Apple Time Capsule ReviewS

Apple's updated its Wi-Fi router and backup drive combo, Time Capsule, with a guest mode and simultaneous dual-band wireless. I was pretty surprised at how wireless performance has increased, too.

Apple Time Capsule ReviewS

Apple Time Capsule ReviewS

Apple Time Capsule ReviewS

Before I start explaining little things like speed, it's important to understand that the main reason why Time Capsule is cool is that it's the most easy to use device lazy Mactards like myself can back up their machine to. To do so, you just run a OS X Leopard program called Time Machine, which finds your Time Capsule—or any locally connected hard drive—and uses it as a backup HDD. Every day, more or less, by wireless or wired network, Time Machine (the software) and Time Capsule (the Wi-Fi router with a HDD in it) will continue to log changes you've made to your data. The physical drive inside comes in 1TB or 500GB capacities, and is a server drive rated for continous 24/7 use for quite awhile. [UPDATE: Jason just reminded me that last year, some people found the drives in the old Time Capsule to be rated for as a network server drive, but also, for consumer machines. So it's not as robust as some drives you'd find in, say, a data center.] Last fall, the Time Capsule saved my butt when my laptop's drive died overnight. Miraculously, after dropping in a new HDD, the OS X install discs asked me if I wanted to restore from a previous Time Capsule/Machine backup, and ended up losing only 2 hours of data. Two hours!

There's more on the Time Machine and Capsule relationship in our intial walkthrough review.

So, if you want Mac backup in one simple unit, there is no better solution than a Time Capsule. And this one is slightly improved over the last. But unlike a year ago when the first generation drive came out, there are other options that are slightly cheaper. More on these later, after the TC performance tests.

First, let's look at the improvements Apple has made in this hardware and to the previous generation's via firmware.

Dual Band: Two radios instead of one so you can run in 802.11n on both the 5GHz frequency (very fast, although not as interference or wall/door resistant as 2.4GHz) and on 2.4GHz, while older devices with 802.11b or g simply run on the 2.4 band. The last generation of Time Capsule had both band options, but you had to choose one, and that meant almost always choosing 2.4GHz for max compatibility. Having dual channels—which show up as separate Wi-Fi access points but are on the same network—gives you another lane to drive in while the one is saturated with media streaming, a backup or giant file transfers. Somehow, the new antennas are 6DB stronger than the previous antennas, according to the AP Grapher program.

Apple Time Capsule ReviewS

This resulted in an outdoor walking test of about 100 feet of usable range vs 70 for the old unit, about 30% in a sparse area with few other Wi-Fi signals around. (I tested using the 5GHz N mode on both Time Capsules, and 2.4GHz mode on the second band on the new Time Capsule. In the above chart, you can see the DB ratings, with closer to zero being stronger. In the chart, the SSID "APL-N" is the old Time Cap, and "Network" is the old WRT54AG Linksys router.)

The computers connected to the Time Capsule's N network at between 300 and 270mbits per second. I sent some a file—a 150MB 1080p quicktime trailer to JJ Abram's new Star Trek movie—over the network to a computer on the same type of wi-fi connection and found the new Time Capsule to be slightly faster than the old one and even faster than a top-line Linksys router.

Apple Time Capsule ReviewS

*Shorter times are better.

*One caveat on the newer Linksys WRT610N results—Jason Chen helped me test the new Linksys which he has at his house: The wi-fi congestion in his area is undoubtedly greater in his urban living space, compared to the cabin in the woods where I tested. I'd expect the score to be closer if not on par with the Time Capsule in the woods.

Remote Disk: If you've got Apple's useful $100 per year Mobile Me service, you can access the data on your Time Capsule's drive from anywhere you've got an internet connection, without knowing your IP address.

Apple Time Capsule ReviewS

Mobile Me's service keeps track of the Time Capsule's address and passes it onto your machines that are registered with the service. It shows up as a drive on your Finder's side bar. Handy! But testing showed that the drive did not always show up on remote machines, and there's no clear way to force the remote drive to mount.

