Saturday, July 14, 2012

Does the new Apple Airport Express have better range than inexpensive Linksys routers?

Update (9/4/2013): A couple months ago I complained to Comcast that my Internet service was unreliable. It went down frequently and needed to be rebooted - and that didn't always solve the problem.

They came over and replaced our modem/wireless router combo with a new device (this one here) which has incredible wireless range. It easily covers our whole house with a strong signal, is more reliable than their previous modem, and provides faster connection speeds both wireless and wired.

I didn't need the Apple Airport Express after getting this new Comcast router so I sold it on Craigslist. Moral of the story: Check with your Internet service provider if they have an option for an integrated wireless router. Having multiple wireless routers/range extenders is a pain. If you're with Comcast this latest/greatest device really makes a difference.

Apple currently offers two wireless routers, the Airport Extreme and the Airport Express. The Airport Extreme retails for $179 and especially since its redesign last year has been known for its strong range. The $99 Airport Express has been around forever but was mostly known for its versatility. It can serve as a wireless router, a wireless range extender, facilitate wireless printing, and serve up wireless audio.

But Apple recently redesigned the Express in ways that make it a viable wireless router for the home. They added an ethernet port (for that one rogue device you have which you'd prefer to connect via a cable - we use it for our printer), made it a dual-band N router (it was previously single band), and alluded to improved range.

The new Airport Express looks nearly identical to the Apple TV other than its color. The Express is white and the Apple TV is black. The prior Airport Express plugged directly into the wall whereas the new one connects via a more standard cable. It's about as minimalistic and beautiful as I can imagine a wireless router being.

It's also very small. Here it is alongside a Linksys E2500 N router for size comparison:

Wireless router manufacturers seem hesitant to make concrete range claims, perhaps because everyone's situation is different. Which brings me to the purpose of this post - to compare the relative strength of the new Airport Express vs. inexpensive Linksys wireless routers.

Does the Airport Express have better range? Can it cover the whole house?

We live in an 1,800 square foot L-shaped house. The Internet comes into my home office on one end of the house and the most challenging wireless connection it needs to make is to our home entertainment system which is about 80 feet away if the signal tries to travel through the house -or- about 58 feet if it wants to sneak outside - according to the Pythagorean Theorem. ;)

When we first started streaming content from our home entertainment system through a Linksys WRT160Nv2 wireless router to a Roku XDS box it seemed to work okay for the most part even though the signal wasn't terribly strong. But intermittently we'd have issues with buffering. Then I noticed when security was enabled on the Linksys router the Roku would need to be reminded of the wireless password every day or two. This become annoying enough that I disabled the security on our router for a while.

Then we added a new Samsung "Smart" TV with "Internet capabilities". I put these features in quotes because it's not very smart (nor pleasant to use for that matter) and the Internet is only possible with the addition of a USB WiFi adapter. I was curious to see how it worked, but didn't want to spring for the Samsung USB adapter so I got a more affordable one (~$20) from Rosewill that technically works with the Samsung but seems to have the weakest range of any WiFi client of any device on our network.

So I thought to try a new Linksys router to see if it would improve the range. I got a refurbished Linksys E2500 from Cisco for around $35. Sadly, it seemed to have even worse range than the WRT160Nv2.

When we remodeled the house a few years ago we had an ethernet cable installed that ran across the house to where our iMac is. I thought to try using our old Linksys router as a wired/wireless range extender. After some futzing I successfully configured the old router as a range extender and we mercifully had strong coverage over the entire house.

However, the situation was precarious at best. Think about it - if you're watching a movie and there's some buffering (due to who knows what?) what are you going to do? Reboot the cable modem, reboot the primary router, and reboot the secondary router? The system was too complicated.

I also ran into a crazy situation where my work VPN would have trouble connecting as I'd switch connections from the repeater to the primary router and vice versa. And my issues with Roku and router security settings persisted. It was a mess.

So I sought a wireless N router with strong range that could cover the whole house. I'd heard the Airport Extreme had good range but I didn't want to pay $179 for a router. You can often buy a refurbished Extreme for $139 and though I'm a fan of Apple refurbs I hear you can't return them to the Apple Store. You have to ship them back if you want to return them.

