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Apple AirPort Express 2012

Updated 7/10/2012 - Corrected WD component info

Apple has a habit of sometimes sneaking new wireless features into its products, to be awakened at a later date. And since the company is said to be one of the major forces behind the push to get draft 802.11ac deployed, I thought it might be trying that trick once again with its very nonchalant release of a significantly changed AirPort Express.

With the latest AirPort Express, Apple has promoted its former wireless-only router and AirPlay station to a full-fledged simultaneous dual-band entry-level wired and wireless router and bumped the price up a tad to $99.

The MC414LL/A AirPort Express is easily distinguished from its predecessors, since it adopts the same form-factor as the current-generation Apple TV. The photo below compares the two, which are identical in size.

Apple TV and 2012 AirPort Express - front

Apple TV and 2012 AirPort Express - front

The rear view makes the two easier to tell apart. The white AirPort Express has separate 10/100 Ethernet WAN and LAN ports. So you can attach a switch and share your Internet connection with both wired and wireless devices.

Apple TV and 2012 AirPort Express - rear

Apple TV and 2012 AirPort Express - rear

Apple likes to keep its wireless chip suppliers on their toes, so I suppose it is not surprising that the latest Express uses Qualcomm Atheros devices instead of Broadcom, as used in the old Expresses

The inside of the Express shows once again why Apple is known for its design elegance and innovation. Like the Apple TV, the 100 - 240VAC power supply is tucked inside instead of an external "wall-wart".

Airport Express inside

Airport Express inside

Remove the six screws and the main board easily lifts out. I had already removed the RF covers on the main board when I took this photo. I had to smile when I realized that the connection between the power supply and main board was just pad-to-pad contact held together by the two screws near the photo upper left!

Airport Express - power supply and main board separated

Airport Express - power supply and main board separated

The photo below is a tighter view of the board with the shields removed. Due to my poor photography skills you still can't see the component markings. But you can see at least one of the dual-band etched-circuit antennas at the upper left of the photo. The other is at the lower left.

Airport Express - power supply and main board separated

Airport Express - power supply and main board separated

The component summary in Table 1 details the QCA-based design.

  Apple AirPort Express (MC414LL/A)
CPU Atheros AR9344 2x2 802.11abgn SoC
Switch In AR9344
Flash None visible
2.4 GHz Radio In AR9344
5 GHz radio Atheros AR9582
Table 1: Apple AirPort Express (MC414LL/A) component summary

The last key device is an AKM AK4430 Stereo D-to-A converter that provides AirPlay audio support.

There isn't a lot of info to be found about the AR9344, so I asked QCA for help. Here is what I got back:

The AR9344 integrates dual-band 802.11n and a rich set of peripheral interfaces and network processor into a single system-on-a-chip. The Qualcomm Atheros Hy-Fi reference designs are based on this SoC.

There isn't a lot of information about the AR9582 to be found either. But it appears to be another 2X2 dual-band 802.11n SoC. I am guessing that the 9344 is handling 2.4 GHz duties while the AR9582 is devoted to 5 GHz.

The new AirPort Express would be classed as an "N600" router, if Apple has relented and allowed 40 MHz operation in the 2.4 GHz band. If they properly implement 40 MHz coexistence and Fat Channel intolerate bit behavior, I see no reason for Apple not to. But I'll bet they have left the standard Apple "no-40 MHz mode in 2.4 GHz rule" in place. So does that make the new AirPort Express an "N430" router ( 5 GHz/300 Mbps + 2.4 GHz/130 Mbps)?

To answer the question I raised at the opening, unless it is hiding in the AR9582, I can find no evidence of draft 802.11ac in this router. So, perhaps Apple isn't in as much of a hurry to get there as the mainstream wireless router makers are.

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