We’ve been expecting an updated AirPort Express ($99) for more than a year now; thankfully Apple finally acquiesced. Under the roar of new Macs, Mountain Lion, and iOS 6 at WWDC, it quietly slipped an redesigned version of the router into its stores. Now resembling a white Apple TV, there are also new features previously only seen with the AirPort Extreme and Time Capsule, including one outbound Ethernet connector. Thankfully, the Express maintains its audio-out and USB ports, making it a truly valuable tool around the house and on the road. Updated x3: Click through to see even more hands-on + comparison pictures with the Apple TV, as well as testing results!
Like Apple’s more expensive routers, the new Express now has support for dual-band 2.4GHz and 5GHz wireless, which allows you to create public and private networks for all of your devices without bringing down the speed. The ports allow you to connect to speakers for AirPlay audio, or printers that don’t support AirPrint. It’s still a good deal, though its inability to sit directly in front of a wall outlet will irk some past AirPort Express users; it’s now bundled with an Apple TV-like cable, begging for an accessory developer to release something smaller.
After actually testing the new AirPort Express for several days, we’re generally impressed: despite its smaller size and antenna limitations, the latest version somehow manages to offer superior wireless signal strength than the prior-generation dual-band Time Capsule it replaced, achieving two to three bars of 802.11n Wi-Fi signal strength in the same distant room that previously rated one bar with an iPad. Apart from needing to perform more advanced (but purely optional) settings tweaks on a Mac rather than an iOS device due to differences in their AirPort Utility apps, setup of the new AirPort Express was incredibly easy and fast, with zero performance hiccups since it was connected. Apple’s decision to re-use the Apple TV’s industrial design for the unit is highly unusual, and on the surface seemed almost lazy given the company’s obsession with distinctive industrial designs, but the little white unit looks nice in its own right, and preserving the old shape may have reduced the need for additional creative personnel and antenna engineering talent. The newly added second Ethernet connector is also a welcome way to keep one device tethered to the AirPort Express while the other port is used for broadband cable service. Overall, the new AirPort Express has become a very good $99 router for most users, while remaining highly capable for AirPlay audio or as an extender for an existing wireless network; you’ll only need to spend more on an AirPort Extreme if you hope to maintain a larger number of wireless or wired connections at once.