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In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the alien ships arrive in a variety of shapes—there are wedges, spheres, and even a vessel that looks like an ice-cream cone. Apple apparently got the interstellar memo: the saucer-shaped AirPort Extreme Base Station has now been joined by the compact, rectangular AirPort Express. The Express packs almost as much thrust as its more expensive predecessor and adds an audio-out port and AirTunes software, so you can stream your music to any room within range.
The AirPort Express’s shape isn’t significant just because it’s in keeping with Apple’s recent rounded-rectangle aesthetic (see the iPod and the iMac G5). Rather, it’s significant because the box is compact enough to fit easily into a laptop bag.
Measuring 3.6 by 2.9 by 1.1 inches and weighing 6.7 ounces, the AirPort Express is only slightly larger than the power adapter that ships with the PowerBook and the iBook. Its flip-out plug attaches to a standard power outlet, so you don’t need to carry yet another cable or power brick. (That said, you can get a $39 kit that includes an extension cord and two audio cables.)
Though smaller, the AirPort Express is similar to the AirPort Extreme, with a few limitations. The Express can handle 10 simultaneous wireless connections, versus the Extreme’s 50. Unlike the Extreme, the Express doesn’t include a built-in modem. Most noticeably, the Express sports only one 10/100BaseT Ethernet port; if the Express is your only wireless access point (connected to a DSL modem, for example), it can’t be used to extend access to wired machines on your network.
The Express can also, however, act as a node in a Wireless Distribution System, stretching your existing AirPort network into areas just beyond your main base station’s coverage. The Express also features a USB port that will let you share a compatible printer. Thanks to Rendezvous networking, all I had to do was plug my older Lexmark E312 USB laser printer into the device to print. In fact, to my surprise, that printer isn’t officially supported by Apple, and doesn’t print when connected to my AirPort Extreme Base Station.
One advantage of the Express over the Extreme: it can store five profiles in its built-in memory, so you could configure one profile for home use, one for office use, and one for use in hotels, without having to reenter the different settings each time.
Scan the Skies
Setting up the device for the first time requires installing the AirPort 4.0 software from the accompanying CD (not to be confused with version 3.4.2, which is what’s currently available as a free download to any AirPort user). In the AirPort Express Assistant, you can choose to use the Express as your main wireless gateway or as part of an existing network; the Assistant guides you through the options smoothly.
However you do it, configuring the Express is straightforward and simple. Occasionally in my testing, the Express wouldn’t show up as an option. Sometimes connecting via the AirPort icon in the menu bar and then running AirPort Admin Utility did the trick. Other times I had to reset the unit.
AirTunes, the Express Soundtrack
In addition to its portability, what really sets the AirPort Express apart is AirTunes, which lets you stream music from iTunes (on a Mac or a Windows PC) to the Express and from there to your home entertainment hardware, via the unit’s mini audio jack. When an AirPort Express is available, each copy of iTunes on the network sprouts a pop-up menu that lets you choose where to send the music.
Because iTunes and the Express use Apple Lossless compression to encode music (rather than native MP3 or AAC), you can stream audio to only one unit at a time; I’d like to see a future version of AirTunes broadcast to multiple AirPort Expresses (for playback in the living room and the kitchen, for example).
Another limitation is the lack of remote control: if your tunes are on the Mac in your bedroom, you need to go there to change playlists or skip songs. Devices such as Slim Devices’ Squeezebox ( www.slimdevices.com ) and Roku’s SoundBridge (7-inch display, $250; 12-inch display, $500; www.rokulabs.com ) give you a local interface, but they don’t support AAC files you buy at the iTunes Music Store.; April 2004; wired, $249; wireless, $299;
More importantly, I ran into sporadic playback gaps during my testing. I soon realized that the problem was due to the fact that my home network included both an AirPort Extreme Base Station and the AirPort Express, resulting in a mix of 802.11a and 802.11g signals. Apple has released a software patch for AirPort cards (AirPort Driver Update 2004-08-31, available at www.apple.com ) that seems to partially solve the problem. But I still experienced dropouts after installing the patch.
Macworld’s Buying Advice
If you’re in the market for an Apple-branded wireless base station, the $129 AirPort Express gives you almost everything the $299 AirPort Extreme offers. Apple has created a product that not only provides a highly functioning 802.11g base station in a portable shell, but also pushes into a new product category. For many people, the AirTunes streaming capability will be a bigger draw than the portability or the price. lThe Airport Express simply plugs into any wall outlet.