Apple's AirPort Express may quickly become one of the most reviewed pieces of new wireless technology: It will receive many reviews for several reasons, including the fact that it's the smallest Wi-Fi gateway (when you include its built-in power supply); it's the only one to stream audio in the particular way it does; it includes several interesting features in one wrapper; it's relatively cheap for any two of its four unique set features*. It's also from Apple and had 80,000 pre-orders, so it's a natural. (Amazon.com now shows it not first arriving until August 1, and other sources indicate a three-week backorder. But the Apple Store in Seattle says they should have another supply any day now.)
I've been working with an AirPort Express for a few days, and it's just about as easy to setup and use as Apple promises. There are no obscure settings. Joining an existing AirPort Extreme network was a snap. So was reconfiguring it as a base station and assigning it a WPA encryption key. So was playing music through its attached speakers from any copy of iTunes anywhere in our wired/Wi-Fi office. My officemates threatened to play strange music into the speakers in my office, as any copy of iTunes can use any set of AirPort Express speakers on a network unless you password protect access to the speakers.
Three reviews check in today from well-respected sources. David Pogue walks through the pros and cons of the device in The New York Times, and comes down reasonably heavy on the pro side. He misses having a remote control and notes that it's odd you can't play through several sets of speakers at once each connected to their own AirPort Express as you can with other devices. The total of the parts in one well-designed package adds to a winner for him, however. He notes that you'd need two or three other devices to come close to the Express--and in that comparison, he leaves out the Express's client mode (to connect for streaming/printer sharing to any Wi-Fi network) and its USB printer sharing, which is an expensive stand-alone add-on for 802.11g networks.
Walt Mossberg's take was substantially more negative because of a few flaws he felt were significant. He finds the lack of a remote-control a total showstopper, and I admit that that was one of my reactions on first hearing about AirTunes streaming music. Most people who purchase an AirPort Express will have their computer in another room--perhaps far distant--from their home stereo system. A remote control is a no-brainer, and Apple has signaled that something along those lines might be in the works. I imagine a Wi-Fi-enabled iPod which control iTunes on a Mac, play music directly from itself, or carry out other network and stereo functions. Another review pictures something like Salling Clicker combining Bluetooth, a cell phone, and the AirPort Express.
Mossberg also doesn't like the fact that he had to resort to AirPort Admin Utility, a fairly technical configuration tool, instead of the streamlined AirPort Express Assistant to connect his AirPort Express to an existing network that employs what must be WEP encryption. You can enter WEP keys in the assistant, so there must have been a more complicated issue.
Finally, the technology review site Ars Technica offers an in-depth look at the intricacies of the unit. In a long and interesting examination of the AirPort Express, Eric Bangeman is generally positive, giving the device a rank of 8 out of 10. As with Mossberg and Pogue, Bangeman wants a remote control--but he also wants a simple, $5 cable (mini-stereo to RCA) to be bundled with the unit instead of as part of a $40 accessory pack. Bangeman points out that you can't attach AirPort Express to a WPA encrypted network using the wireless bridging feature, which is a good proviso. If you have an Ethernet backbone, however, it's a non-issue, but it does remove one of the interesting selling points.
(*Its unique set of features: It combines USB printer sharing and iTunes music streaming with its small form factor and weight along with the ability to act as a streaming/sharing client on any Wi-Fi network.)