So I thought to try the new Airport Express to see if its improved range would cover our whole house reliably.

I bought it at the Apple store. Setup through our iMac was a breeze. Apple bundles an Aiport setup utility with their operating system - I'm not sure how setup would go through a PC or iOS devices. The setup utility made it very clear how to name the router, how to set up a guest network, and how to set up wireless security on the Express. Very nice.

The initial results were promising, but it wasn't a slam dunk.What I'd like, unrealistically, is for every device in our house to have 5 bars of strength and have everything work perfectly all the time.

The most challenging device - the Samsung/Rosewill TV - still isn't able to establish a connection. But I don't care about that anymore especially since we've since added an Apple TV to the mix. Between the Apple TV and the Roku we're all set with streaming devices.

Once I got past that I've been testing the Airport Express in a variety of real world situations. Coverage for various portable devices around the house (iPad, iPod touches, iPhones, Lenovo laptop) has been outstanding. No problems anywhere. Coverage for stationary devices (iMac, Apple TV, Roku) has been very good as well.

I thought to perform some slightly more rigorous comparisons to give those who might be considering an Airport Express as their primary router some reference points.

Test #1: 50 Feet Away through 2 Walls

The first test I did was with each router about 50 feet away through a couple walls to our iMac. Both routers reported strong signal strength according to the iMac. According to Comcast's speedtest site the connection speed was faster with the Airport Express (25 mbps) than with the Linksys E2500 (20 mpbs).

I replicated this test on a Lenovo laptop in the same location. With the Airport Express the speed reported was 17 mpbs whereas with the Linksys the reported speed was 14mpbs.

To be sure my incoming Internet connection speed didn't change between these experiments I went back and tested on the iMac again and the speeds were the same as the first time I checked.

Any of these speeds are pretty good, but it's interesting to see that the Airport Express is faster in this scenario. And that the iMac reports a faster connection than a similar aged Lenovo laptop.

Advantage: Airport Express

Test #2: 60 Feet Away through a couple walls, outside, on an L

This is the most critical connection for streaming. It's the connection between my home office where the Internet connection comes in and where we keep the router and where our home entertainment system is. We stream from this location via an Apple TV and a Roku box. I tested it with my Lenovo laptop since it would be hard to move the iMac.

First I ran a speed test at this location with the Airport Express. The Lenovo reported 7 mbps, a new iPad reported 13 mbps and an iPhone 4S reported 11 mbps. The iPad and iPhone were tested with speedcheck apps. With the Linksys, the Lenovo reported 12 mbps, the iPad reported 12 mbps, and the iPhone reported 2 mbps.

Advantage: Unclear.

Test #3: Real life streaming signal strength and performance - does it work?

I don't know how to perform a speed test with the Apple TV nor the Roku. But the reported signal strength, for what it's worth, with the Apple TV was 4 out of 5 when connected to the Aiport Express and 3 out of 5 when connected to the Linksys.

The Roku box reports "fair" signal strength with the Airport Express (3 out of 5) and oscillated between "low" "fair" and "poor" (1-3 out of 5) when connected to the Linksys. The first time I tried connecting to the Linksys from the Roku box the connection failed. The next time I tried it suceeded, but when I launched the Amazon channel it failed to connect. Then I tried again a few minutes later and it was able to connect to Amazon. This is symptomatic of what I've experienced with this Linksys router when connected at this distance in conjunction with streaming in the past. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. That's pretty frustrating during family movie night.

We've been able to stream movies on the Roku (Amazon Instant Video) with the Airport Express without incident. Streaming the trailer for Brave as a test on the Apple TV with the Airport Express it starts playing within a few seconds and streams the 2 minute 30 second clip without issue. Streaming Ocean's Eleven in HD from Amazon Instant Video with the Roku started within a few seconds and played the entire movie without incident.

Advantage: Airport Express

I went back and re-tested our old Linksys WRT160Nv2. As I remembered, it seems to have slightly better range than the newer Linksys E2500. This seems strange because they're both N routers, the E2500 is newer, and the E2500 is dual band. However, I still had trouble reliably streaming with the WRT160Nv2. Although it connected without incident when I tried to browse for movies on Amazon through the Roku it failed, then later worked. Then later failed.

Conclusions and Recommendation

I've been very pleased with the new Apple Aiport Express. It reasonably covers our entire house whereas our previous Linksys routers had a hard time doing so reliably. Setup is a snap, it's small, it's sharp looking, silent, and versatile.

It has very good range and provides faster speedtest results than the our prior Linksys routers even when both have a strong connection.

I'd be interested in testing the Airport Extreme under the same conditions, but I'm not going to buy one just to return it. If someone in the neighborhood has one and would like to drop it by let me know!

I highly recommend the Airport Express. A fantastic product.

93/100 points: Outstanding

Here's a link to the new Apple Aiport Express on Amazon:

And here are some links to other products mentioned in this write-up:
Question of the Day: What's been your experience with home wireless routers? What works for you? What doesn't?

I'd love it if you subscribed to Casa Dwyer for future updates. Coming soon: Reviews of the iPad and comparisons of the Apple TV vs. Roku.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Review: Four Seasons Chicago with Kids

We're just back from a weekend with the kids at the Four Seasons Chicago. I've been impressed with my interactions with other Four Seasons properties so I came into it looking forward to seeing how this location would perform.

I'm pleased to report: The stay was amazing. If you'll let them, the Four Seasons can absolutely provide a wonderful family experience in the city.


We were looking to tack on a couple nights in Chicago after a week-long stay in South Haven, Michigan. I was pretty dead set on staying at the Four Seasons. I love their style of service. Other properties like Westin, Intercontinental and Hyatt were going for $300-$450/night and other top-flight hotels like the Waldorf Astoria and The Peninsula were over $500. The most affordable room at the Four Seasons was around $425. I booked a two double-bed city view room with their Kids in the City package for $464/night plus tax.

The package included:
  • Complimentary meals for children 12 and under from our In-Room Dining children's menu
  • A visit from the Ice Cream Man between 3:00 pm and 6:00 pm
  • Many special savings and discounts from local retailers and cultural attractions
  • Luxurious accommodations


A couple of days before our arrival I received an email from the hotel's concierge asking if they could do anything for us. We were just starting to think about what we wanted to do while we were there so the message was well timed.

We wanted to check out Top Chef Master Rick Bayless's Frontera Grill so I inquired about a reservation there the first night of our stay. When we stayed at the Four Seasons New York a couple of years ago they were able to finagle a reservation at Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill (full review) when it was sold out so I thought to try the concierge again.

A little later in the day I got an email back saying Frontera Grill doesn't accept reservations for the most part and the adjacent Bayless restaurant Topolobambo does accept reservations but was sold out that weekend. She provided a nice alternate list of their preferred restaurants with useful descriptions ranging from celebrity chefs to steaks to deep dish pizza places and hot dog joints. No magic on a reservation at Frontera Grill or Topolobambo but that's okay.

Pro Tip: Program the hotel's main number and the concierge's direct number into your cell phone so when you're out and about you can call back to the hotel to pre-order things so you won't have to wait when you get back.


Arriving at any city hotel location can be stressful. I always feel like I've got to find the hotel, figure out where to park the car if it's a crowded curbside situation, have a handle on what bags we want to stay in the car, what bags we want to take up the room, keep an eye on the kids, and figure out who and how much to tip. Even if you've got it all under control and you're as cool as a cucumber - it's a bit of a circus.

Fortunately, hotels like the Four Seasons do a fantastic job making this as relaxing as possible, and our arrival at their Chicago location on a Saturday afternoon was no exception.

We pulled up in our small rented SUV and were immediately greeted with a "Welcome to The Four Seasons". The street this location is on isn't terribly busy and they keep the curb clear with adequate doormen, bellmen, and valets.

Like everyone we'd meet at the hotel, they had a truly helpful way of approaching you that made you feel at ease about accepting their assistance in order to make your stay more enjoyable. No fussiness or pretension; somehow the staff answers questions thoughtfully and without making you feel like a cheapskate if you inquire about the price.

No need to put on your top hat and fancy pants - the hotel isn't stuffy. I wore flip flops the whole weekend and never felt out of place - it was a summer weekend in Chicago.

