Living Wirelessly: Airport Express Update

My new Apple Airport Express arrived earlier this week. Within 45 minutes I had it connected to my wireless network here and streaming music to my home theatre sound system. About the size of a cigarette pack, it compacts a Airport Base Station in a portable device that adds ethernet and USB ports for expanding the network or adding wireless printing capability to existing networks.

Then I started playing. And soon I discovered the limitations of the Airport Express and WIFI in general. Don't get me wrong. I'm a huge WIFI fan and encourage everyone to untether themselves from ethernet cables and enjoy the freedom of wireless internet access.

Apple has a technology built into its “Extreme” WIFI products and included it with Airport Express. Called WDS (wireless distribution system) it allows you the ability to create a larger network by placing Airport Extreme or Express base stations in proximity to each other. So this is a simple approach to getting beyond the 50-100 foot reach of 802.11x (WIFI). One base station picks up the signal of another base station and then transmits it even further. Kind of like cell towers in cellular phone technology: when you move out of the range of one cell tower, the next tower picks your signal up without a blip — well, almost.

When I first installed my wireless network Apple's Extreme products (802.11g) hadn't yet been released. But when I completed construction on my office/studio building in the backyard I bought an Airport Extreme base station. But this too was prior to the release of WDS. So I had to run a subterranean CAT-5 cable from my home (where the DSL Router resides) and my office. At this point I set up my wireless network to “ROAM”. This means that like cell phones I can move with my laptop around my property and the strongest signal available will serve me my internet access wirelessly. The difference here is both base stations are connected to the router. Theoretically, with WDS I could have saved the hassle of burying the CAT-5 cable and making the physical connection.

So with two base stations on my property you'd figure I could get great wireless access anywhere in the property. Wrong! In my bedroom (ok, so I shouldn't be on the computer when in the bedroom, but that's another discussion) the signal is barely intelligible. And if I do get a connection it drops as bad as my old Verizon cell service did (I'm a t-mobile fan now).

So enter Airport Express. I figured that by installing a second Airport Express in my bedroom I would enable WDS and extend the range of my network and have a solid signal in my bedroom, plus I'd be able to stream any of my 14,000 songs and 20 some odd playlists to my bedroom speakers.

Great idea. But nah!

I've spent a couple days playing with WDS. First, I used my Extreme base station as the primary access point for both the Airport Express and the first generation Airport Base station in the house. While I was able to extend the network, the music streaming from my G4 Cube MP3 Music Server would hiccup constantly by playing about 10 seconds of music then dropping the connection for 2 seconds then picking it up again. Annoying. Then I tried it on my home theatre stereo with WDS. A bit better but it would still drop the music signal intermittently. Finally, I disabled the WDS, reconfigured the network for roaming, did not enable the Airport Expresses to “extend the range of my existing Airport Network. And even in the far reaches of my bedroom, I'm streaming my music without the hiccuping.

Though I seem to find periodically the music simply stops. I think this happens when, like any streaming audio or video application, it loses a connection and attempts to reconnect. By simply selecting the stream in iTunes to play through the server then back to the Airport Express it reconnects and plays. This IS annoying and I'm not sure if anyone else is experiencing this problem. I'm chalking it up to the dead zone that my bedroom resides in relation to the Airport network here.

While I have been using netTunes to control the music in the office/studio while in my home, I would love to control iTunes remotely without a computer. To be sure, I do have Salling Clicker enabled on my Sony Ericsson P900 smartphone. And with Bluetooth I'm able to control iTunes on my laptop – but not over netTunes. I could purchase a Bluetooth adapter for the Cube MP3 Music Server, but I'm not sure the range will extend beyond my office/studio. Now if there was a way to extend the range of Bluetooth????

Ahhh. The joys of early adoption and new technology. But aren't we having fun!!!