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.
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