This Four Seasons is a relatively small portion of a tall building. Once you pass through the revolving doors into a nicely appointed but small lobby you take an elevator up seven floors to the main lobby. It's interesting there are almost always more concierges on duty than folks at the front desk. It speaks volumes about their focus - on service after the sale.

I was tempted to try the $20 Bill Trick but it didn't feel like that kind of party. Relax and let the Four Seasons delight, right? The desk clerk welcomed me politely and asked if a superior city view room with two double beds (exactly what we booked, no upgrade) would be acceptable. I said it would and she gave us our keys and pointed us to the elevators. I would have appreciated a bit of a review of what our package included (it was a little complicated) but in the spirit of sitting back and letting the hotel surprise us we headed right up to our room.


The room was moderately sized for a metropolitan location, finely appointed (especially in the bathroom) and nicely prepared for our arrival. The hotel occupies floors 30 through 46 in the building and we were on the top floor with a view westward towards the swanky Waldorf Astoria. Special touches included two stuffed Four Seasons Chicago cows for the kids and a bathtub sprinkled with confetti soap and kids bubble bath. Two robes for adults and two for the kids as well.

They asked for our kids names during the check-in process but I don't recall seeing anything personalized towards that affect in our room or during the stay. Don't worry - they'd be plenty spoiled by the end of our visit.

The Four Seasons seems to have the timing of their appearances in your room down to a science. It's as if there's a mastermind behind the scenes determining when you've finished your gawking around the room and it's a good time for your luggage to be delivered. Moments after the bellman left the room, room service arrived with complimentary cookies and milk. Bonus points for providing a little chocolate syrup on the side to heighten the treat.


The hotel is right off Michigan Avenue on Delaware near Water Tower Place (an indoor mall) which is along the not-so-humbly named Magnificent Mile in the equally proudly named Gold Coast neighborhood. At least nine other US states also lay claim to being The Gold Coast so they're in good company. Judging from the ritzy retail and restaurant mix it seems to be the place to be in Chicago.  I thought it had a lot of similarities to Boston's Back Bay with the overall size and gridded layout like New York.

In the spirit of "a little for them and a little for us" we took the kids to the Lego Store at Water Tower Place. They went nuts. It's a rather large Lego store with a cool Chicago skyline out front, interactive assembly stations inside, and of course an excellent assortment of Lego sets. Try as I might to get them to pick the Willis Tower set for the locally relevant souvenier they went for a couple others.

There are a bunch of great restaurants in Chicago, both near the hotel and accessible via a short taxi ride. We had our sites set on Frontera Grill so we hopped in a cab. We arrived at 4:45 pm and there was already a line 20 parties deep waiting to get a table. We got a reservation at Frontera Grill for 6:00 pm which normally wouldn't have been that long of a wait but the kids were tired after a day of travel. We opted for XOCO which was an excellent compromise - read my review over on Yelp here. We then walked back to the hotel along Michigan Avenue. Very nice.

Museums, the Shedd Aquarium, and Millenium Park are a short cab ride away from the hotel. Overall I don't think the hotel could be in a better location to enjoy Chicago.


On the way out to dinner we stopped in at the Concierge desk to check on tickets for the Shedd Aquarium. We met the same concierge who emailed me back about Frontera Grill and she mentioned, as did a friend on Twitter, XOCO as an alternative if the wait at Frontera Grill was too long.

She also warned us about long lines at the aquarium later in the day and offered up some VIP tickets that let us skip the line for $35 a person. She was down to 1 ticket in the drawer so we were able to parlay that into even more moderately priced tickets on-site at the aquarium which worked out in our favor price wise - $105 for a family of four with no waiting in line. Compared to somewhere between $160 and $200 at the aquarium day-of I thought it was a great deal. The Shedd is a fantastic indoor aquarium but you've got to approach it strategically to enjoy it - full review here.

When we arrived back after dinner the room had been picked up and turned down. Not the most dramatic transformation I've ever seen but turndown service is always a nice touch when you're on vacation. Especially when the room is cluttered.

