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    AirPort Express: More Versatile Than Your Average Access Point

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2004 First published in Low End Mac 9 October, 2004

    Apple's reputation is of making stylish hardware that packs lots of functionality but sells for a premium price. In many cases, that premium price depends on what you compare it to.

    Case in point: You won't find a new Mac as cheap as the US$399 special on Dell's website. But try to compare more-or-less equivalently fitted out Dells and Macs, and you may be surprised to find Apple's offerings costing a bit less.

    Or take the iPod Mini. With its 4 GB hard drive and US$249 (CDN$349) price, it may not seem like much of a deal when you compare it to the somewhat larger standard iPod, with 20 GB of storage starting at US$299 (CDN$429). One-fifth the amount of storage for five-sixths the price.

    But compare it instead to a flash-RAM MP3 player. Say Creative Labs Rhomba. List price is US$199. Storage? 256 MB. In other words, one-sixteenth the storage for four-fifths the price of an iPod Mini.

    It's all a matter of perspective.

    The same sort of thing happens when you look at Apple's new AirPort Express. If you just need an 802.11g base station, you can buy something from the likes of Linksys, D-link, or other manufacturers for half of the US$129 (CDN$179) that Apple is charging for AirPort Express.

    But AirPort Express isn't just another 802.11g base station. Instead, it's aimed at several specialized markets:

    Airport ExpressRoad Warriors: AirPort Express looks like a slightly elongated version of the power adapter that ships with Apple's notebooks -- about 2" wide, about 3" long, less than 1" thick. Like my iBook's power adapter, it can plug right into a wall socket; no power brick needed. That makes it easy to throw it into a case along with a notebook for use on the road. In a hotel, it can plug into an Ethernet port, letting you use your notebook wirelessly anywhere in your room. Or bring along several notebooks, giving all of them broadband access.

    For a comparison, I took a look at D-Link's DWL-G730AP Wireless Pocket Router/Access Point (US$99, CDN$179). At first glance, it's even smaller the AirPort Express, easily fitting into a shirt pocket. But unlike AirPort Express, it requires an outboard power supply. The power supply is smaller than most power bricks, but it's one more thing to haul around or misplace. If all you need is a portable access point, though, you can save some money getting D-Link's product.

    But the AirPort Express does more than just let you connect wireless on the road. When you're back home, the Express can be used in a variety of ways:

    Extend Your Existing WiFi Network

    I have a friend who tried to show me something on his PowerBook in his kitchen. It didn't work; his SMC base station upstairs didn't send a strong enough signal to the kitchen on the main floor at the back of the house. Despite the promise of 150' range, in the real world WiFi coverage can be spotty. The Express can be configured to extend an existing network's range, bringing the signal where you want it. (Note: Apple supports this sort of use for extending networks built around the company's flying saucer-shaped AirPort and AirPort Extreme base stations. It doesn't guarantee that it can be used this way with other brands or models.)

    DLink DWL-G730APTo be fair, D-Link's DWL-G730AP can be used in this way, too.

    Along with a single ethernet port on the bottom, the Express has a couple of other ports not found on most WiFi base stations.

    Share Your Printer

    A USB port can be used to attach most printers. Panther (Mac OS X 10.3) will find such printers pretty automatically; Windows 2000 and XP can be set to print to these printers with some difficulty. (The documentation carefully walks Windows-users through the steps needed to get their system up and printing.) Just for comparison, the Canadian Office Depot website offers a single wireless print server, a Belkin model, for CDN$199 (about US$150).

    Stream Your Music

    There's also an audio output jack, letting you connect the Extreme to your home stereo or a pair of powered speakers. Opening up iTunes (either Mac or Windows version) will give you a choice of playing music through your computer or through the Extreme, wirelessly sending your iTunes playlist to any room of your house.

    As a point of comparison, Creative Lab's Sound Blaster Wireless Music system costs US$199. It's Windows-only and can't be used for as a print server or a WiFi base station. On the other hand, it's got a nice remote control, so you don't have to go to your computer to take charge of the music in, say, your living room.

    While my iBook's power supply can plug directly into a power outlet, it also came with an extender cord, so I don't need to have it plugged directly into the wall. To get the same thing for your AirPort Express, you need to buy Apple's US$39 AirPort Express Stereo Connection Kit. Along with the power extension cord, the Connection Kit includes mini-to-RCA and mini-to-optical digital Toslink cables to plug into a stereo or powered speakers. (I just used a $5 cable from my local Radio Shack).

    Yes, the AirPort Express's US$129 price seems expensive compared to most standard WiFi base stations. But add up what it would cost to get a portable WiFi router and a wireless print server and a wireless music server, and it becomes a bargain.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan