Business/E-Business
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3/26/2008
08:01 PM
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Apple's Smallest Wi-Fi Base Station Just Got Faster

I have two of the little Apple's Airport Express wireless Ethernet base stations. One of them is hooked up to my living room stereo, so we can play iTunes music from a Mac desktop without running cables. The other one lives in my briefcase, and I use it to set up portable WiFi LANs. This week, Apple launched its first significant update of the nearly four-year-old product, making it as much as five times faster  and with twice the operating range.

I have two of the little Apple's Airport Express wireless Ethernet base stations. One of them is hooked up to my living room stereo, so we can play iTunes music from a Mac desktop without running cables. The other one lives in my briefcase, and I use it to set up portable WiFi LANs. This week, Apple launched its first significant update of the nearly four-year-old product, making it as much as five times faster  and with twice the operating range.The updated Airport Express (which retails for US$99) uses the draft 802.11n specification for wireless Ethernet. It's extremely versatile, theoretically able to connect at up to 248 Mbps using either 2.4GHz or 5.0GHz radios It has a maximum operating range of about 200 feet indoors, and 700 feet outdoors. The ability to use 5.0GHz can help in areas where there's a lot of 2.4GHz interference from other WiFi networks, cordless phones or other equipment.

When the 802.11n protocol is finally approved, users will be able to update any Apple equipment, including notebooks and WiFi access points, to accommodate any changes. I don't anticipate any.

By comparison, the older Airport Express used the 2.4GHz 802.11g wireless Ethernet protocol. It supported up to 54 Mbps of transmission when talking to a pure 802.11g network, or a much slower 11Mbps when connected to an 802.11b network (or an 802.11g network which had at least one 802.11b device on it). The range was also smaller, about 100 feet indoors or 350 feet outdoors.

Unlike most enterprise-class WiFi access points, the pocket-sized Airport Express products were designed for portability and consumer use. They only support 10 simultaneous user. By contrast, Apple's bigger Airport Extreme supports as many as 50 simultaneous users. The Airport Express also has an audio jack for connecting the access point to a stereo (and controlling it through iTunes). That's not very useful for a business.

The Airport Express, of course, certainly can be used in a business setting. It supports both Windows and Mac clients, and can work with all current WiFi security protocols, including WPA (WiFi Protected Access). It has a NAT firewall, MAC address filtering, and can even work with enterprise user authentication protocols like RADIUS. It also has a USB jack that can connect either a printer or an external hard drive  making them network sharable.

In a business setting, why would you use an Airport Express? Well, it can be used to extend the range of an existing WiFi network based on Airport Extreme access points. So, if you have two offices in a large building, an Airport Express could help bridge them together. It's also good for setting up ad-hoc portable networks, such as at a trade show, in a conference room, or other locations.

I wish that my two Airport Express access points could be upgraded. Sadly, they can't. Hmm, Maybe I'll do some shopping.

By the way, my colleague Frederic Paul has some great observations regarding 802.11n  check them out.

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