iVacation Chronicles, Pt. 1: Profiles in AirPort Utility

Posted by Pierre Igot in: iPad
August 31st, 2010 • 2:43 pm

As regular Betalogue readers will have noticed, I took some time off in August and I am now just back at work after two and a half weeks in France visiting friends and family and having a relaxing time with lots of nice food and wine.

For this trip abroad, I took the plunge and decided to acquire an iPad and travel with that instead of the usual laptop. I wasn’t planning on spending much time on-line and felt that the iPad, based on its feature list and other people’s experiences described in various forums on-line, would be sufficient to meet most of my and my wife’s computing needs during the trip.

In the next little while, I am going to write a series of posts describing our experience with the iPad as our main computing device for two and a half weeks abroad. I will call this series “iVacation Chronicles,” and here is the first instalment.

This instalment has to do with my preparations for this trip more than with the trip itself. Because the iPad has no Ethernet port and requires a wi-fi connection for Internet access, I anticipated that we might at times require a portable wireless router in addition to the iPad itself. So I also purchased an AirPort Express.

My idea was that, even if we ended up not needing it during the trip, I would use it to extend our wi-fi network at home anyway, which, because of the layout of our house and the location of my primary router (an older AirPort Extreme base station) in my office at one end of it, does not extend as far as I would like it to.

And indeed it turns out that we didn’t need the AirPort Express during the trip. We stayed in several different locations, but all the locations had some form of wi-fi connectivity, which worked seamlessly with the iPad in every case.

So my comments here will be about the configuration and use of the AirPort Express before and after my trip.

When I first got it in early July, I configured it to “participate in a WDS network” and act as “WDS remote,” thereby extending the range of my existing wi-fi network at home. It worked fine.

Then prior to my trip I wanted to change its configuration so that it would work as a primary wireless router for an Ethernet-based Internet connection during the trip. I figured that I’d better do this prior to my departure, because there obviously was no iPad app available either from Apple or from a third-party to change the configuration of an AirPort base station wirelessly while on the road. I didn’t know whether I would have access to a “proper” computer in order to change the configuration while on the road.

But I also didn’t really want to lose the current configuration altogether. I was planning on bringing the AirPort Express back after the trip and using it again to extend my existing wi-fi network at home.

After doing some research on-line, I found out that there was indeed a way to “save” the current configuration of the AirPort Express. For this, I had to use the “Profiles” feature in AirPort Utility, which can be accessed via a pop-up menu at the bottom of the window while editing the device’s configuration manually:


Unfortunately, the user interface for this feature and its use in a real-world context are not really very intuitive. As you can see in the image above, there is no “Save…” command and you have to go through the “Manage Profiles” screen to save the current configuration and create a new one.

I eventually managed to save my current configuration under the name “Maison.”

And then, of course, in order to create the new configuration, I had to mimic the conditions under which I would want to use the AirPort Express as a primary router while on the road. So I turned off my other wi-fi devices and connected my Internet connection directly to the AirPort Express, then used my wife’s laptop to change the configuration and save it under the name “Travel.”

I checked to make sure that the iPad worked fine with the AirPort Express in this new configuration and then unplugged the AirPort Express and packed it up along with an Ethernet cable and a plug adapter for France. (The AirPort Express itself contains its own power supply, which supports voltage values between 100 and 240 V and frequencies between 50 and 60 Hz, so all you need is a plug adapter.)

As indicated, after we got to France, I never had a chance to even use the AirPort Express. So when we got back home yesterday, after unpacking everything, I proceeded to plug the AirPort Express back in and attempt to change its configuration back to “Maison.”

Unfortunately, the AirPort Express in its “Travel” configuration never even showed up in AirPort Utility in the list of available devices on the left. Even after I unplugged my main router, the AirPort Express remained invisible. Of course, it had its blinking amber light on indicating a configuration error, but I still expected it to show up in AirPort Utility.

One option was to once again mimic the conditions on the road by plugging my Internet connection directly into the AirPort Express, but instead I elected to simply use an Ethernet cable to connect the AirPort Express directly to my computer.

Then finally the AirPort Express showed up in the list of devices with its amber light, and finally I was able to use the “Profiles” menu to change its configuration back to the “Maison” profile that I had saved before leaving on vacation.

After that I updated/restarted the AirPort Express, unplugged the Ethernet cable, moved the AirPort Express back to its location in the house where I wanted to use it to extend my wi-fi network, and plugged my main router back in.

Thirty seconds later, I was back in business, with all the wi-fi devices (including my Time Capsule backup) back on and showing a solid green, and everything working as expected again.

Still, this experience leads me to make three observations:

  1. If at all possible, Apple should provide a utility app for the iPad to configure an AirPort base station wirelessly while on the road. I don’t know if there are technical obstacles that prevent Apple from offering such an app, but if there aren’t, then such a utility should be provided as a free app via the App Store.
  2. The user interface for using and managing profiles in AirPort Utility needs to be improved. Wireless devices should show up in the list of devices in AirPort Utility even when they are not properly configured or have a configuration that conflicts with the existing configuration of other wi-fi devices in the vicinity, and the user should be able to change the profile of the conflicting device without having to unplug other devices or otherwise change (even temporarily) the physical set-up of his existing wi-fi network.
  3. In the same vein, I feel that it should be possible to change the configuration of a wireless router such as the AirPort Express without necessarily having to mimic the actual anticipated set-up and apply the changes. One should be able to create a profile and save its settings without being required to apply them right away to the base station.

Other than that, the AirPort Express is a nice, compact device which can fairly easily be taken on the road and I am glad that I have it for future trips, but also as an extender for my existing home network.

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