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The AirPort Express is a compact multi-function wireless device from Apple, AirPort is their branding for the Wi-Fi standard ... so you don't have to worry about compatibility, it will work with all standard Wi-Fi wireless devices. The Express is the lower end "router", lacking support for gigabit Ethernet connections and other built in services such as USB hard drive sharing. Although it makes up for this with other services, including music streaming and a USB print server.
The Express is a versatile little device, you can use it for the following purposes: to create a wireless network, to extend a wireless network, to create a wireless bridge (for Ethernet devices), and probably many others. For the purpose of this review I'll refer to it as a router - saves the complication of it's full name.
One of the major differences from other router is the lack of a web based administration console, instead you install the "AirPort Utility" to your computer (pre-installed on Mac's) and from there your new Express will appear in the list of devices, clicking on it will allow for you to set it up.
The initial setup can sometimes be a little confusing, as your Express may not always be detected - I would recommend that you connect it via an Ethernet cable to your router, to ensure that it is connected to your network.
Once you have found your device and got into the setup menu it is a simple process, the AirPort utility will detect a new device and guide you through a setup wizard, which let's you choose the desired function of your Express and configure it appropriately. Once the initial setup is complete the device will restart, and should be working as you originally intended.
Future changes can be made through the AirPort utility, I think it is a much simpler way of doing things than a web page, as it is a unified place where all Apple devices can be managed. There are many configurable options on there if you enter the "Manual Setup", allowing for you to setup the Express exactly how you want.
One of the heavily advertised features of the Express is the ability to wirelessly stream music from iTunes, this works by plugging in speakers/any audio device into the 3.5mm headphone socket, and then choosing the Express as your speakers from within iTunes. This is a very simple process and relatively cheap method of streaming music around your home, comparable systems from companies like Sonos can cost many hundreds of pounds, and not link in as well with your music library.
There is a USB port built into the device, which can be used to wirelessly share your USB printer. This work's very well (was actually the only way in which I could get my printer to work correctly with my Mac), although it should be noted that some printers may not be compatible - so check before you buy. My only gripe with this is that since there is a USB port it would be useful for it to work with shared hard drives too - after all the AirPort Extreme has this capability, so it must only be a firmware upgrade required to add this functionality, something that would definitely make the Express very good value for money.
As with all of Apple's computers & wireless devices the Express comes with the newer "n" technology, which offers greater speeds and a greater range. When using this with my MacBook the performance increase is evident, it operates faster than the wired portion of my network - so there is no lag when doing anything, and file transfers are as fast as they can be! There are two modes, 2.4 GHz which has backwards compatibility to the "b" and "g" standards, although limits speed to 130 m/bits, and then the 5 GHz mode. This removes compatibility for older devices, but allows a much higher speed of 270 m/bits, I have mine set to the latter as it is only used to extend my network to support newer faster devices, so backwards compatibility isn't an issue. I am very impressed with the speeds, as I said the wired portion of my network is now the slowest part, so it would make sense for me to upgrade to gigabit Ethernet, although the Express's Ethernet port unfortunately only supports 100 m/bit, which is a bit of a let-down, although I suppose this is Apple's way of saying go for the more expensive Extreme!
This is an excellent little device if you want to extend your wireless network, stream audio, share a USB printer, and many other things. It isn't the cheapest device out there, but makes up for this with the compactness and extra features of it.
The Apple AirPort Express is an interesting bit of kit. It's a wireless device that you can use in one of three ways [or, in fact, in all three ways].
It can create a wireless network to allow your desktop, laptop, wii, PSP etc to talk to each other. It doesn't have a built in modem, so won't connect directly to the internet, but it does have an ethernet port and so could be used with a modem to connect the network to the internet.
However, I think the interesting things come when you use it as a receiver. It has a USB port, into which you could plug a USB printer. This then makes you printer usable from any machine in the house, without having to have a dedicated network printer.
The reason I got one, though, is because it comes with a piece of software called AirTunes. This allows it to receive music streamed from any desktop or laptop [Windows or Mac] which has iTunes on it. The Express has a music output port: this allows you to use a cable to connect it to your hi-fi system and play any music that's on your iTunes library through your stereo system. This will almost certainly sound better than using anything other than the most expensive iPod speaker set up.
One cool feature is that you don't actually need an iPod for this to work: iTunes is available free to download. I realise that buying music from iTunes isn't necessarily the cheapest way to go, but I've just loaded all of my CD collection onto the laptop myself.
Cool feature no 2 is that if you do have an iPhone [I don't] or an iPod Touch [I do], you can use either of these as a wi-fi remote control from anywhere in range of the network. This means you don't have to have the desktop or laptop in the same room as your hi-fi [they just need to be switched on].
The rest of my kit is Windows, not Mac, but it still took only about 10 minutes to set up.
It works on the 802.11n protocol, and so is very fast.
Also on Ciao.