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Setup and Administration

Unlike the other wireless "travel" routers that I've reviewed the Express doesn't have a physical mode switch that controls its operation. It also doesn't have web-based administration, opting instead for Windows and Mac OS applications that use SNMP to set up the device. Since browser-based setup has pretty much become the industry norm, at first I didn't know if Apple's approach was a good choice. But I found that their admin utilities were much better done than others that I've encountered.

Tip TIP: The lack of browser admin interface shouldn't hold back Linux users. Although I haven't tried it, Jon Sevy's Java-based AirPort Base Station Configurator should do the trick.

I checked out both the Mac OS and Windows admin applications and found both worked without problems (I used WinXP Home SP2). But since the Mac OS screens are nicer to look at, I'll mostly use them to illustrate the feature set. By the way, there's also a AirPort Express Assistant that provides guided setup, and it appeared to cover the right bases as I quickly reviewed its screens. Both Admin Utility versions provide access to decent on-line Help, too.

Tip TIP: The Assistant forces you to change the default password for accessing the Express' admin functions, while the Utility does not.

AirPort Admin Utility opening screen

Figure 4: AirPort Admin Utility opening screen

Launching the AirPort Administration Utility brings up a screen that shows AirPort base stations (presumably both Express and the larger Extreme). Figure 4 shows that the Express automatically grabbed an IP address from my LAN router's DHCP server and was ready to go.

This page also lets you restart, load firmware and load default firmware. Since the utility is SNMP-based, it also provides the ability to configure and upload firmware to multiple AirPort base stations at once. There's even the ability to save and reload configuration information - handy for speeding setup chores. One thing that isn't fast, however, is the time required when you need to save the changes you've made. Expect a 30+ second wait after you click the Update button before the Express is back up and ready to go.

Apple AirPort Express: Wireless setup screen

Figure 5: Wireless setup screen
(click image for larger view)

Figures 5 and 6 give you an idea of the difference between the Mac and Windows versions of the Admin Utility. In a nutshell, both give you access to the same configuration options, but each is organized a bit differently. So if you're accustomed to using one version, you may have to hunt around a bit to locate some of the controls in the other.

Apple AirPort Express: Wireless setup screen - Windows

Figure 6: Wireless setup screen - Windows
(click image for larger view)

The screenshots show many of the Express' wireless capabilities, so I'll just describe features (or lack thereof) that aren't shown. While you can manually set the transmit channel or let it automatically choose a clear channel itself, you can't set the transmit rate. (You can fiddle with the Multicast rate control if you have problems with your iTunes streaming.) Mode selections are 802.11b/g Compatible, 802.11b only and 802.11g only and note that the Station Density control isn't available for the Express.

Hiding behind the Security button (on the Windows version) are controls that let you choose WEP 64/128, WPA-PSK and WPA "Enterprise" (RADIUS) modes and enter a single hexadecimal or alpha-numeric key. Note that Apple only allows access to TKIP when WPA is enabled, even though other Broadcom-based products provide the optional, stronger AES encryption. The Options button lets you select a syslog server to log to and allows you to set the logging level from 0 to 7. I gave this a quick check using level 7, and found it worked well. The other thing I was pleased to find on this page was the ability to change the Express' lone indicator light so that it flashed to indicate wireless activity (the default is a steady green light).

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