Inside AirPort Express

In true Apple fashion, the $129 AirPort Express is about a half dozen ideas rolled into one small, white widget. The size of a power adapter for an iBook or a PowerBook, it can act as the center of a wireless network, an extension to an existing network’s range, a way to listen to your iTunes music through your stereo, and a wireless printer- sharing device. Here’s how to get started with an AirPort Express.

Simple Setup

Essentially, the AirPort Express is a smaller version of the AirPort Extreme Base Station, so you can use it to create a wireless network from scratch. Plug it into the wall, connect it to your DSL or cable modem (or to an Ethernet hub via an Ethernet cable), and then use the included AirPort Express Assistant application to configure it on your Mac. In just a few minutes, you’ll be able to connect your AirPort-equipped laptop to the Internet via a fast, wireless connection.

For business travelers who’ve gotten used to working wirelessly, being tethered to a short (and often inconveniently placed) network cable in a hotel room can be infuriating. This is where the AirPort Express’s small size is a huge advantage: just toss one into your carry-on bag, and then plug it into the wall and the broadband port when you get to your hotel room. (Note that some hotels lock a connection to a single computer, and may not allow your AirPort Express and laptop to connect to the Internet.)

You can set up as many as five different profiles (collections of network settings for the AirPort Express) with the AirPort Admin Utility application. Just choose Profiles from the Base Station menu to save and switch between settings. For example, you can have one profile for use in hotel rooms and another for when you’re at home.

AirPort Express also has a USB port and the same USB printer-sharing features as its Base Station cousins. (You can even charge a fourth-generation iPod or an iPod mini via the USB port.) So if your family, classmates, or coworkers share a printer, you can place it in a central location and attach it to an AirPort Express, making it available to everyone on your network. The shared printer will appear in the Printer Setup Utility printer list; if you don’t see it, click on Add, select Rendezvous, and then select the printer.

Working It In

The AirPort Express can be either the star of or a shiny addition to your wireless network. For example, you can use the AirPort Express in concert with an AirPort Extreme Base Station or another AirPort Express to extend the range of your wireless network. It will relay the main base station’s wireless signal, helping you bring Internet connectivity to dead spots in your home, office, or school.

To enable this feature, you’ll need to use WDS (Wireless Distribution System), either by following the steps in the AirPort Express Assistant or, for the more technically inclined, via the WDS tab in the AirPort Admin Utility. It’s much easier to set up with the Assistant, which changes the appropriate settings on both your main and your remote base stations at once.

First, connect to the AirPort Express via AirPort. (If you can’t see it for some reason, use a pen or a paper clip and press the AirPort Express’s tiny reset button for five seconds. After about 30 seconds, it will reappear on your list of AirPort networks with a generic name beginning with the words Apple Network.) Then launch the Assistant, select Connect To My Current Wireless Network, select Extend The Range Of My Airport Wireless Network, and follow the instructions from there.

If you decide to use the AirPort Admin Utility instead, you’ll have to deal with a few different concepts: relay and remote base stations. Base stations at the edge of a network are remote stations. Base stations that are both receiving data from a base station and relaying it to even more remote base stations are relay stations.

Regardless of how you set it up, if you’re running an AirPort Express in Remote mode, you can also use a separate Internet-sharing router and turn those features off on the AirPort Express—or bypass the AirPort Express and use an AirPort Extreme Base Station.

AirTunes in Action

There’s one jack on the AirPort Express that will probably sell more AirPort Expresses than any of its other features—the audio-out jack.

The AirPort Express lets you listen to your iTunes library, even if it’s on a Mac that’s rooms away, through your stereo speakers. It will work with any set of powered speakers or any stereo with an analog- or optical-audio input.

To connect to an AirPort Express and use AirTunes, just get it on your network—either by connecting it via Ethernet or by connecting it to your existing AirPort network. If you don’t plan to use the AirPort Express as a remote or relay base station, you can configure it to use your existing wireless network via the AirPort tab in the AirPort Admin Utility. Just set the Use Base Station To pull-down menu to Existing Wireless Network, and then enter the name and password for the network.

You’ll also need to go to the Music tab in the AirPort Admin Utility and select Enable AirTunes. Assign the AirPort Express the name of the speakers you’re broadcasting through and, if you like, a password to prevent other people on your network from playing music through your AirPort Express.

Once you’ve done this, launch iTunes 4.6 or later, and you’ll see a pop-up menu in the lower right corner of the main iTunes window. By default, this menu is set to Computer, and iTunes will play its music through your Mac. But that menu will also list all the AirTunes-enabled AirPort Expresses on your local network. Just select one, and enjoy the music. (The sound won’t come out of your Mac; it will come out of the speakers attached to the AirPort Express.)

This means that you’ve got to keep that Mac on and iTunes open to keep the music playing. (This is different from using a device such as Slim Devices’ Squeezebox, [   ; April 2004], which you operate via an infrared remote control and which has its own display to show you what’s playing.)

Something in the Air

The AirPort Express is remarkable because it puts the features of several different networking devices into one compact product. With its AirPort Express Setup Assistant, Apple has done a good job of simplifying the setup process of a complex product. It’s a good idea to study what the AirPort Express can do in detail before deciding whether one of these small white boxes will fit into your personal wireless network.

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