PDA

View Full Version : The New York Times takes a loot at Airport Express


MacBytes
Jul 22, 2004, 04:20 PM
Category: Apple Hardware
Link: The New York Times takes a loot at Airport Express (http://www.macbytes.com/link.php?sid=20040722172043)
Posted on MacBytes.com (http://www.macbytes.com)

Approved by Mudbug

Mudbug
Jul 22, 2004, 04:22 PM
story contents:

STATE OF THE ART

Apple's Base Station: No Wires, Lots of Bells and Whistles
By DAVID POGUE

Published: July 22, 2004



N his weekly "60 Minutes" commentary a couple of years ago, the inimitable Andy Rooney groused about the number of cables in our lives. "Look behind the television set in your living room. It's a rat's nest of electrical cords," he said. "All different - no two the same. If Thomas Edison was so smart, how come he didn't come up with one cord that fits everything?"

Of course, it wouldn't be very hard for Mr. Rooney to answer his own question. To find out why cords are designed to fit only specific connectors, all he'd have to do is plug his headphones into an electrical outlet, just once.

A slightly less painful approach might be for Mr. Rooney to look into Apple, a company with an official corporate disgust for cables. Apple was the first computer company to offer built-in Wi-Fi wireless antennas (also known as 802.11 - or, as Apple more charmingly calls it, AirPort). Apple was also the first company to offer built-in Bluetooth, a short-range wireless technology designed to eliminate the cords between computers, printers and other gadgets. And when a cable can't be eliminated, Apple goes to ridiculous extremes to at least make it good-looking and color-coordinated.

Last week, Apple introduced yet another way to eliminate wires from your life. It introduced the AirPort Express, a $130 something-or-other for both Windows PC's and Macs. There's no single pithy term or phrase for this invention; it has more tricks up its sleeve than David Blaine.

Trick No. 1: the AirPort Express is a wireless base station. That is, if you connect it to a cable modem or D.S.L. box, your wirelessly equipped Mac or Windows PC can get onto the Internet and connect to other machines in the building, at high speed and with no waiting, from anywhere in the house - or at least within about 150 feet of the base station, even through walls.

(Note for geeks: Like all of Apple's current wireless gear, the AirPort Express uses the 802.11g standard - which, in English, means that it works with both modern, superfast 802.11g laptops and the older, more common, slower 802.11b equipment. It also offers both WPA and WEP security, state-of-the-art password-protection systems that prevent desperados hiding in your bushes from getting onto your wireless network without your knowledge.)

If you already have an AirPort wireless network, the Express can act as a wireless bridge that extends its range another 150 feet. That's a handy perk, but it would be even handier and perkier if it worked to extend the range of other base station brands. (Apple won't guarantee that it doesn't work, but it won't guarantee that it will, either.)

The twist here is that the AirPort Express is literally pocket-size. It's a round-cornered white acrylic device that looks for all the world like the power adapter for one of Apple's laptops. In fact, Apple says that the Express is the world's smallest Wi-Fi base station. Asus makes one whose dimensions are slightly smaller, but only if you ignore its external power brick; that's cheating. Apple's device is entirely self-contained. Apple has even eliminated the power cord, instead opting for electrical outlet prongs that rotate cleanly into the body when not plugged in.

Now, you might reasonably wonder why the size of a wireless base station is an advantage. Isn't that an irrelevant characteristic, like a muffler that's available in designer colors? After all, most people just plug into a base station behind the desk and forget about it.

But having your own personal base station means that you can move it from place to place (like home or office) at will; the Express can even store and switch among five different network configurations.

