I have to say that Apple's product "presentation" has only improved in the 5 years or so since I last had an Apple product in my hands. Although I'm not sure that the high-gloss white iPod-like case will look as nice after being bounced around in a computer bag for a few months, the out-of-the-box experience was an unexpected treat. Sliding the blue fold-out box out of its white-background with cleanly-designed graphics outer sleeve was more like opening a gift than unpacking your typical piece of consumer wireless gear. Sure, that has nothing to do with how the product performs, but it certainly conveys the right message! The printed Setup Guide was a welcome touch, too.
At first glance, you might mistake the Express for an iBook power adapter, to which it bears a close family resemblance. But on close examination, you'll note three connectors as well as a teeny-tiny Reset-to-Defaults button placed along what becomes the Express' bottom - once you plug it into a wall outlet via its handy flip-out plug. In keeping with Apple's Zen-like design approach, there's only one Status light on the top of the Express, which uses color and blinking to let you know whether it's happy.
The auto MDI / MDI-X 10/100 Ethernet is used to connect the Express to your LAN while the USB 1.1 port is intended to support the built-in print serving capabilites. (The print server is TCP/IP based using RAW format to port 9100.) The USB port can also be used to connect Keyspan's Express Remote [reviewed here] which can provide some means of remotely controlling the songs streamed from an iTunes server. Finally, the Line Out port is a 3.5mm mini-Audio jack supporting both analog and optical digital outputs, which you hook up to your stereo or powered speakers for remote iTunes listening.
Figure 1: Jacks and cables
(courtesy of Apple)
I've included the little animation (Figure 1) from Apple's website mainly to show that the flip-out plug can be replaced with a power cable (or other format plugs) to match just about any AC power hookup that you might require. No need to worry about voltage either, since it can use 100-240V AC, 50-60Hz power. Note that Apple doesn't include any cables with the Express, but will sell them to you separately. They sent me an M9573LL/A AirPort Express Stereo Connection Kit with Monster Cables for my connection pleasure.
Figure 2 shows a comparison of the Express, an iBook power wart and a 3Com 11g Travel router (reviewed here). Though the 3Com router itself is only slightly larger than the Express, once you add the 3Com's required power supply, the Express easily wins on travel size and convenience.
Figure 2: Size matters!
(click image for larger view)
Apple has packed a lot into this little white box!
- Access point
- Wireless router with built-in DHCP server
- USB print server (Ethernet and wireless)
- iTunes audio adapter (Ethernet and wireless)
- WDS (Wireless Distribution System) bridge and repeater
The last point, however, bears a little clarification. The Express' bridging capabilities are intended to support its built-in print server and iTunes client capabilities and not to provide WDS-based wireless bridging to remote Ethernet devices or LANs. This means that you can't use the Express to wirelessly connect your X-Box or any other Ethernet device, nor can you use it to "borrow" an Internet connection for your Ethernet LAN from a nearby wireless network.
What you can do with WDS is extend your wireless LAN's range to wireless clients via WDS repeating, either with or without also supporting bridged connections to a connected USB printer or stereo / remote powered speakers for iTunes. The Express can also act as a normal Infrastructure mode client (no WDS required) to connect its print server and iTunes client to any 802.11b or g wireless network.
Updated 12/18/2004 - Multiple readers let me know that the Express does indeed support WDS-based bridging to single or multiple Ethernet clients. I was correct, however, that AP client mode (using Infrastructure mode) does not support devices connected to the Express' Ethernet port.