for saying it out loud...

          I don't want to be called China bashing, because I live here, and like it, but TQM and QC is yet something they haven't quite understood. In addition CN owners/managers have no problems using right out bad quality parts, or mixing melamine into baby-food and milk... No conscious, not ever admitting wrong doing... cause if they did it is a loss of face!
          IKE:)
        • Like the magsafe power connectors?

          Sorry, I don't give companies a pass because
          something in the supply chain broke down. You
          don't see anyone giving Seagate that courtesy,
          but when it's apple, oh god yes, it was an
          industry wide problem.

          Q/C starts in development and ends in the
          consumer's hands, and that includes stress
          testing on constituent components.
          Spiritusindomit@...
          • Magsafe Power connectors?

            So, other than a failed attempt to show your superior shallow attitude what has this to do with the article on Airport Express? hmmmmmmmm?
            781lc
          • in the dark re: stress testing on constituent components

            yo, DominoPaxNabisco, you "don't give companies a pass because something in the supply chain broke down". Please be prepared to fall on your sword the next time something which YOU deliver as a work-product has an issue because of a software application flaw that you were not able to discover prior to shipping off your latest word document or software module because you did not stress test the entire technology platform with which you have compromised yourself.

            Stress-testing is different than quality control. Yes, integrators should verify that components which they incorporate function properly after assembly. The disk works. The memory works, etc. Sure, burn it in for a couple of days to root out flaws and failures.

            The failure of a capacitor after one year as opposed to three years is NOT something you can "stress test" to filter out. It is, in fact, a design and quality issue for the supplier of the component. If you wish to impale technology companies on the prickly barb of your snooty attitude, be prepared to wait a couple of years before you get your next piece of gear so that the vendor can adequately "stress test" it just for you. Oh, but wait, then it would be halfway through its useful life already, and by your reckoning would still end up failing prematurely.

            Gosh, looks like you have a problem. Again, your loss.
            tahoe_blue
      • Who cares if it hit several companies

        So what if it hit several companies. Apple still has the responsibility to recall if they know there is a problem in their supply chain. When I buy from Apple, they are responsible for upstream issues. That doesn't matter if they are battery related, capacitor related, or screen related.

        I think the top-level poster's anger is solidly directed at the right place. After all, Microsoft continually is blamed for things they have nothing to do with; why shouldn't Apple be held accountable?

        Apple continually bills themselves as a provider of premium products, but this type of behavior is not how premium suppliers behave. Frankly, I've had substantially better customer service experience from Dell premium offerings. When my motherboard died recently, they sent a technician out to my office the next day to repair it.

        When the hard drive on my MacBook Pro died the next week, I had to drive 50 miles to the Apple store to have it serviced. I was then told they didn't have the right part in stock and it would take another week to have it shipped in and repaired. Then they misplaced my machine for three days. All in all, it took nearly two weeks to get a simple hard-drive replaced. During those two weeks, I started to feel much the same way.
        Rob Oakes
        • yes, and apple fixes these issues free of charge

          and with this Airport, Apple would be happy to replace it even out of warranty...

          and no, you didn't have to drive 50 miles to get your MacBook repaired. Apple will send you another hard drive overnight, or if you prefer, they'll overnight a box, pick up your MacBook Pro and return it within 24-36 hours.

          you never take laptops into an Apple Store for repair, use their Depot service, 1-800-275-2273.

          and no offense, but it sounds a little fishy that Apple didn't have a "hard drive" in stock, so not sure that your story is true. all parts are overnighted so even if they were out that day, your macbook pro would have been fixed the next day.

          again, CALL Apple, don't take a machine into an Apple Store, especially if you live so far away. Apple has the best customer support satisfaction for a reason, but you need to ask about the various options for your particular situation.
          Pederson
          • Apple Will Fix Bad-Capacitor Airports???? Where?

            I contacted Apple because I had two of them, one failed after 18 months,
            the other a few months later. They said they'd do nothing, even though
            the problem was well documented as a manufacturing error. Have they
            changed their policy? Pointer please?
            KeeHinckley
        • not sure i buy that story...

          they didn't have a hard drive in stock? really?

          anyway, when the HD went wonky on my imac they sent a tech to my home with a new one. he replaced it on site. and no, i didn't have any special agreement with them, just regular applecare.
          lostarchitect
          • What is your secret for in home standard Applecare

            My comment is more about Applecare than the Apple Express, although I have owned the Express for years, and always take it when I travel. I was surprised to hear a technician came to your home under the regular Applecare. When my G5 iMac's HD failed, Apple told me I had to lug the 20+ pound iMac to the Apple Store, or ship it back to them. Either option was not good since as you get older, lifting heavy items is avoided. At the time, Apple did not recommend the user replace HD's in iMacs. I ended up booting from a Firewire drive until the G5 iMac failed completely because the two options were not realistic for me. What is your secret so I can have an Apple technician come to my home to fix a failed items Apple does not recommend the user replace? I have heard of in home PC service, but never in home Applecare service.
            jimtravis
          • agree, but ... footnote

            It is certainly possible that the hard drive in question was not in stock, but the delay in getting one does not make sense (unless the poster neglected to mention that it was over a long weekend). Quality control issues is something which can also affect specific repair service incidents as well, si ? Specific incidents do not the rule make, however.

            One note: on-site AppleCare is included for iMacs and Power Macs, but not laptops, which require parts exchange and/or depot service.

            tahoe_blue
        • "Who cares" .....

          >>When the hard drive on my MacBook Pro died the next week, I had to drive 50 miles to the Apple store to have it serviced .......>>>>>>

          Pardner, your story simply doesn't make sense .. where did you buy the Macbook Pro?

          Like the other, I, too, had problems. Optical drive and subsequently the motherboard. After a detailed phone call that was moved up to the higher level we talked a few minutes and the arrangement was made to send an authorized rep with new parts. Three days later it was done. Later had problem determined to be motherboard. Same story and 4 days later a new MB was installed. I am just a user like most with an iMac and a Macbook willing to pay a little more for quality and service ... that is Apple. 22 years (1984-2006) with DOS and Windows; but, when retired, I followed my son's suggestion to "lighten up" and enjoy life.

          Several on this line might follow that same thought.
          781lc
        • exqqqqq me ?

          Rob, you say: "Microsoft continually is blamed for things they have nothing to do with"

          Pray tell, who else is writing their software ? Buddhist monks in Korea ? 1000 monkeys randomly typing in an attempt to write a Shakespeare play ? Surely you have exceeded your hyperbole quota for the year with that single statement.

          You are a bit of an odd duck, claiming that MS has nothing to do with the software which they design, code, and market !
          tahoe_blue
    • bad capacitors - good service

      I had the original Airport base station that died with the bad capacitor
      problem. It was well outside the warranty period and when I called Apple
      they sent me a new one for free, no questions asked. I got the new one
      delivered to my door with a box for the old one within 12 hours from my
      call to Apple.
      msuper69