AirPort Express with AirTunes full review

Apple’s AirPort wireless networking family has a new and diminutive sibling, Airport Express. Unlike Apple’s AirPort Extreme base station, this highly portable model has a couple of tricks up its sleeve that are making it one of Apple’s hottest new products.

Airport Express looks a lot like a power adaptor – just a block of plastic that plugs into the wall. However, the unobtrusive exterior hides a wealth of features. You can use it to create a wireless network that up to ten people can share – easily enough for most homes, student digs and many small offices. And it links up with the latest version of iTunes to let you play music from your computer (Mac or Windows PC) through a hi-fi or a set of powered speakers.

It has three ports on the underside: USB, Ethernet and an audio socket (which has both analogue and optical-digital Toslink in one socket).

Broadband setup
Connecting to a broadband Internet connection is easy. Simply plug your Ethernet connection into Express. and so long as you have DHCP running it will configure itself for the most part. The AirPort Express Assistant steps the user through the process, and offers various levels of security. The whole process takes a couple of minutes, and can be tackled by novices quite easily.

Network extension If you already have an AirPort or AirPort Extreme network, the Express can be used to extend that network, giving the signal a boost where you need it most. Unfortunately users of other 802.11 routers don’t get to take advantage of this feature, which is a shame. I use a third-party router not because of any disloyalty to Apple, but because I need some features that the AirPort Extreme doesn’t offer (such as extra Ethernet ports). Now, I’m out of luck if I want to extend the network – unless I use a non-Apple brand of base station, which would mean I’d miss out on Express’s other cool features.

Remote printing Since AirPort arrived on the Mac scene, cables have been on their way out of favour. But getting rid of Ethernet cables doesn’t completely eradicate the need for wires. USB is still necessary for connecting most inkjets, which means that printers must be in the neighbourhood of your Mac. Now Express offers a way to remotely connect to USB printers.

Plugging a USB printer into Express makes it available to anybody on the local network. In multi-computer homes this is a real boon, eliminating the need to attach the printer to a particular computer. There doesn’t appear to be any great speed hit due to the wireless connection. Making a printer easily sharable could make the Express worth the money on its own. (This feature is also available with Express’s big brother, the AirPort Extreme base station.)

Music in the air
The most appealing feature of AirPort Express is AirTunes – a new iTunes function. Plug either powered speakers or a hi-fi stereo (via a standard audio cable, not included) into the Express. Express wirelessly connects to the Mac’s iTunes collection via AirTunes. You can play music anywhere within Express’s 45-metre (150 feet) range.

This is a fantastic feature – another one that alone makes the Express worth the money. It’s especially good value when you consider that Slim Devices’ SliMP3 Squeezebox retails at double the price. The Squeezebox does have some advantages – such as a remote control and LED display to help you select what’s playing without having to go back to the computer – but the additional goodies of Express make it appealing.

When you have an AirPort Express installed, iTunes gains a little dropdown menu along the bottom of the window. Now the user has the ability to play iTunes through the Mac, or through a stereo or powered speakers. Want to listen to iTunes in the kitchen? Plug in Express, and connect it to the hi-fi or powered spreakers. Wherever there’s a power socket, you can play your tunes.

You could put together your playlist and just hit play – but a wireless laptop is better, if a little cumbersome. Other media players, such as Squeezebox or Elgato’s EyeHome, come with a remote control. This is the only flaw in the otherwise ideal AirPort Express.

The fact that the Express is so small makes it ideal for taking it on the road. In theory, it would be a great thing to add wireless capabilities in hotel rooms that offer broadband. Although I haven’t had a chance to try it in a hotel, I suspect there may be some cases where compatibility might be an issue. Often hotels require you to login to access the broadband, and if it is a base station rather than a laptop that is logging in it might complicate matters. That wouldn’t matter for AirTunes, but then I rarely stay in a hotel room big enough to need it.

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