When we checked in, I asked about scheduling a visit to our room from their Ice Cream Man. The clerk suggested it was more of an evening thing and he was available from 5:30 pm to 8:30 pm so we opted for 7:00 pm. However when we returned to our room we had a message saying there had been a mistake and he was only available from 3:00 pm to 6:00 pm so we missed him the first night. A minor gaffe but I'm glad we didn't get the kids cranked up for his visit. We'd catch the Ice Cream Man later the next day.

Pro Tip:  Never tell your children about anything fun unless it is 100% set-in-stone, can not be rescheduled, going to happen even if the world ends.  Better to surprise and delight them if it does come through.

The next morning I was feeling a bit unfamiliar with the Kids in the City packaged we opted for, so I stopped in at the front desk and asked for a refresher. This time the clerk on duty provided me a printed card that revealed some discounts and additional information which I wasn't aware of previously. Of particular interest were a family discount at the aquarium (the VIP tickets are probably a better deal considering the line factor), the availability of a Wii, and Radio Flyer wagons available on a first-come first-served basis. Bonuses I hadn't considered! Always giving guests a little more than they expected.

While we were at the aquarium I called to ask if we could get a Wii. When we returned, it was set up in our room with hand written instructions on how to turn it on and change the TV input to the appropriate input device. However, the Wii remotes weren't working. I called down to the place I requested it from - the Concierge - and they pinged the folks in engineering who came over to have a look.

I find it refreshingly great the way they don't make you feel bad if you've called the wrong department and take care of the issue as far as you're concerned without transferring you. The first engineer couldn't figure it out so another guy came up. He couldn't figure it out either so they went to get some more batteries and another Wii in case it was a hardware issue. So we've got 2 guys fixing the Wii, room service on the way, and then someone stops by with complimentary cupcakes for the kids to boot. Insanely good service! (They got the Wii working shortly thereafter and the kids had a ball playing it which meant we could relax while they played).

Food and Drinks

The "free room service for the kids" aspect of the package was a bit ambiguous but I decided not to sweat it and let them delight us by figuring out an equitable split for each meal we enjoyed from room service. After a bit of a rocky night out the first night we settled in for 4 consecutive meals in the room. In some settings this could be rather depressing but in this context it was quite decadent.

The room service menu contains selections for the grown ups for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Then there's a dedicated kids section as well. They've done a great job turning kid favorites into things grown ups can get behind ordering because they're [slightly] healthier or have a local spin. Like PB & J with homemade jam and organic peanut butter - or peanut-free SoyNut Butter. Or mac 'n cheese made with Wisconsin cheddar. Full kids menu here.

When they'd deliver room service they'd set the kids up at the desk and they'd wheel in a table and place it between the two beds. It was tremendous! It was almost like being in a restaurant but when the kids got fussy they could leave their seats to build a hideout on the window seat behind the curtains.

The first morning I think I made a tactical mistake with room service though. At turndown, they presented one of those menus you order on the night before and hang on the door then they deliver when you want the next morning. The menu itself didn't have prices and further, didn't match the options on the in-room menu which made it difficult to order cost effectively.  Writing in our order got us what we wanted, but cost a pretty penny.  I pledged to wisen up the ordering of subsequent meals.

For lunch I went with a Homemade Chicago-style Hot Dog with Fries. It included the requisite celery salt, but lacked the cucumbers I like to see included. Nonethless it was spectacular. It had the juicy texture of a sausage and pepper sandwich you'd buy on Yawkey Way before a Red Sox game, but tasted like a delicious hot dog. Best dog ever. 95/100 points! Classic!!

After a little Wii and relaxation the Four Seasons Ice Cream Man showed up! A highlight of the visit for sure, and they do it right. Chocolate or vanilla ice cream and all of the toppings to make a delicious sundae right in your room. The kids went nuts. My 5 year old said to his brother, "Can you believe this is happening!?" Money quote! That's my boy.

After ice cream we went for a walk around the area with one of their complimentary Radio Flyer wagons. I was determined at this point to take advantage of every kid friendly amenity they offer!

But in the spirit of a little for them and a little for us I called to request a visit from the Martini Man for a martini made in the room as well.

