SOLVED: Setting up a 2nd generation AirPort Express to Extend an AirPort Extreme’s Wireless Network

So, I bought a 2nd generation Apple AirPort Express to extend the wireless network of my AirPort Extreme (it’s actually a Time Capsule, but the Time Capsule is basically just an AirPort Extreme with an internal hard drive). We’ve got a couple corner’s of the house — upstairs — that are more-or-less dead zones, so the AirPort Express seemed like a no-brainer.

I unboxed the Express and jumped right in. No problem right? Apple gear is always a breeze to set up*… Sat down at my iMac, fired up AirPort Utility, and plugged in the Express. After a minute or so, AirPort Utility recognized the uninitialized Express and I proceeded to name it and AirPort Utility took care of the rest. The only thing is, I kept getting “an unrecognized error has occurred.” Try and try what I might, “unrecognized error.”

Now, I’m no “hardware expert” by any stretch of the imagination, but I have been a professional software engineer for a long, long time, and it’s impossible to be a competent software developer without at least a good fundamental understanding of hardware; I like to think I have substantially more than a “good fundamental understanding.”

So, in the best traditions of my profession, when all else fails: RTFM! A quick glance at the setup guide revealed nothing, so I downloaded the PDF of the setup guide so I could search it for “extend” — well, that word appears exactly twice in that document, on a single page in a single sentence:

If the network is set up to be extended, AirPort Express can extend the range of that network.

Ok, no help there, I’m going to have to turn to the Inter-thingy… I have now spent the better part of two nights trying every piece of advice I could find in the Apple Support Communities and elsewhere online. I’ve searched just about every combination of “2nd generation AirPort Express,” “AirPort Extreme,” “extend wireless network,” etc. that you can think of. Nothing — NOTHING — I have tried has worked, and in fact, most of the information available online is outdated.

Finally, tonight, in a fit of exasperation, I decided to do something unheard of: forget all the other people’s online instructions and use my own noggin. Here’s what I did…

First, I used AirPort Utility to reset the Express to default factory settings, by selecting the Express in AirPort Utility and from the “Base Station” menu (on the menu bar) clicking “Restore Default Settings…” After the Express had been reset and had restarted, I plugged an Ethernet cable into the Express and into the Extreme (which everyone says to do, but it’s not that simple). At this point, AirPort Utility helpfully set up the Express, yet again, to extend my Extreme’s network, but AirPort Utility insists on extending the network via “wired” and not “wireless”, which is of no use… hang with me.

Once this was completed, I took a look, yet again, at the settings for the Express, which is where I noticed that AirPort Utility had configured the Express for a Network Mode of “Create a Wireless Network.” Once I changed that to “Extend a Wireless Network” and selected the Extreme’s wireless network, I was able to click the “Update” button, wait for the Express to apply the update and restart and voilà — this time when I unplugged the Ethernet cable, the Express kept its solid green light. It worked, but then again, I’ve been here before…

So, lastly, I unplugged the power cord for the Express and waited for AirPort Utility to notice that it was gone. Then I plugged the power cord back in… solid amber light — ok, it’s starting up… still solid amber… still solid amber… gee, I don’t remember it being solid amber this long… Damn! Now it’s flashing amber like every other time before… BUT WAIT! What’s this? A solid green light? Quick, check AirPort Utility. YES! AirPort Utility is showing a solid white line between “Internet” and “Time Capsule” and a dashed white line between “Time Capsule” and “AirPort Express” — and both are showing solid green status in AirPort Utility.

Finally, it worked. So now the Express is upstairs, AirPort Utility is indicating that it has “Excellent” signal strength, and I’m a happy camper.

If only I’d have stopped long enough to t-h-i-n-k for a moment last night, instead of jumping on the Inter-thingy to get the sure-fire instructions…

yeah, in a minute…
* In my experience, over the last decade or so, Apple gear has always been a breeze to set up: iMacs, Mac Minis, MacBook Pros, the AirPort Extreme/Time Capsule and dozens of iPhones and iPads for myself and my family…
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