When all Airport Expresses are not created equal

Posted on by Mike Evans

My wifi network was due an upgrade and I am glad I waited for the new dual-band Airport Express announced last night. It was only last week, while upgrading and Apple network for a friend in Washington DC that I came to realise that not all AEs are created equal.

Until yesterday, the familiar Airport Express has been a constant in the Apple Store and hasn’t changed its physical appearance. But it has had subtle upgrades and, unfortunately, firmware tweaks aren’t able to rejuvenate the earliest examples. The last version of the old Express, in common the new Express, was capable of handling the faster “n” networks.

The Washington network featured relatively new AEs, under two years old, and all went well as I managed them from the new iOS-style Airport Utility. I was hooking them to a new Airport Extreme which I set up with the dual bands of 5GHz (faster but not as penetrative of obstructions) and the old 2.4GHz frequency (which has a longer reach, although slower). However, I soon learned that the AEs could handle only one frequency and I therefore tried to hook them to the faster band.

Back home in London I discovered that none of my AEs could be managed from the new Airport Utility and I had to download the old Mac-style Airport Utility 5.6 in order to make any network changes. Since I have a late dual-band Airport Extreme, I was hoping to perform the same magic as in Washington and extend the 5GHz network.

I took advice from Apple Communities and contributor Bob Timmons had this to say:

The older Express is not capable of producing any type of “n” network….either 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz.  This device is limited to wireless “b/g” performance. If you do see settings for 5 GHz on the Express devices that you have, then they are newer versions. Check the Model No on the label on the side of the Express.  The “new” version will be A1264.  The “old” version will be A1084 or A1088.

Fortunately, this gave me the opportunity to do a big upgrade to the network by replacing all my out-of-date AEs with the newly announced dual-band version (see my earlier post).

There remains a nagging question: What is the real difference between the new dual-band Airport Express and the existing dual-band Airport Extreme (apart from the £139 price tag compared with £79 for the new Express?). Looking at the specs for both devices, I cannot see any deal-breaking advantages in the more expensive Airport Extreme, but there are some detail differnces as you can see from this comparison chart. The cheaper Express can share music wirelessly and also share a printer. It cannot share an external drive, an ability which is limited to the Airport Extreme. Both Extreme and Express have the same 50-user connection limit, so there is no great advantage there. 

On balance, if you want to touch all bases, I recommend using an Airport Extreme as the primary base station with Airport Expresses to extend the network (which probably isn’t necessary if you live in a smallish apartment) and to provide remote feeds to speakers. 

What to do with my old Expresses? I won’t throw them away. I can travel with one in order to create an ad-hoc network in any hotel room or other location offering an enternet connection. I can even add them to the new network if there are any unplumbed weak spots (albeit as a simple b/g device). 


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