Apple Time Capsule ReviewS

Guest Mode: Guest mode is extremely simple, creating a different network SSID and security key (optional) on the 2.4GHz band, while keeping the other two access points for your personal use. It separates the network from all your private network's disks, computers, and shared resources by using a different subnet. Guest mode does not include things we'd like to see, like a way to throttle guest bandwidth. It's not an important or useful feature, unless you're making a habit of letting people you don't trust use your internet. Unlike the Mobile Me remote disk function, guest mode is not a feature available to the old Time Machine by software update.

Apple Time Capsule ReviewS

As before, the Time Capsule also has a USB port which can be used to plug in a second disk or printer, which can be shared on the network. I did not test the USB port with a printer, but our previous tests showed this function to be buggy at times. Using Time Capsule with a secondary storage device is not a bad idea, because Time Machine backups cannot be size limited; they'll use whatever disk space you have available to store the incremental changes in case you want to restore a file's version from a specific date in history. Time Machine backup software can also bog down the network when doing a backup, saturating the airwaves. Other machines in the house can now use the second SSID in such a case, but we also recommend Time Machine Editor, a third-party program that allows you to schedule backups whenever you want them. I use it to schedule backups at 1am when I'm usually not working. (These are annoying shortcomings of Time Machine software, and so not something we can blame the Time Capsule hardware entirely for. Not entirely.)

As before, Time Capsule has one ethernet port for your internet connection, and three gigabit ethernet jacks. That's one too few, in my book.

The unit runs very quietly, and sometimes you can hear the disks spinning up or seeking data, but its quiet enough for the notoriously anti-cooling-fan Steve Jobs. The unit's top runs, according to my heat sensor gun, between 100 and 120 degrees. It's warm, so I wouldn't rest anything on it, which would exasperate the heat build up.

Time Capsule is $500 for a 1TB and $300 for 500GB of storage. That's not a ton of storage for high-end machines these days, and multiple machines will almost certainly require the 1TB setup if you want to keep a moderately detailed history of your computers' data changes. As you'd expect from Apple, that's more than the cost of a 1TB external drive and a nice Wi-Fi router. Unlike when Time Capsule's first-generation box was released, you have options now.

If you have an AirPort Extreme, you can plug in a USB disk to the port on it for Time Capsule backups. If you want a NAS that can do Time Machine backups but also act as an iTunes music server, this HP media box will do the trick (although won't act as a Wi-Fi router). Since the new Time Capsule gets a bit more speed and distance out of it radios, and gets the useless guest mode, a refurbished Time Capsule could be a smart budget buy if those things aren't on your "must have" list. If you're a PC user, there's no Windows equivalent of Time Machine back up software included, nor is there a way to use Time Capsule as a remote disk from across the internet, so this product is not for you.

Regardless of my caveats, I just prefer the Time Capsule to these options as it fits a lot of back up functionality and network performance in one box.

Apple Time Capsule Review

Top wireless performance

Apple Time Capsule Review

Server grade hard drive...maybe

Apple Time Capsule Review

Quiet

Apple Time Capsule Review

Easiest backup hardware ever for lazy mac users

Apple Time Capsule Review

Mobile Me remote disk function

Apple Time Capsule Review

Costs a bit more than separate Wi-Fi routers with a USB drive plugged in

Apple Time Capsule Review

Guest mode can't throttle down bandwidth

Apple Time Capsule Review

Remote disk doesn't always mount

Apple Time Capsule Review

PC Support is non existent for back up and remote disk

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UPDATE: After a month of use, the Time Capsule unit I received has died. I've also had the radios seize up and stop working entirely, twice. It's less stable than the first generation unit. I also would like to see a quality of service feature for prioritizing bandwidth to apps, as well as a way to decide which machines/ports get higher priority traffic on the network. These things are standard on Linksys routers.