The AirPort Express range has the right to feel unloved. Unlike Apple's other lines, which are refreshed on a rigid annual schedule, the company's humble wireless base station had sat unchanged since March 2008. At that time the first generation iPhone was still the current model and now the sixth generation iPhone 5 is just around the corner. The tech world has been revolutionised over this period, so can we expect a similar step forward from the new AirPort Express?
The short answer is no… but it doesn't need to be. The cogs in the wireless standards industry turn much more slowly than those driving the smartphone revolution so evolution is the name of the game. As such the 2012 AirPort Express still performs the same functions as its ageing forebear: it can work as a wireless router when connected to a modem, extend the range of an existing wireless network, bring AirPlay wireless audio streaming to any stereo or dock and AirPrint wireless printing to any connected printer. Like the 2008 Apple AirPort Express the 2012 model also still doesn't support external storage.
Where the new AirPort Express unit does differ is its support for simultaneous dual band 802.11n Wi-Fi over both 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands (the 2008 unit made you choose one or the other). This functionality was added to the AirPort Extreme and Time Capsule back in 2009 so it is primarily a catch-up feature. In addition Apple has added a LAN port alongside the existing WAN port, but surprisingly this only operates at 10/100Mbit rather than Gigabit Ethernet which has widely become the industry standard.
So where do the real innovations come from? Apple being Apple means the most obvious step forward is in design. Whereas the 2008 model plugged directly into a socket, in 2012 Apple has repackaged the AirPort Express into the 90 x 90 x 23mm case of the Apple TV. The fact it is white rather than black and 30 grams lighter (240g vs. 270g) helps you tell them apart and you get the benefit of the same premium build quality, but otherwise it is clear Apple has done a little industrial recycling.
That said this move is to be commended. The old AirPort Express had to be plugged directly into a power socket which meant it was typically positioned close to the ground – the worst possible place for making the most of your Wi-Fi signal. By contrast the 2012 AirPort Express no longer has this limitation and its extreme minimalist design means it can be positioned just about anywhere without obtrusion.