Review: Apple AirPort Express with AirTunes

Pros: Easy and high-quality wireless music serving from a computer, particularly for Mac users, plus the ability to fully replace one’s outdated wireless hardware with faster, more secure 802.11G. Small, attractive, and highly portable.

Cons: High price tag relative to competing but lesser products, Windows software is glitchy, Mac configuration software could be easier to use.

Review: Apple AirPort Express with AirTunes

If Apple’s iTunes music management software had only one major failing up until today, it would have been an obvious one: you could only hear your iTunes library through a computer. And if that computer wasn’t in the same room with a nice pair of speakers – say, the large ones used in your home entertainment center – the only ways you could enjoy your digital music collection would be on a computer, or on an iPod.

Effective today, that restriction has ended. With the release of AirPort Express, the third PC- and Mac-compatible device released by Apple Computer in the last two years, and related new software called AirTunes, your digital music library is now free to roam to speakers anywhere in your house, regardless of whether a computer or docked iPod is connected to them.

At the same height but twice the thickness and .75” wider than an iPod mini, the AirPort Express is a small but powerful wireless base station that can serve print jobs and music through dedicated USB and digital/analog 3.5” ports. Prominently mentioned on the box, Apple’s AirTunes software actually integrates almost invisibly with iTunes (versions 4.6 and later), adding a quick switch button that toggles between your computer’s speakers and those connected to the Express station, wherever it is.

Since iLounge is primarily concerned with AirPort Express’ music-related capabilities, we will not go into extended detail on its other functionality. But we do have some opinions on our initial experiences with its software that may be of interest to potential buyers.

Packaging and Design

With the release of AirPort Express, there can be little doubt that Apple has fully embraced the concept of origami-art packaging it pioneered in boxes for the iPod, iPod mini, and iSight camera. A white, classy paper stock shell surrounds a pull-out blue box, which splits in two halves to reveal AirPort Express hardware and another white enclosure holding documentation and an installation CD. Without dwelling on the quality of Apple’s packaging, it suffices to say that the company is still the only one that enjoys making even box opening exciting from start to finish, and this product is no exception.

Review: Apple AirPort Express with AirTunes

Review: Apple AirPort Express with AirTunes

The white plastic AirPort Express unit is almost as simple as a wireless base station could be. Possessing a single LED light that alternates between green and orange, three ports (Ethernet, USB, and audio), one pen tip-sized reset button, and a detachable power plug, Apple’s design intentionally resembles the power supplies of its recent laptop computers and iPods, only slightly larger. An AirPort Express can be plugged directly into a wall socket without any additional power requirements – the power supply is hidden inside the plastic shell.

Also hiding inside the round-edged case is a wireless 802.11G (and 802.11B) transmitter and receiver, broadband Ethernet hardware that connects to a DSL or cable modem, print server hardware, and a nice little dual purpose stereo jack. Serious audiophiles can connect digital fiber optic (Toslink-to-mini) audio cables to the device, while most users will use standard analog mini stereo plug to stereo RCA cables, both of which are sold separately, or together as part of an optional AirPort Express Stereo Connection Kit from Apple, which also includes a power extension cable identical to the one used with Apple’s laptops.

Review: Apple AirPort Express with AirTunes

Review: Apple AirPort Express with AirTunes

Overall, AirPort Express couldn’t look much better for what it is, though some will feel that the reset button’s too small (Apple advises the use of an unfolded paperclip if you need to reset the unit) and the lack of additional Ethernet router ports limits the device’s ability to serve as the centerpiece of today’s typical PC home network. Though we’ll leave the latter issue for others to debate, we will note that we’re squarely in the “larger reset button” camp, but then only because our testing on multiple computers required a number of resets.

AirPort Express as Macintosh Music Server

Our first experiences with the AirPort Express were the most positive.

After opening the box, perusing the manual, and inspecting the base station, we installed the new AirPort Express Setup and AirTunes software onto our wireless PowerBook test computer. The process was easy, relatively short at around five minutes plus a system restart, and pretty painless. Initially, our goal was just to see if the AirPort could quickly turn a set of speakers into a front for our iTunes music collections, and to be succinct, it did.

Alternating between the aforementioned analog and digital fiber optic stereo cables, we easily made physical connections between the AirPort Express base station and two different sets of stereo speakers. Using Apple’s included setup tools, we configured the device minimally to serve as a stereo audio station named Living Room, and didn’t worry about Internet connectivity, as our best speakers weren’t near a broadband connection.