And if you take it with you when traveling, you can sign up for your hotel's $10-a-day high-speed in-room Internet access. Then, instead of remaining shackled to the desk, you can lie on the bed 10 feet away to do your e-mail. (All right, that's not a life-or-death business essential, but you've got to admit that it's cozy.) More practically, your traveling companions can hop online simultaneously, sharing the Internet signal and the $10 fee. (The AirPort Express can handle up to 10 people at once. That's one difference between this model and Apple's standard AirPort base station, which costs $200 and handles up to 50 connections at once.)
Trick No. 2 is called AirTunes. The AirPort Express has, of all things, a sound-output jack that you can connect to a stereo system, self-powered speakers or even a TV. iTunes, Apple's free jukebox software for Mac or Windows, can then wirelessly broadcast your music (like MP3 files and songs you've bought from Apple's iTunes online store) to the sound system from your computer. In fact, if you've bought more than one AirPort Express (in Apple's dreams!) and plugged them into different sets of speakers around the house, you can use a little pop-up menu on the edge of the iTunes window to specify which one you want: Patio, Living Room, Bedroom or whatever.

To pacify the record companies, iTunes encrypts the music before broadcasting it, so that the sneaks in the next apartment can't intercept it. And to pacify audiophiles, the software delivers the music to the speakers at full original quality (as it's stored on your computer). It sounds terrific.

There are, however, some flies in all this ointment. First, you can only send the music to one set of speakers at a time. Rival wireless-stereo gizmos, like RCA's Wireless Lyra, can broadcast simultaneously to several sound systems (if you've bought a receiver for each one).

Second, note that the connection between the AirPort Express and the stereo is not wireless. You have to supply your own cable to connect them. (Apple sells a $40 kit containing two beautiful white Monster cables for connecting to your stereo - one with standard RCA stereo connectors and one with a so-called Toslink, a digital connector capable of carrying five-channel surround sound.) But the point is that the AirPort Express needs a power outlet that's close to your stereo.

Finally, it's a weird and heady experience to use, say, your computer upstairs as the control center for the stereo across the room, complete with playlists and real-time volume control. On the other hand, if you're downstairs with the stereo, you can't pause playback when the phone rings, see the name of the current song, or skip a truly awful song, without having to run upstairs to the computer. (This fine print, of course, applies to most wireless sound systems.)

Trick No. 3: On the bottom of the AirPort Express you'll find, of all things, a U.S.B. connector where you can plug in an inkjet printer, and then every computer on the network can send printouts to it wirelessly. It works like a charm, and offers further proof that Macs and PC's in the same household can all be friends. (This feature requires Mac OS X, Windows 2000 or Windows XP.)

Now, as the usual crowd of Apple-grouches is certain to point out, you could buy each of the Express's features for less money. A regular 802.11g base station costs about $60 at www.buy.com. If your aim is to extend your existing network's range, you can buy a range extender from Linksys or D-Link for $80. The idea of streaming music from a PC wirelessly to a stereo isn't new, either; Linksys and many others sell wireless media adapters for another $80.

But Apple is the first to combine all of these functions, effortlessly and elegantly, and the fact that the Express comes with supremely simple setup software, looks great and fits in your pocket or laptop carrying case is just Wi-Fi gravy.

Apple reports having 80,000 AirPort Express pre-orders to fill, and stores are reporting at least a three-week wait to get one. Rack up a point for Apple in its mission to dominate the digital music world (and, not incidentally, to infiltrate the homes of Windows PC owners), and rack up one for Andy Rooney and the rest of us in the never-ending battle against household cable infestations.



E-mail: Pogue@nytimes.com

nagromme
Jul 22, 2004, 05:11 PM
I've said this before so I don't need to say it again. It needs a modem jack to be useful for travel.

Oops, there I said it. At least I said it at apple.com/feedback too :)

I really want one for my PowerBook, but the places I travel don't have Ethernet.

Dr. Dastardly
Jul 22, 2004, 07:23 PM
Of course, it wouldn't be very hard for Mr. Rooney to answer his own question. To find out why cords are designed to fit only specific connectors, all he'd have to do is plug his headphones into an electrical outlet, just once.

I wish he would. :rolleyes: ;)