Apple’s AirPort Express streams iTunes throughout a home network and its form factor is small. This router has a fast Ethernet port for the internet connection but, unlike any of the other wireless routers that we looked at, the AirPort Express has only one local-area network port.
As many as 50 users can share the internet with this product. Even though the AirPort Express only has one local area Ethernet port, it has attributes that are lacking in its competitors. For example, the Express supports both 2.4GHz and 5GHz Wi-Fi radio bands. Independent test labs do not report extreme performance, but the ability to operate on a 5GHz network allows users to isolate and avoid the signal conflicts that sometimes plague the 2.4GHz frequency. Sources of signal conflicts on the 2.4GHz radio band include: garage door openers, microwave ovens, direct satellite service radio frequency leakage, cordless telephones, power lines and electrical railroad tracks.
Because it lacks multiple Ethernet ports, users often employ it to extend existing Wi-Fi networks hosted by more premium wireless routers. The AirPort Express includes AirTunes, so it is optimized for streaming iTunes via remote speakers. Because it features an audio jack, it is possible to connect the Express to a home stereo system (or to powered speakers) so that iTunes can play on the stereo from a Macintosh or Windows machine. The audio jack is an analog and optical digital audio mini-jack. The device itself contains its own power plug integral to the unit. For those who want to locate the Express away from the power outlet or connect it directly to a home stereo, Apple sells an optional AirPort Express Stereo Connection kit with Monster Cables including a power cord, digital fiber optic cable and an analog mini-stereo-to-dual-RCA connector.
The Express is the only product among budget-friendly home wireless routers to include the convenience of a USB port for compatible printers. The USB-attached printer becomes a resource available to everyone on the wireless network.
Parental controls are limited to Media Access Control address filtering and access control according to time. There is no provision for guest networking. The firewall employs Network Address Translation so that the internet can only see one IP address for the network even though there are up to 50 devices using the router. The firewall does not employ Stateful Packet Inspection, a technology that detects hacker-initiated data packets.
Encryption consists of the extremely secure Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA/WPA2) along with Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP), which is necessary to support clients that conform to previous-generation Wi-Fi specifications. WEP is also necessary for RADIUS (Remote Authentication Dial-In User Service), an authentication system that screens devices and users prior to granting access to networks.
Half of the home wireless routers that we examined on this site do not support Virtual Private Networks. The AirPort Express supports popular VPN pass-through protocols (IPSec, PPTP and L2TP) to enable telecommuters to use a public internet subscription to connect with corporate networks.
The AirPort Express ships with an AirPort Utility disk to install the software on Macintosh or Windows machines. For Macintosh users, the Airport Setup Assistant prepares the internet connection, makes it easy to share a printer, and configures the product to play iTunes on a home stereo. It also allows users to bridge the AirPort Express to an existing AirPort Extreme or AirPort Express wireless network in order to extend the existing network’s range. The addition of an AirPort Express to extend the range of an existing network is known as a Wireless Distribution System (WDS).
An AirPort status menu appears in the Macintosh menu bar to facilitate switching between AirPort networks. For Windows users, the installation utility installs Bonjour software, which detects and configures printers. Windows users have the AirPort Express Assistant to set up the router. There is no web interface to the settings. The product does not have a Wi-Fi Protected Setup button, nor does it support Universal Plug and Play (UPnP).
Apple conveniently prints two hardware addresses on the side of the case. The AirPort ID is the router’s identity on a wireless network. The Ethernet ID (Media Access Control address) is sometimes required by internet service providers during configuration. In case users forget their network or AirPort Express passwords, a paper clip to the reset button offers a chance to begin anew.
A device as tiny as the AirPort Express begs to be taken on the road. It supports up to five different profiles for the road warrior. One profile might contain the configuration while at home. Another configuration could support the requirements for using the router in a hotel. In order to manage profiles, Macintosh users have the AirPort Admin Utility under “Applications/Utilities.” Windows users go to the start menu and select AirPort from “All Programs.”
Apple’s website has lots of good resources, including a user forum and good tutorials. Software and firmware updates are available online, as is the manual. The warranty for one of these home wireless routers for one year and the first year of telephone technical support is free.
Apple marches to the beat of a different drummer and the AirPort Express is not one of the “me too” home wireless routers. Its role as a streamer of iTunes is unique. And it makes no apologies for not including local area network ports since 10 computers can access the network wirelessly. It can easily extend networks hosted by routers with local area ports. It includes a USB port to share printers and an audio jack to attach to home stereos.
The firewall in the Airport Express is not quite up to the firewall in the top ranked products, but it supports corporate telecommuters with VPN pass through, a feature lacking in a few of the others. Many people buy this product simply because it makes it easy to stream iTunes and they consider it a bonus that it is also one of the best home wireless routers. For an Apple product that includes local area network ports, step up to the Apple AirPort Extreme Base Station.