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Airport Express Review
By Bensch Blaser
Posted: 10/24/2004


Two weeks ago, I bought an Airport Express Basestation from my local Apple dealer, after waiting for new supply to arrive for a week. Apparently I wasn't the only one who was ordering one, as always with new Apple kit.

I was suprised at the size of the package they gave me, only about as big as a 10 pack of CDs. As always, the unit was carefully and stylishly packed into a blue box containing manuals in all kinds of languages, the software CD, the basestation and the country-adapted power-plug, in my case a 2 prong Euro/Swiss plug.

The unit itself is pretty light and only a little larger than the standard iBook/PowerBook powersupply. On the right of the picture is the iPod powersupply for comparison.

Installation of the Airport Express (AX) was as easy as it can be, although I have a rather complicated setup at home. Upon completion of the software installation, the Airport Express Assistant will guide you through a basic setup of your acquisition. You'll get it to work after that already, but there are many more possibilities luring in that cigar-box sized wonder. You can access them with the Airport Admin Utility. The utility is really simple to use and you'll figure it out in a few seconds.

I'm on ADSL at home, through a Zyxel Prestige 642-I router, hooked up to a switch where the whole home LAN is connected over 100/1000mbit Ethernet. The Router is configured to have the static IP of 192.168.1.1 and distribute DHCP information to its clients. The client IP range is 192.168.1.33 to 192.168.1.55. So I configured the AX to have a static LAN IP of 192.168.1.2 and distribute DHCP info to clients on the wireless network. The AX has the WLAN IP of 192.168.2.1 and distributes IPs to wireless clients form 192.168.2.2 to 192.168.2.8. I consider that a handy setup that avoids mixing IP ranges between the different networks, which will ultimately lead to trouble sooner or later. I set the preference to share the printer over the WAN port and enabled AirTunes over Ethernet. I hooked up my stereo to the AX, my HP PSC 1215 to the USB port and connected the RJ-45 port to the switch and was ready to go.
The printer-scanner-copier was instantly recognized over Rendez-Vous and works like a charm, of course only as a printer (and copier, which doesn't need a computer at all). To scan, you have to connect your all-in-one directly to the PC or Mac, it's not recognized otherwise.

AirTunes worked flawlessly too, both over wireless 802.11b (Airport Card) and 802.11g (Airport Extreme Card) as well as over Ethernet cable (gigabit to switch, 100mbit to AX). It's really that straight forward.

Now, having an open wireless network in a highly developed country is a bit of a risk, especially as you're liable for all the crimes that are commited over your WLAN. AX also has an answer to that problem, as it supports both WEP and WPA encryption as well as MAC Address filtering. Since I didn't need the AX to work in WDS mode for extending an existing wireless network, I choose WPA personal as my encryption method, since that is a reasonably secure (more secure than WEP 128bit) way of closing your network.

I was initially unsure whether my Airport Card would support WPA too, as it only has 802.11b support, but much to my surprise, WPA works just fine with that too. (an Apple airport update in the past added WPA support for original Airport cards.) Additionally I entered all the MAC (Media Access Control) addresses from my wireless devices and those of some friends of mine in the allowed MAC address field. That's a very secure setup indeed, especially as I made sure that SNMP access and remote control of the AX are turned off over Ethernet.

The only way to interact with the basestation now is to configure it over a wireless connection from a computer that is in the allowed MAC list and that supports WPA personal and that knows the password. I'm not paranoid or anything, but I'd expect that to be rather solid security.

That being said, total integration of my Airport Express into my LAN/WLAN at home took about 5 Minutes of setup and configuration, then I was ready to print over LAN and WLAN from 4 different computers and stream music to my stereo from the same amount of computers (not simultaneously, of course).

Now, after a few days I went to our holiday stay in the mountains, where there is no broadband, no LAN and a different printer. I had initially planned to make a new "profile", but quickly realized that the lack of broadband connection didn't hinder the AX at all. It still worked fine for streaming music and sharing a printer, even though it flashed orange instead of a constant green glow that would indicate "everything is ok". So you really don't need to worry about the LAN/WAN port being disconnected, it'll work anyway, at least if set up as detailed above.

More problematic was my HP Deskjet 3325. Even with the newest driver from HP, the printer will not print when added over Rendezvous, even though it is recognized as a 3320 (which is normal, even over USB). The solution was to install esp ghostscript (part of the gimp print project) and the hpijs printer drivers. Using IP-Printing in the Printer Setup Utility, I was able to use Rendezvous in conjunction with the hpijs drivers and get the printer to work flawlessly in a matter of minutes. I can only recommend this to owners of hp printers that are not supported by Rendez-Vous and/or Airport Express.

Last but not least I also took my AX to my brother's place. He's got a more simple broadband setup via a Netopia Cayman Modem. Plugged it in and it worked right away. It's always handy to NOT have a common fixed LAN IP like 192.168.1.1 on your AX, saves the pain of making separate profiles quite often.

All in all I was very impressed and positively surprised by the AX, especially at the relatively low price the unit has. The only thing it is currently really lacking is a remote control for iTunes. Shouldn't be too hard to create an USB dongle with a RF or IR remote control to remote-control your iTunes over AX, as opposed to Bluetooth with a mobile phone, for example. I hope some clever company is going to jump into that gap soon.

    Pros:
  • easiest setup ever
  • decent price
  • tons of functions and options
  • very small

    Cons:
  • no Airtunes remote control
  • expensive cable adapters set (optional)


Related Articles/Links:
For a page of Airport Express owner reports, tips and setup guides (including WDS config with 3rd party routers), see this page.

For more info on the Apple's Airport Express, see http://www.apple.com/airportexpress/.
Here's some Apple Knowledge Base docs on the Express also:

 
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