With very little fanfare, Apple finally upgraded the last of its WiFi products still to be using 802.11g to the faster and wider-coverage standard, 802.11n.
Actually, 802.11g is still technically the current standard, as 802.11n is yet to be formally ratified, but it's sufficiently well developed that we're comfortable recommending it; in any case, the firmware is upgradeable, so when the standard is finally agreed on, full compliance should only be a download away.
Apart from the upgrade to 802.11n, nothing has changed that we can see, but that doesn't mean it isn't a welcome revision. 802.11n is faster - a theoretical maximum of 248Mb/sec compared to 802.11g's 54Mb/sec - and can have a greater range, often using multiple antennae to shape the coverage to suit the local environment.
Upgrade to 802.11n
The move to n is welcome, too, if you're already trying to deploy an n network but want to include an AirPort Express.
Because while many products on the market can do most of what the Express does, it's still unique in offering AirTunes, the ability to stream music wirelessly from iTunes to a pair of speakers or a stereo system.
If you had an 802.11n router and 802.11n Macs, adding the pre-upgrade, 802.11g AirPort Extreme would have slowed your whole network down. Now, n networks can include AirTunes without the bottleneck of a g device.
And it's worth it for AirTunes. You can password-protect your speakers so that nobody starts blasting James Blunt out of them without your say-so, and as well as streaming to specific speakers, if you buy multiple AirPort Expresses and link them all into the same network you can check which ones you want to stream to, potentially sending the same audio to every room in your house.
The jack for speakers is a dual analog and optical output, so it will connect to pretty much everything.
Network across your home
The idea of blanketing your entire house with AirPort Expresses on the same network is entirely feasible, not just because the unit itself is quite cheap, but because multiple devices can be linked together to strengthen and extend the range of your wireless network.
It's important to note that if you have a non-Apple device at the heart of your network - a Netgear modem/router that's connected to the internet, for example - this bridging mode may not work off the bat.
Though the Wireless Distribution System (WDS) used isn't an Apple-specific technology, some reports suggest that sullying a pure Apple network with a PC can be fraught with wireless configuration problems.
AirPort Express or Extreme?
Apart from the cost and AirTunes, however, there's no reason to buy the AirPort Express rather than its big brother, the AirPort Extreme. The Extreme enables more computers to connect wirelessly - 50 rather than 10 - and includes three Ethernet ports so that you can network computers using cables.
Wired networks are faster and inherently more secure than wireless ones, though, of course, the Extreme and Express support WEP, WPA and WPA2 encryption standards.
And while the AirPort Express can share a printer with Macs and even PCs on the network, the AirPort Extreme can also share disks in the same way.
Making hard disks available to other computers on your home network might not be your number one priority, but remember that this lack of disk sharing means that, unlike with the AirPort Extreme, you won't be able to use the AirPort Express to do Time Machine backups to a network disk.
Run on Windows with ease
The AirPort Utility - which runs on Windows as well as OS X - makes setting up an absolute breeze, and means that no matter whether computers on your network are running Windows or OS X, you can manage or join networks created by an AirPort Express, stream music and share printers - all with consummate ease.
Aside from this, we continue to be frustrated by Apple's insistence on omitting an ADSL or cable modem from its wireless access points - how much better it would be to have a one-box solution that takes up one socket and draws one supply of power - but this is still a great little device for the money.
If your networking needs are modest, it's everything you need to create a future-proof WiFi network, and AirTunes is a great and unique wireless trick. Look to the AirPort Extreme or the new Time Capsule for more meaty streaming solutions.