Wow, every once in a while one of these things flies in right under the radar, huh? Were we the only ones who made a Feissian noise of inarticulate confusion upon seeing Apple's home page trumpeting the release of AirPort Express? Because when faithful viewer Adam Lang mentioned it, we figured he was just toying with us in a cruel Pavlovian fashion-- mention surprise new Apple gear, witness uncontrollable drooling, hand us a mop, lather, rinse, repeat. But no; it's a Real Thingy, and the copious saliva expenditure was justified... because this puppy looks really freakin' cool.
Well, maybe not "looks" in a strictly aesthetic sense, mind you; after all, it looks pretty much like a current PowerBook AC adapter with no cord and a few ports drilled into its side-- attractive, sure, but not "cool" as in "original Base Station silver UFO from a '50s sci-fi flick with aliens with British accents and names like 'Gork' and 'Zyron'" cool.
No, we meant "looks" as in "is perceived as," because this thing is practically a full-fledged AirPort Extreme Base Station packed into a white plastic box roughly the size of two 40 GB iPods glued together, and the weight of just one of them plus one Oreo. (Yes, we weighed an Oreo. Well, technically it was a Hint o' Mint Newman-O, but we're assuming the weight difference is negligible.) You plug it directly into a wall outlet (or use the optional power extension cord, apparently sold separately), plug in an Ethernet cable running to the local network, and bam-- your AirPort-equipped Macs can all reach the network wirelessly.
Why is this cool, you ask? Well, because with more and more hotels offering broadband Internet these days, you can tote along an AirPort Express and use it without having a big ugly cable hanging out of your PowerBook tethering you to the wall. Better still, you and your laptop-lugging traveling companion can both share the broadband simultaneously without fighting over who gets to use the cord-- a conflict which invariably ends in either the emergency room or the local police lock-up. Uh, so we're told. [Cough]
Oh, but it gets better. There's also a USB port so you can wirelessly share a compatible printer, and-- this is the biggie-- an audio jack. Yes, AirPort Express boasts a nifty feature called "AirTunes," which essentially links iTunes directly to an AirPort Express unit so you can play your music through a connected stereo or set of powered speakers. No need to plug them into your PowerBook; plug them into AirPort Express instead and leave your laptop unfettered and ready to boogie. (The single audio jack supports both analog and optical digital connections.)
As always, there are a few catches, but none of them is a real smackdown. The first is that AirTunes only works with iTunes 4.6, which won't be available until "later this week." But that's not much of a problem considering the second catch, which is that, according to Apple's press release, AirPort Express itself won't be available until the middle of next month. The third isn't so much a catch as it is a simple fact of life: Stuff Costs Money. AirPort Express carries a sticker price of $129, which is actually pretty darn good considering everything it does; however, Apple's suggestion that you "connect one to every stereo or set of powered speakers in your house" strikes us as the blithe suggestion of a guy who cleared almost $75 million last year.
All told, though, AirPort Express sounds like a winner-- and we're sorely tempted to get one for the living room even though our TiVo already streams wirelessly from iTunes playlists, because TiVo still can't play iTunes Music Store songs, and it'd be nice to stream directly from Party Shuffle, etc. As always, our deepest gratitude to Apple for providing yet another excuse for us to sink deeper into debt. Woo-hoo!