Failing at Networking: Configuring an Apple AirPort Express

I travel somewhat frequently and often encounter hotels that provide a cable and no wireless connection. This was a bit of a nuisance when sharing rooms with people, or if I’m interested in trying to check something on my iPad. Internet sharing on the Mac has never seemed to work quite the way I wanted it to. Lately, this problem has been compounded because I have a Macbook Air, but no Ethernet adapter.

Because I’m traveling again this weekend, I decided that I would purchase an Apple AirPort Express. This would be a great way to solve my above problems. First, it’s small enough to carry around with me on a trip. Second, it allows you to share an Internet connection over wireless, which effectively means that I can connect the Ethernet to it and then share the connection to my MacBook Air. An added bonus is that it also had a 3.5mm stereo headphone jack/mini-TOSLink jack that would enable me to plug a set of powered speakers into. Since I just moved, my computer is no longer able to connect to the speakers in the living room since it’s too far away. So really, it seemed like a win all around.

Yet, for some reason, networking equipment and I simply do NOT get along. Back in Waterloo, I was rumoured to have inherited a “curse” about hardware from a fellow graduate student (hello, Ben!) – the curse was that hardware would randomly fail inexplicably in your hands and that you’d spend many hours trying all kinds of configurations to no avail. Thus far, I’ve had a lot of random failures, like my 4-year old PowerMac G5 that one day suddenly failed to power on, a brand new external hard drive, bad RAM in an old computer, mice (lots of mice) and assorted networking equipment. Lots of networking stuff, from cards to wireless routers and stuff. Even now, my 802.11n wireless network seems to not really work well – it has a weak signal and any device seems to have a random chance of not connecting to it.

I’ve wasted a bunch of time today trying to configure the Airport Express. Let me write a post explaining how to not waste time configuring an AirPort Express.

Installing the Correct AirPort Utility

The first kicker is that the most recent version of the AirPort Utility does not have the same functionality as a former version, so if you know a little bit about networking, installing the new version is a bit of a waste – you can’t do things like manage different profiles, which are useful if you want to have a profile for “Playing Music At Home” and “Internet Sharing On The Road”.

However, you still have to install the latest version (6.0 at the time of writing) to get the proper firmware, THEN install the old version (5.6) to get access to the advanced features. Yes, it’s dumb. Apple unfortunately stripped out a lot of features, like profile management, from 6.0.

AirPort Utility 6.0 (for Lion)
AirPort Utility 5.6 (for Lion)

Thus, be sure to install 6.0, update the firmware, then install 5.6.

On Mac OS X, Ethernet takes Priority For Internet Operations

This one’s entirely my fault. When I was testing the AirPort Express by plugging the Ethernet from my cable modem into it, then connecting wirelessly from my desktop, I wasn’t able to get Internet. The problem is that I didn’t ever disconnect the Ethernet cable from my computer. By default, Mac OS X and Firefox tries to get Internet from the Ethernet port and if it can’t get it from there it fails, instead of trying on the wireless network. So if you’re testing this kind of thing, unplug the Ethernet cable from the computer.

Press the Button With a Paperclip to Reset the AirPort Express

Much too often, I got an error when “reading configuration from AirPort Express”. It’s also easy to set it up such that you can’t configure it (like if you try to make it join a wireless network but don’t properly get a DHCP from the Ethernet plug). If you get into a problem like that, stick a paperclip into the bottom of the device and hold it there for about 10 seconds. Unplug it, wait a moment, plug it back in and it should be back to factory defaults.

Once you do that, keep in mind that you need to either be able to plug it into a wired network and get it an IP address, or that you need to remember what wireless network it creates in order to configure it.

AirPlay from iTunes Needs IPV6 Host Mode On

Once I managed to set up a a profile for Internet Sharing that worked fine (using the AirPort Utility 5.6), I wanted to try out AirPlay. I tried using iTunes on my laptop and my desktop, but both gave me an “unknown error (-15006)”. For a company that prides itself on the user experience, it’s a shame that these errors are not actually written in a way such that the user can easily troubleshoot them.

Under the advanced tab -> IPv6, IPv6 Mode should be set to Host.

AirPort Utility IPv6 Setting

It turns out that iTunes on Mac OS X now finds its AirPlay clients through IPv6, but that the AirPort Express doesn’t use IPv6 by default. The solution is to go to the AirPort Utility, go to Advanced, IPv6 and set IPv6 Mode to “Host”. Do this, restart iTunes, and it should work just fine from all of your Apple devices.

Conclusion

I don’t usually fiddle around with products and computer devices anymore, though I used to do this a lot about seven to ten years ago. So it’s fun, yet frustrating, to get a new hardware device to play with. Unfortunately, I have to be kind of in the mood to play around to enjoy it, and usually I don’t like playing with Apple devices, which are supposed to “just work”. Or, maybe I’m just terrible with networking.

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5 thoughts on “Failing at Networking: Configuring an Apple AirPort Express

    1. irwinhkwan Post author

      The problem is that I started with the AirPort Utility 6.0 and it simply wasn’t doing what I wanted. Another issue is that the AirPort Utility 6.0 didn’t have user profiles – so I couldn’t customize one profile for “AirPlay at Home” and another for “Internet Sharing on the Road”, which was something that I thought was handy so I could switch the profile and toss it in my bag instead of having to redo the configuration from scratch.

      Reply
  1. Oflife

    I have given up with Airport Express and concluded after over a decade of problems with anything to do with WiFi and Apple (not Bluetooth), that Apple have fundamental flaws in the technology, probably associated with their chip vendors of choice. From my first Wallstreet or was it Lombard PowerBook to my iPad mini, their WiFi is just so flaky, it makes life one continuous struggle. I know what I am doing and so this is not about me, or a faulty product (I have owned countless Apple devices), this is a similar problem to that that used to effect early Intel X86 chips that had a bug in the firmware that developers had to work around.

    Apple need to go back to the drawing board with WiFi else once consumers begin to go wireless for their audio and content streaming, they won’t put up with the delays between hitting PLAY and actual playback, random disconnections and lack of interoperability with competing hardware and services.

    iRant over! (Thanks for your tips BTW, the IPV6 thing does help re disconnects, but not delays and other Airplay/Airport Express issues.)

    Reply

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