(photo credit: AT)
AirPort Express is one of those ideas that make you wonder why it took so long to think of. It's one of those convergent products that combine the best in wireless connections, MP3s, and high-quality stereo systems.
But of course, as with any innovative product, you have to expect a few "burps" along the way. But that's no big deal for techies like us, right? So, realizing the coolness of AirPort Express, I decided I just had to have one, and on a recent trip to the States picked up a module for $129. And of course I decided to set it up at my earliest opportunity.
First, the basics: AirPort Express is compatible with Macs, of course, as well as with Windows XP and 2000. The same software installation CD works in both systems, and automatically runs the setup program for the various AirPort Express utilities, as well as iTunes 4.7. The manual is very clear about this, although the packaging and ads seem to favor the Mac OS X computer, as well as a wireless Airport Extreme router.
APPLE DESERVES kudos for listing the AirPort Express packaging information the way it does. Although the product does work as promised in a Windows environment, it's clearly more at home in the Mac world, if my installation/operation experience is any indication (which it is, because I found that other Windows users had similar concerns).
Installation on an XP laptop was smooth, but less so on a Windows 2000 machine. The manual indicates that while you can use AirPort Express with Win2K, you cannot use the helpful AirPort Express Assistant (instead, you have to use the less automatic AirPort Express utility for setup). However, try as I might, I couldn't get the software (neither iTunes nor the admin program) to install on a Win2K desktop. Now, the manual (although not the promotional material) said you have to have a wireless card in your system in order to set up AirPort Express, which was a bit of a disappointment, since all the MP3s I had planned to stream were located on that desktop, which was hard wired into an Ethernet wireless router. Luckily, I just happened to have an old XP laptop lying around (the one with the cracked screen - but that's another story!) that I decided to dedicate to streaming music. I could have bought an internal PCI or external USB wireless card for that desktop, however, so if you don't have extra laptops lying around, don't fret - you'll still be able to use AirPort Express.
However, my Win2K problem had nothing to do with setting up the network; I never got that far! I got stuck somewhere in the installation process - an error message about an old, incompatible installation routine in the PC - and after a while I gave up and switched to the laptop, which not only had the wireless card, but used XP as well.
I DON'T know if it was clear to you last week, so I'll repeat it - AirPort Express is itself a wireless router which supports 10 wireless connections. As part of an existing AirPort Extreme router, it can act as a range extender (only for 802.11g AirPort Extreme routers, though), or as a router by itself. The Assistant program will lead you through the basic steps on both a Mac or a PC, with one crucial difference - you cannot easily extend the range of a non-Apple router. Indeed, on my first attempt at installation, my laptop got confused because it thought I had two wireless networks - the secure one provided by my NetGear wireless router, and a new one with an Apple serial number!
Now, I had not planned on connecting AirPort Express to the Internet itself, but unless I was prepared to put the stereo next to the phone jack and connect the AirPort Express to the stereo while plugging it into an ADSL line, I would have to get used to the fact that I now had not one but two separate wireless networks, only one of which was capable of connecting to the Internet. And since you can only run one wireless connection at a time, that meant that the computer I would be using to stream music would have to be dedicated to streaming music - at least as long as I was doing it from a computer with just a wireless connection. Alternatively, I could connect that computer to the Internet with a LAN cable in its Ethernet port - but that sort of ruins the fantasy of automatic wireless streaming and computing I was hoping for!