Review: Apple AirPort Express with AirTunes

When iTunes loaded up, a new button had appeared at the bottom right of the screen: a speaker icon with the word “Computer” and up/down arrows to indicate a list. Clicking on the button, “Living Room” appeared as a choice, and we picked it. Then we pressed play.

iTunes confirmed that it was establishing a connection with the Living Room speakers. Two or three seconds later – the time it took to convert the music stream into encrypted, high-quality data for secure playback – our song was playing perfectly, with full volume control via iTunes and whatever other settings we wanted to play with in our stereo system. When the network was disconnected, the Living Room option was no longer available in iTunes, but the Computer toggle button remained. (For reference, when the PowerBook went outside the range of the network, music did not fade, become intermittent, or static-filled; it just disappeared, which all things considered is entirely preferable to the alternatives.)

Though it was both a given and impractical given the nature of most users’ digital music collections, we also connected the iPod to the computer just to make sure that the iPod’s spooled music would play through iTunes and AirTunes to the Living Room speakers without problems, and yes, it worked just as it should have. Of course, it would have been great to broadcast directly from the iPod to the AirPort Express without needing to use a laptop as an intermediary… but then, we’re pretty sure that Apple already realizes as much.

AirPort Express as PC Music Server

We later repeated the same installation and AirTunes broadcasting tests with a Windows XP laptop, and the process was mostly the same. At first, it was a little more confusing because of an odd Windows message during the AirTunes installation that required our choice to Repair or Remove iTunes. We apparently answered correctly by choosing Repair. iTunes was then patched to include support for the Computer/Living Room button, which incidentally doesn’t appear at all when the AirPort Express network is disconnected.

Review: Apple AirPort Express with AirTunes

For kicks, we tried to select Living Room at the same time as our PowerBook was spooling music, just to see what would happen in a Battle of the Networked Computers.

Even though both laptops were connected to the AirPort Express base station, and both were running iTunes and demanding speaker access, the iTunes software wisely gave priority to the existing music stream and wouldn’t interrupt it. When the Mac finished playing, the PC was allowed to jump in.

And the PC performed just like the Mac when connected: iTunes effortlessly spooled music from the computer to the speakers, and it sounded great. Apple therefore scored points for making the device work well enough on both platforms for iLounge’s top intended purpose. But our other experiences with the PC, specifically with the AirPort’s included software, weren’t quite as flawless.

The Express Assistant and Network Setup

Though Apple has virtually mastered the art of creating awesome applications for the Macintosh, it’s not immune to PC-related problems, as glitchy iPod-related Windows software has previously shown. Unfortunately, the software included with AirPort Express doesn’t show much improvement in this regard. In hours of Windows testing, we experienced two of Microsoft’s infamous blue screens of death, numerous conflicts and connection problems related to our test laptop’s Intel software for wireless 802.11 network management, and plenty of problems getting Apple’s PC AirPort Express Assistant software to find the network.

Review: Apple AirPort Express with AirTunes

The solution was ultimately to work around both Intel’s software and the AirPort Express Assistant, letting Windows manage the network and connect to Apple’s base station; after this, iTunes worked without a problem. To Apple’s credit, their software at some point recommends (but neither requires nor emphasizes the importance of) taking this step, but it’s sort of amazing that there isn’t more of a dummies guide or wizard to troubleshoot and minimize networking problems for PC owners. True, other base stations don’t have all the features offered by AirPort Express, but some do a better job of making initial setup easier for PC users than Apple, which given the company’s storied history is both a surprise and a real shame. It shouldn’t but does go without saying that Mac users are much more likely to have a good setup experience.

That’s not to say that the Mac experience was perfect, either. Even when we used the Mac’s Express Assistant software and separate Airport Admin Utility as recommended, we found the initial cable modem to AirPort Express network setup to be more challenging than it could have been. We had to flip between the two programs to change settings, and also found it hard to create a unified network using our older 802.11B router with the AirPort Express serving strictly as a music server. On the bright side, nothing crashed on the Mac, and we somehow eventually succeeded in getting both base stations to work at the same time, allowing us to browse the Internet on wired and wireless computers while serving music to the speakers from the two laptops. When it finally worked (after 60 minutes of fiddling around), it worked well, but as is the case with many PC problems, we couldn’t tell you what settings were changed to enable it all to function.

Review: Apple AirPort Express with AirTunes

For reference, Apple’s intent was to allow PC users to pick the AirPort Express as a base station that could be linked with other AirPort Express units to expand their collective broadcasting range and connected devices; connection with other companies’ base stations and routers was never promised or guaranteed.