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ATPM 14.06
June 2008



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Hardware Review

by Tom Bridge,

Time Capsule (1 TB)


Developer: Apple

Price: $299 (500 GB); $499 (1 TB)

Requirements: Mac OS X 10.5 for Time Machine functions.

Trial: None

Ever had that moment, when you fired up your Mac and something just wasn’t right? A key file was missing, or maybe the drive itself was on its way to the big bit bucket in the sky? The shaking starts, the irrational panic follows next and, sometimes, the crying ensues. Time Machine, as part of Leopard, was designed to help save our tears, and our files. When I bought Leopard for my MacBook Pro, I also bought a 500 GB drive to keep a good archival record of my Mac’s files.

But Time Machine works best when you’re constantly plugged into your backup drive. If you back up infrequently, there’s a lengthy scanning component that must take place if you’re not always connected to your Time Machine volume. Lately, I’d been backing up to my external drive about twice a week via Time Machine.


Configuring Time Capsule and Time Machine.

And then Apple released the Time Capsule. We’d been “promised” network backup via Time Machine in early Leopard betas, according to several Web publications, but when Leopard came out, it was oddly absent. Many surmised that networked backups over wireless were too much of a strain for Time Machine’s capabilities. I suggest that our experience with the Time Capsule is a confirmation that backup over wireless isn’t quite as easy as it’s made out to be. But I’m getting ahead of myself.


Time Capsule, hooked up to the network.

Let’s talk about our network a little bit. There are three computers and a few random other devices hanging out on our network. My condo has a serious flaw, in that the central wall that separates the living quarters (and the network gear) and the office is made with two layers of cinder block, which means that wireless to the back half of the house is shaky at best, and Ethernet is impossible. Thus, the Time Capsule took over as the WDS “main,” and our 802.11n AirPort Base Station moved to the back of the house as the WDS “remote.” This process was made incredibly simple by the new version of the base station software that ships with the Time Capsule.


WDS configuration on the Time Capsule.

If you’re giving thought to picking up a new base station, put down the Time Capsule as Apple’s single best wireless router in a long line of successful models that it’s put on the market for home networking. (Let’s just pretend that the incredibly unreliable and rightly-maligned “Snow” base station never existed, shall we? Good, I’ve already suppressed memory of it.) The initial setup allowed me to simply swap the profile of the old base station for the new one. Five minutes from plugging it in, I had switched my network over to the Time Capsule. The last time I switched out network hardware, it was a good half-hour, and there was a lot of cursing going on.


Time Capsule with AirPort Extreme (802.11n) for size comparison.

The Time Capsule has an added feature not previously available to other AirPort equipment: an internal disk. Time Capsule’s disk comes in two sizes: Large (500 GB) and Really Large (1 TB), and it features a Hitachi DeskStar drive (on a Serial ATA bus) wired directly into the main board of the Time Capsule. The disk is available as network-attached storage, once you’ve set it up to be shared over your wireless and wired network, and it works pretty well as a common stomping ground for your home network. If you’re looking for a way to share files to a common place on your network, accessible to all who may cross it, this is definitely a lot cheaper than a Mac mini running Sharepoints—and certainly just as effective.


File Sharing configuration for the new Time Capsule drive.

But there’s a bigger problem here. The Time Capsule isn’t just a base station or network-attached storage. The Time Capsule’s got a bigger purpose on your network. It’s supposed to be a repository for your backed-up data. And, in terms of capacity, it does well: 1 TB is certainly the right place to be in terms of storage for a couple of users, and if it’s just you on your network, 500 GB ought to be fine. But this is where the Time Capsule fell down for us. And why it’s taken me literally days to write this half of the review.

I want to like the Time Capsule. I do. I’ve really come to love Time Machine on its external drive. But Time Capsule wasn’t quite as nice. Sometimes when you go to the dealership for your car’s periodic maintenance, the dealer gives you the next model up for the day. You drive around town in the sweet little ride that reminds you why you spend serious money on cars. When I took my last car in for its last periodic maintenance, I was given a clunker for the day. That’s how Time Capsule felt in comparison to our Time Machine experience.

My wife’s MacBook Pro was the first machine we added to the Time Capsule. We set her up to back up before going to bed and let Time Machine store its backup on the Time Capsule. It worked pretty well, copying some 90 GB of data to the remote volume in the following three-day period. Yeah, that’s a good long time to saturate the AirPort network, but it didn’t overly affect tasks such as surfing or e-mail, or even some light compositional work in the suites of graphics tools put in our hands by many independent developers. It really didn’t get along too well with processor-intensive World of Warcraft, though, bogging down the frame rate inside the game, and the process of the Time Machine backup in the background. But it completed. It was about a week later when the problems began.


The Disks configuration section of the new AirPort Utility.

We ran into trouble with the disk image not properly mounting for further backup. At first, these were intermittent errors that would be fixed with a restart of the Time Capsule, but even that wouldn’t solve our problems after awhile. So we started over. We deleted the old backup off the disk and took a Time Machine backup to disk over FireWire, then reset the target to the Time Capsule. We spooled out a cable in our living room to make the first backup over Ethernet and reduced the time of the initial backup from three days down to a single day. But again, the disk image would slowly be unmountable and unusable.