I have to pause for a moment to describe something that was subtly excellent about this interaction. I called the main phone number to the hotel to ask about the Martini Man and they transferred me to room service. Without me ever telling them what room I was in or who I was they said "I see you've got dinner scheduled for 7:30 pm - would you like the martini around the same time?" Sure! I said. I didn't realize until after I got off the phone that they identified me without me telling them who I was. Do they have caller ID with my cell phone number attached to my room? If so that's a pretty sweet CRM system. Putting technology to work to make their intuitive service even better.

The same friendly guy who dishes up the ice cream becomes a bartender in the evening. After pouring one very nice Dirty Martini he seemed surprised that we only wanted one. As if it was typically the kind of thing where you get two or three. I suddenly got a sinking feeling this was going to be a $50 martini. Gulp. No check came with his visit so we'd have to wait and see when we got our folio at the end of the visit. I started to brace myself.

For dinner I went with an Individual Deep Dish Pizza with Italian Sausage and Mushrooms. I paired it with a couple Goose Island IPAs for a very satisfying taste of Chicago. 92/100 points: Outstanding (both the pizza and the beer). I loved the way in-room dining gave everyone in the family a chance to try what they wanted in one convenient location. Full grown up menu here.

The free in-room dining for the kids is a bit ambiguous. How is the built-in 18% gratuity and $4 delivery charge amortized across the meal? For example, on the morning of our departure we ordered oatmeal and eggs for the kids and a pot of coffee ($12) for us. I'm not opposed to paying $12 for a pot of coffee presented to me in my room, but is the $4 and the 18% service charge for the entire meal all tacked on as a charge for the adults? If so it becomes a $20 pot of coffee and the "free in-room dining for kids" thing starts to feel like a bit of a Groupon because the kids meals are relatively affordable. I would have appreciated a little more clarity on this split.

At this point I'm starting to feel a bit uneasy about what is and what is not going to appear on our final statement. The room service bills included everything and I just signed them - then reminded myself not to worry about it.


We swam in their indoor pool with the kids which was very nice. It's an upscale Roman-columned affair reminiscent of the pool in Meet Joe Black, accessed through a spa and locker rooms. Definitely the nicest pool our little guys have visited. We would have appreciated it more if we hadn't just finished a week of multiple swims per day in Michigan.

The hotel offers free low bandwidth Wi-Fi and a paid higher bandwidth option. The low bandwidth was fast enough to be non-frustrating so I thought this was a fair way to play it.


On the morning of our departure I went down to check on our final folio so I wouldn't be distracted by impatient kids ready to go. There was good news and bad news. The martini was indeed a $50 martini. I explained to the clerk that I was worried I'd made a mistake on that one and hoped he could knock it down to $18 or whatever they charge for a martini at the bar because I thought it was an a la carte kind of thing. He said we'd been charged for two martinis so if we only had one he could easily cut the price in half. Fair deal.

Other than that it looked like each of the room service charges were reasonable representations of just what the adults ordered with the appropriate amount of gratuity applied. Each room service charge was a single line item. When I asked for a little more detail he described what each charge was made of in terms of menu items. But even the final folio doesn't describe in full detail what portion of each room service charge comprised service charges and gratuities. Perhaps an area for improvement in the interest of assuring guests they didn't pay for things they weren't expect to.

Everything else looked like what I was expecting to pay - including a hefty but expected $51 per night valet parking charge.

We lugged our bags down thinking it wouldn't be too hard since we each had one piece of luggage and a couple shoulder bags. My fair wife painfully ran over her toe with one of the overstuffed large suitcases while we were jockeying to get into the elevator. Serves us right for refusing the bellman's kind offer to help!

I'd called ahead for our car and it was waiting for us on the curb. The doorman and the valet patiently helped us get our things packed into the car and we were on our way to the airport.

An amazingly perfect visit.

Conclusion and Recommendations

The lesson I learned, perhaps once again, is that the Four Seasons can provide a delightful backdrop for an unforgettable visit - if you let them. If you don't care to interact with the front desk, don't need help with luggage, enjoy finding your own way around a city, and are otherwise just looking for a clean room - the Four Seasons isn't for you. But if you're looking for an indulgent, relaxing family getaway I think the Four Seasons is worth every penny.

My rating:
5/5 Stars
95/100 points: A classic stay.

Further Reading

To learn more, visit the Four Seasons Chicago website and check out the Four Seasons Luxury Family Travel Blog
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