A wireless router really isn't a very exciting thing. That is unless it has been put together by Apple. The new Airport Express is designed to look as good as your living room, and throw in a bit of extra Apple functionality you wouldn't normally get with a router.
Can Apple's reputation for ease of use translate over to the world of Wi-Fi? Will the day have finally come when we can get a stable and secure wireless connection at home that we can access in every room?
The Airport Express is a lot smaller than you think. It is just 98mm x 98mm x 23mm in size and weighs 240grams. This makes it a very unobtrusive little white box in your living room which is exactly what a router should be. Even if you are forced to place the thing in a where position it might be spotted, it still looks great with a white matte Apple logo on the top.
Think of it essentially as a white version of the Apple TV in terms of design, but with more rounded edges. As for connections, on the back of the Airport Express is a power cable, ethernet WAN port, ethernet LAN port and a USB port. There is also an analogue and optical audio output jack: this is used for the Airplay functionality we will talk about later.
Other than that, there is a simple status light on the front of the Airport Express. No complex array of lights and symbols, just one simple light. Some might find this annoying, but for us it's a relief. When the Airport Express does have issues, everything can be managed from either your iPhone, iPad, Mac or PC.
Here is where the Airport Express gets really interesting. You can setup the box using an iPad or iPhone as well as by conventional means. This is something we have never seen before and makes the Airport Express into a very simple object to use.
Say you are the sort of person who has just bought an iPad but has no wireless internet at home, this is the perfect box to change that. It is such a simple set-up process that we can't see anyone, even the most computer illiterate, having problems with it.
All you need do is go in to the Wi-Fi settings on your iOS device, go to your Airport station, hit create a new network and that's it, everything works. In fact it is so much more straightforward we suggest using your iPad or iPhone over the Airport utility for Mac or PC. Multiple stations, linked up to an AirPort Extreme for example, can also be seen and managed using the iOS app. In fact you could run a pretty complex network from it.
We were having major issues getting Wi-Fi reception in our bedroom, so connected the Airport Express to a Time Capsule, the base network in our living room. This turned the Express into a simple network repeater but still allowed us to access our Time Capsule media.
The AirPlay functionality is also very easy to set up. We plugged a set of speakers into the back which then gave us access to all the music on our 3TB Time Capsule. The upshot is, we can play any songs we fancy in any room with a set of speakers and an AirPort Express. For those considering a Sonos multi-room system, it might be a better option to go for something like the AirPort Express, especially given it will boost your Wi-Fi signal whatever room it is placed in.
Also included is wireless printing, which is what the USB port on the back of the Express is for. Again set-up was simple, connecting a printer via USB and then sending whatever you want to it via AirPrint. This means you can print from things like an iPad or iPhone as well as a computer.
Connections and security
The AirPort Express wouldn't be much of a router if it wasn't secure. Thankfully it is. Apple has done plenty of work with Mountain Lion getting security up to scratch and this clearly has played a part in the thinking behind the new Express. A built-in firewall is turned on from the get-go to keep things as secure as possible.
We particularly like the ability of the Express to simulcast 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. It means just about every single electronic device you own will be able to get the best possible connection, including of course iPads and iPhones. It might seem like a minor point, but you will notice it particularly with 5GHz n-type Wi-Fi compatible devices.
One final way of connecting to the Express, designed for guests, is to create a separate network with no access to anything other than the internet. Useful if you run a small business and plan on having the Airport Express as a router.
We can't really fault the Airport Express. In the end it's just a router. Even then Apple has managed to make something of beauty, turning the most boring piece of technology into a well-designed and easy to use advice.
It gets rid of all of the complexity of setting up a wireless network at home and comes with added functions such as AirPlay and wireless printing. A definite buy for us. Good enough as a router for your whole house, even better as a means to extend your wireless network. Pair it up with a Time Capsule and iTunes match and you have one of the best and simplest wireless home media setups we can think of.