AirPort Express Base Station Review
The AirPort Express is a WiFi access point compact enough (3.6 x 2.9 x 1.1in and 6.7 ounces) to fit in a laptop bag and designed to plug directly into an electrical outlet. It can be used to create a wireless network of its own or to extend the range of a network provided by another Express or by an AirPort Extreme Base Station (£119). Security options include WPA and WPA2 encryption – Personal and Enterprise versions – as well as the older WEP.
When providing its own network, the Express’ built-in Ethernet port lets users share a wired broadband internet connection – or extend an existing wired LAN – to wireless clients. When extending an existing wireless network, the Ethernet port can be used to connect non-wireless devices to the wireless network, directly or through an Ethernet hub or switch.
Using Profiles, you can save up to five groups of settings. These allow you, for example, to move an Express between home, office, and hotels without having to reconfigure settings each time; simply choose the appropriate Profile and then restart the Express.
Unlike the AirPort Extreme Base Station, the Express doesn’t include a multi-port Ethernet switch, and its single Ethernet port is 100base-T rather than the Extreme’s faster 1000base-T (Gigabit) Ethernet. Given the Express’s single port, the benefits of faster Ethernet would likely be realised only if several wired clients were connected, via a switch, to an Express extending an 802.11n-only wireless network.
Port of call
The Express’s USB port is also less functional than its larger sibling’s. Although it lets users share a USB printer across a network, it doesn’t support sharing a hard drive, as the Extreme’s AirDisk feature does. Finally, the Express supports just 10 clients; the Extreme handles up to 50.
On the other hand, a number of features previously found only in the 802.11n Extreme Base Station have found their way into the latest Express. In addition to 802.11n support – which provides better performance and range – the new Express inherits support for 802.11a networks; PIN-based guest access, which allows you to keep a network password private; and time-based network access, which lets you limit times at which particular computers can access the network.
The Express ships with AirPort Utility 5.3, which offers a much simpler setup procedure than previous versions. The utility walks you through the most common options, asking questions that are easy to understand and providing useful information to help you make decisions about settings. Those who need access to the Express’s more advanced options can opt for Manual setup. The only potentially confusing setup issue is that when you plug in a new Express to configure it, you may need to switch your Mac to the Express’s own network (which will be named something like ‘Apple Network 008de5’) before the Express will appear in AirPort Utility.
In our testing, the Express offered performance and range that were considerable improvements over its predecessor. Wired-to-wireless throughput was around 85Mbps, which approaches the limit of the Ethernet port when you consider network overhead.
Wireless-to-wireless performance was slower – and slower than the newest AirPort Extreme – although still much better than the older Express. In our testing of a 5GHz 802.11n-only network using the Automatic channel setting, typical throughput was around 33Mbps. Manually switching to a better channel increased performance to around 39Mbps, compared to about 50Mbps in the same location for an 802.11n AirPort Extreme. Wireless-to-wired performance in ProxySTA mode in the same location averaged just over 26Mbps, although it occasionally reached over 35Mbps.
The new Express is an affordable and portable alternative to the Extreme. It’s the choice to make if you’re looking to extend an existing Apple-branded network wirelessly or to wired devices, to send your computer’s audio to a remote stereo system, or to use a Base Station in more than one location. While not the cheapest compact access point on the market, the AirPort Express offers more features, a more travel-friendly design, and easier setup than similar products.