Apple AirPort Express Wireless Network Drops

Posted by Mike Brittain on May 30, 2006
Apple / 3 Comments

I’ve been reading about network problems with the AirPort Express recently. I just bought one two weeks ago and was finding that the wireless connection between iTunes and my stereo would drop intermittently. The same problem has been reported in a number of other forums, including Mac OS X Hints and MacFixIt.

When I started looking into the network problem, I figured that it was not specific to iTunes. The issue didn’t only affect iTunes, and was problematic even when iTunes was not running. It seems that playing iTunes over your wireless network is the best way to notice the issue, however. If you’re just surfing around or checking your email and your network drops, it may just look like a temporary latency issue. But if you’re playing music and it suddently stops mid-song, that really seems to get your attention.

So there have been a few things I’ve looked at, and I’m writing them up here because I feel they could all be at fault. I seem to have ironed out my own problems with the AirPort Express. Hopefully this will help if you are having similar problems.

First of all, I will mention that I’m running a Windows XP laptop on the wireless network — not a Macintosh. Initially, I wondered if there were inherent network issues due to that. However, these products seem to be completely compatible. Within minutes of plugging in the AirPort Express, I had my connection to the Internet up and running, wireless printing (USB to the AirPort Express), and wireless music (audio plugged into my stereo).

My AirPort Express is also configured with some default settings, allowing both 802.11 B and G networking. Some have suggested that turning this to one or the other might resolve network drops, but will also reduce compatibility. The network channel is also set to auto, which should help with reliability.

Also note that while I am striving for the widest compatibility and range on this network, in practice I am using a single Windows XP laptop that is parked about four and a half feet away from the wireless hub. Not much in the way. I live in an apartment building in Manhattan, however, and am subject to interference from neighbors next door, upstairs, and downstairs from me. When searching for wireless networks, I typically see a listing of at least six or seven that I can pick up — though all are dutifully secured to prevent hitchhikers.

On to the fix(es)…

1. I initially had setup the AirPort Express using WEP network security. It was listed as being “more compatible”, and since I really don’t know much about the differences between WEP and WPA I went with what sounded easiest for my first stab at setting up the network. When I ran into network trouble, I tried changing this over to WPA2. I don’t know whether this is inherently more stable or not, but it seems to be fully compatible, and supposedly much more secure.

2. There is a setting in the AirPort Express for “interference robustness”. Figuring that was a simple checkbox, I selected it when I was having network trouble. Before taking anymore steps, I noted that this didn’t fix anything on its own — there were still network drops, whether they were less frequent was difficult to tell. After further testing, I turned off that setting, as it is supposedly reduces your network range. Again, note that my laptop practically sits on top of the hub, so this really shouldn’t be an issue.

3. My last test, which I think really did the trick, was to unplug my wireless home phone and replace it with a standard corded phone. Since I rarely use my home phone in this age of cell phones, it doesn’t bother me that it’s not wireless. In fact, the main reason my wife and I have a home phone is only as a backup to our cell phones. If we take more than five calls on that phone is a month, I’d be surprised.

This issue with wireless 2.4 GHz phones was mentioned by Apple, and was also repeated in other forums online. Another suggestion is to avoid certain microwave ovens — something I have not tested.

Since turning off the wireless phone, my network drops seem to have disappeared almost completely. Living in a New York apartment, I can only assume that other interference will strike from time to time. As long as that is minimal, I’m not going to complain.