updated 05:00 pm EDT, Wed June 20, 2012
Redesign, software heralds major improvements
Recently, Electronista got its hands on the latest version of the Airport Express, which has undergone a recent redesign. While the previous version was widely considered a good deal (even at its retail price of $99) due to its ease of setup and unobtrusive design, the new version trades in the direct-plug approach for an Apple TV-type look and several important new features, backed up by a new version of Airport Utility.
While we will miss the plug-it-in simplicity of the old design, the addition of a lengthy cord and even-smaller "white box" look make the Airport Express less likely to be hidden behind furniture or stuck out-of-sight. The little box is gorgeous, and may well take pride of place on one's desk or near one's modem.
It still features a simple LED light to signal operational status, but in our experience the new setup routine is even more foolproof and reliable than before. In years past, we've often needed to connect an Express directly via Ethernet cord to do the initial setup quickly; that is a thing of the past.
The new Airport Utility, version 6.1, easily (and quickly) recognizes the unit wirelessly on first boot (no more "Apple Network 84893G72HZ5" nonsense), asks only for a base-station name and password, then a network name and password (which must be at least eight characters, with a strong password recommended). Voila, a secure dual-band 802.11 self-selecting, WPA2-protected, automatic-channel-selected network is up and running. Our timing put setup at two minutes from plugging the Express in to opening a web page, and most of that was power-cycling the cable modem. Remarkable.
Oh, the advance options are still there, but whereas the previous Airport Utility approach resembled an elegant government form or questionnaire, the new AU simply shows a connected globe (representing the Internet) and one's connected Airport device (in this case, an icon of the Express) with a line connecting them and a status indicator. Should the unit encounter trouble and change status, Airport Utility will automatically be opened (once the preference is set) on any device connected to the network that has Airport Utility installed.
To get to the more advanced options, simply click on the Airport icon and then click the "Edit" button that appears. The Express has no on/off switch, and is designed to run continuously (it gets barely-perceptibly warm in normal use). In our tests, altering the network (even starting over with an entirely new setup) resulted in just a few seconds delay while the unit reset itself, a huge improvement over the previous version.
Among the changes Apple has listed for the device: a dual-band radio (so 802.11n devices can use the higher-speed, longer-range dedicated 5GHz frequency, leaving the 802.11b/g devices to the 2.4GHz band), an extra 10/100 Ethernet LAN port (which can support a wired computer, NAS drive, some models of DVR and other devices), a more powerful transmitter (compared to the previous model), support for up to 50 users (more than the previous 10-user limit), and the ability to create a separate "Guest Network" (which can use a separate password or no password). It also gains the ability to be managed (not that you'll need to after the initial setup) by the iOS Airport Utility app or the desktop version.
The Airport Express also still has a USB port (limited to connecting printers only) and an analog/optical audio jack (along with a tiny reset button users are unlikely to ever need). Of course with the more powerful 802.11n on board, the Express works beautifully with AirPlay to speakers, compatible receivers and Apple TV (which is exactly the same size and shape, only black in color).
The unit is compatible with all devices capable of any sort of standard 802.11 connection, including a, b, g and n, but lacks (known) support for the next wireless standard, the still-in-development 802.11ac protocol. Widespread implementation of 802.11ac is probably years off, however, so this isn't really a factor.
The really brilliant part of this unit (aside from the drop-dead easy setup, which makes browser-based HTML setup pages look like 1996 Geocities home pages) is the ability to set up guest networks so effortlessly. Small businesses and large households will love the reliability and option of offering guests a simple (or password-free) Wi-Fi environment without compromising their private network or attached equipment.
The previous Airport Express was far and away the most reliable and easiest-setup all-wireless router on the market, and the new version ups that boast considerably. While style isn't generally considered important in routers, the matching design to the Apple TV and strong AirPlay support makes the Express a perfect companion to the Apple TV box or a clean, elegant "wireless hub" or Wi-Fi extender that packs a considerable amount of advanced technology into a tidy white package. It really puts other 802.11n routers will all their pointy antennas to shame, and at $99 is a no-brainer purchase if you're in the market for a set-it-and-forget-it wireless network.