Setting up an AirTunes network

Q: I’m going to buy my first Mac soon, and I’d like to set up a wireless home network with our current PC included, but I’m not sure whether I need the Airport Extreme or the Airport Express. As far as I can tell, they both do the same thing, but the Express also allows wireless audio streaming from the computer to the HiFi in another room, which is a feature I’d definitely want. But our cable broadband modem is in the dining room where our PC is, while the HiFi is in the living room and the Mac will be going upstairs in my little music home studio I’m putting together.

It seems you need to be able to connect the modem to the Express, and also the hifi to the express with cables.

So it seems I’d need two Expresses! Or should I get the new release Apple TV mark 2, which I have read has AirTunes, so I could plug that into the hifi and use it for streaming music from the Mac, while the Express just does the job of wireless router? Would it be more sensible to get the Airport Extreme in that case to do the router job?

Also, do all these bits of kit use the 802.11n wifi spec? I read somewhere that the Extreme is 802.11g? I can’t seem to find clear information on that.

– Syd

A: Basically, here’s the rundown on what you need to know about Apple’s three wireless networking/media devices:

Airport Extreme / Time Capsule
  • Supports 802.11n/g/b
  • Acts as a wireless Internet router/firewall
  • One wired Ethernet port for Internet connection (cable modem or DSL modem)
  • Three wired Ethernet ports for local connections
  • USB port to share a hard drive or a printer(Hard drive not supported for use with Leopard’s Time Machine feature)
  • No AirTunes support
  • Time Capsule version includes a 500GB/1TB hard drive built-in (for use with Leopard’s “Time Machine” feature)
Airport Express
  • Supports 802.11g/b ONLY
  • Acts as a wireless Internet router/firewall
  • Can act as a wireless client device or wireless range extender
  • Only one Ethernet port—if being used as a router all devices must be wireless
  • Ethernet port can be used to connect wired devices into the wireless network or to share an Internet connection
  • Can share a USB printer
  • Digital optical or electrical connection for AirTunes support
  • Remote control when streaming from AirTunes requires a separate third-party accessory
Apple TV 2.0
  • Supports 802.11n/g/b
  • Acts only as a wireless client
  • Does not share disks or printers
  • Digital optical or electrical connection for AirTunes support
  • Supports remote control of iTunes library when streaming via AirTunes
  • Acts as an iTunes media center as well—like an iPod for your home entertainment system

The bottom line, however, is that unless your audio equipment and cable modem are in the same room, you’re going to need two units. Further, keep in mind that when used as an Internet router, the Airport Express doesn’t offer anywhere to plug a wired connection, so unless all of your gear is wireless, that’s not a particularly viable option unless you already have a standalone Internet DSL/cable router, in which case the Airport Express can simply work as an access point to provide WiFi and your existing router can provide the Internet connectivity.

The optimal combination, if 802.11n performance is important and money isn’t the primary concern, would be to get the Airport Extreme for the core router (connected to the cable modem), and an Apple TV 2.0 for the living room as an Airtunes station connected to the HiFi (and of course a device to listen to and watch video content onto directly).

This would provide full 802.11n performance throughout the house, and of course you would also gain the additional benefits of the Apple TV’s media capabilities.

A simpler solution, if the Apple TV is a bit more than you need, would be the Airport Extreme as a base station and Internet router, with an Airport Express in the living room. The only downside to this configuration is that the 802.11g Airport Express will drag down the performance of the 802.11n network. This may not be a concern if your client devices are only 802.11g anyway, or if you’re not doing much more than surfing the Internet (since even 802.11g speeds are generally faster than the fastest broadband connection).