June 30, 2012, 7:05 AM — The redesigned 2012 model of the AirPort Express Wi-Fi base station has become the mouse that roars. The revisions transform this model into a tiny powerhouse by adding to its previous modest attributes a second ethernet port, simultaneous dual-band Wi-Fi, and a guest network option all in a form factor identical to the Apple TV (except white and an ounce lighter).
At the same $99 as the previous two models, the AirPort Express might serve an entire apartment or single-floor home, or act as a main base station to which other base stations are chained via Wi-Fi or ethernet, where previously the $179 AirPort Extreme base station would be required. The Express uses the same configuration tools and options as its bigger siblings, the Extreme and Time Capsule. In testing, performance and throughput are in line with those models.
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It's extremely difficult to offer generically useful advice when testing the range for a base station, because every home and office varies in what blocks or reflects wireless signals. The new Express provided excellent signal strength across my 90-year-old house, which requires three base stations to cover its modest size due to materials in walls and the floor between the main story and basement that block signals. The Express compares favorably to two different models of Extreme in use in the same house. As with all base stations, you may need to try out an Express, and even move it to different locations, to determine if it can cover the area you need. (Try the free NetSpot mapping program to help with that task.)
While any Wi-Fi device may connect to an AirPort Express network, Apple only allows configuration via AirPort Utility, whether on iOS, Windows, or Mac OS X in Leopard, Snow Leopard, and Lion. Apple currently has two chains of utility software in Mac OS X to provide legacy support for features it removed in a software revision, but which are still available in hardware. With Leopard and Snow Leopard, AirPort Utility 5.6.1 must be installed to configure an AirPort Express; with Lion, the minimum version is now 6.1. (While Lion can still use 5.6.0 to access features in all previous 802.11n base stations, those released from 2007 to 2011, 6.1 is absolutely required for the new Express, and Lion can't use 5.6.1.)