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July 26, 2012
Among my basic gadgets whenever I pack for a trip are my iPhone, iPad and MacBook Air, my Logitech Anywhere Mouse MX, my ioSafe Rugged Portable hard drive, a small digital camera and, finally, my Apple Airport Express.
The new version of Airport Express, however, can also be used as a primary router for a home network. (Previous versions were only able to extend Wi-Fi networks.) You can set it up both as a primary router or to extend a wireless network in a few simple steps, although remember you will need the password for the wireless network you want to extend.
Used as your primary router, you’ll be able to take advantage of its dual band 802.11n technology which allows connectivity to the 2.4GHz and 500 GHz bands. That’s a great feature if you have devices that can use either band – it makes the entire network work better.
You’ll also be able to connect up to 10 users to the network. Unlike previous version, the new Airport Express will also support Virtual PrivateNetwork (VPN) access. Anyone who needs to access their work network from home can use VPN – I used a VPN constantly when I worked in the newspaper business and found it invaluable.
You’ll also be able to set up the security encryption and the Airport Express lets you use Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA/WPA2) or Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP), two of the most secure types of encryption.
Older versions of the Airport Express had a typical two-prong 110-volt electrical plug that connected directly to a socket. Sometimes they fell out if the socket was a bit worn, but for the most part it made the Airport Express almost invisible in a room because you could hide it in a corner plug. Of course, hiding a router could limit the extension of the Wi-Fi, as furniture sometimes blocks signals.
Apple has done away with the plug. Instead, the new Airport Express has the same form factor as the new Apple TV, only it’s white and weighs a whisker less. It looks like a mini version of the Airport Extreme router. Instead of plugging the device directly into the wall, you now have a cord to plug in (like most other routers.)
The back of the Airport Express has a power port, a single Ethernet Wide Area Network (WAN) port, a single Ethernet Local Area Network (LAN) port, a USB port and an Analog/Optical Toshiba Link (Toslink) audio jack. There’s also the tiny reset button in case you need to blow out the programming and reset the device.
AirPlay is onboard the Airport Express, so you can wirelessly stream content from iTunes on a computer or any iOS device you might have to any AirPlay-enabled or -connected speakers in your house. You’ll need an audio cable, which doesn’t come with the Airport Express, to play music on non-airplay enabled speakers.
You can plug your printer into the USB port and make it available to all the computers and iOS devices in your house wirelessly, whether the printer is W-Fi equipped or not. This will work with a mixed network of Macs, PCs and iOS devices and it’s a great way to get a longer life out of an older printer.
I took an old printer to my cabin and now use my Airport Express to stream music to some non-AirPlay enabled speakers and use my printer with any computers or iOS devices I bring out. But there is a caveat: you can only connect to one printer and it’s through Bonjour.
Bonjour is Apple’s trade name for technology that locates devices like printers and the services they offer on a local network. It makes it dead simple to connect a printer or any other device it locates to your network.
Unfortunately, the USB port only works with printers, so if you have a USB hard drive you thought you could hook up to an Airport Express to make it available to your entire network, you’re out of luck.
The Airport Express is fully compatible with all the various incarnations of Wi-Fi; it’ll work regardless of the Wi-Fi device you have. There’s also a built-in firewall that’s automatically turned on.
New to the 2012 version of the Airport Express is the ability to quickly and easily set up a guest wireless network, which you can configure to keep guests away from your primary network while still offering them Internet access.
And if you travel to the same places all the time, you can create up to five different configurations and store them on the device. Practically speaking, this means you can have a typical set-up you’d use in a hotel stored, along with the set-ups for home and the cabin.
The Airport Express is absolutely always in my backpack. I’m constantly finding more things I can do with this little router and I like that.
PROS: It can be set up as a primary router, or to extend an existing network; is reasonably priced; can set up guest network; very easy to set up even for a beginner.
CONS: Can’t connect a hard drive; limited range; no gigabit port.
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