In the middle of this, I tried to set up my laptop to back up to the Time Capsule, but I experienced the same problem that my wife did when it came to transfer speed. I have about 100 GB of data, and in an overnight running of Time Capsule, only about 25 GB of data was moved to the Time Capsule, meaning I’d be looking at an initial set-up of about four days to take a good “first backup” to the Time Capsule. After day two, I gave up and went back to my external disk, dejected. I may return to the Time Capsule’s wireless capabilities, once I have a weekend to leave my MacBook Pro tethered to the Ethernet for another shot on an initial transfer, but with my wife’s issues with her disk images corrupting over the course of a few weeks, why risk it? Why not wait for 10.5.3 or 10.5.4 and firmware version 7.3.2 or 7.3.3?

So, as a base station, Time Capsule is without question the best that Apple’s made. It balances our mixed-use network, featuring a good number of wireless and wired devices quite well. The range on it is quite good and even penetrates our normally opaque-to-wireless exterior walls, with my iPhone picking up usable signals about 60 feet outside of my front door (to my considerable surprise!). However, the backup functions just aren’t reliable enough, or fast enough, for me to recommend this to anyone who’s using a laptop as her primary computer. Those with iMacs and Mac Pros might consider it as a useful utility, as those machines are much less likely to be go traipsing off to the coffee shop for a latte and the Sunday Times crossword, or to a client site for some planning work. But if you have an iMac or a Mac Pro, you can stay tethered to a FireWire or USB drive just as easily. Wait for the next version, I think.

Reader Comments (20)

Robert Leitao (ATPM Staff) · May 30, 2008 - 02:36 EST #1
I like Time Capsule. My experiences have been a bit different than the ones detailed in this review.

I've been using it as a wireless backup for five Macs in my home and although a few early glitches occurred, it's now working quite well and provides peace of mind our Macs are backed up each hour.

As mentioned above, as a wireless router the Time Capsule is top-notch. Migrating my household's Airport gear to 802.11n has provided a noticeable increase is wireless networking speed and range. Time Capsule is an 802.11n Airport device.

Anyone buying a Time Capsule should do the first backup on each Mac via of Ethernet cable rather than wirelessly. It saves time and it saves hassles.

Most of my early problems were solved by connecting to the Time Capsule on each Mac via of the Finder's "Go" menu before commencing the first backup. Making the connection to Time Capsule's hard drive before the backup began via of Time Machine reduced issues to almost nil.

The sparsebundle format used by Apple for Time Machine backups can create issues if backups are not done regularly. Time Machine is not designed to be used only sporadically or infrequently. Time Capsule is the not the culprit in many of the cases when backups go awry.

While I don't suggest Time Capsule is "perfect," I do believe it accomplishes its assigned tasks and makes backing up a household full of Macs much easier and more practical.
Robert Leitao (ATPM Staff) · May 31, 2008 - 11:05 EST #2
A quick update:

Apple's Mac OS X, 10.5.3 update (free to users of Leopard) fixes some compatibility issues between Time Machine and Time Capsule. It's available through the Software Update System Preference.
Michael Moon · June 3, 2008 - 00:07 EST #3
I had some of the same problems as this reviewer. I've had my 1T TC for almost 3 months. About 3 weeks into using the TC, the disk image would not mount no matter what I did. It was frustrating to have to delete the backup and spend an entire day with my MacBook tethered by ethernet to complete the new backup. Also, I have not been able to use the 7.3.1 firmware update because it would make the connection spotty. I'm using the 7.3 version just fine. I don't know if the latest OS X 10.5.3 update fixed this issue, but I'm not going to gamble another day of backing up to find out.
Robert Leitao (ATPM Staff) · June 3, 2008 - 00:45 EST #4

I'm surprised you needed an entire day to complete a MacBook backup via of Ethernet. I do recommend the first Time Capsule back be done by Ethernet. I've backed up four Mac portables (plus an Intel iMac) on the 1TB Time Capsule. The portables range in vintage from an old G4 PowerBook (circa 2002) to two Core 2 Duo MacBooks. Using Ethernet each backup was from beginning to end accomplished in about two hours.

I'm not going to dismiss the reported Time Capsule issues. I've chosen to use an equally aged FireWire drive for my G4 PowerBook after realizing slow wireless backup speeds.

I don't think Time Capsule is as useful for Macs using more antiquated Airport cards. It works best (obviously) with 802.11n equipped Macs.

That said, I've discovered it's darn near essential to keep each Mac on an automated backup regimen rather than using Time Machine and Time Capsule as a periodic or occasional back up solution.

The longer the periods between incremental backups the greater the number of potential issues. I performed the 7.5.3 update on all of my Macs in active use and upgraded them to iWork '08 and iLife '08 the same weekend. The collective changes to the drive on each Mac from the update and upgrades required Time Capsule backups of about 1.9 GBs per Mac. By keeping the Time Machine backup regimen hourly, I believe I've avoided many of the reported issues.
Michael Tsai (ATPM Staff) · June 3, 2008 - 09:38 EST #5
Robert: Two hours? What's your secret? I direct-connected a Core 2 Duo iMac and a Time Capsule over gigabit Ethernet, and it took 9 hours to restore about 40 GB of data, and about that long again to make a new backup.
J Franklin · June 3, 2008 - 11:28 EST #6
I'm not surprised the author had problems - he kept using the computer for all sorts of tasks while the backup was in progress. The is not common sense even if it worked. I would have closed all apps and let the computer do the full backup unburdened by Worlds of Warcraft.
bob · June 3, 2008 - 11:36 EST #7
did you upgrade the firmware? the new firmware seems to improve slow initial backup times.

i don't use my time capsule for wireless, just for backup. i have an airport express for the main wireless distribution along with a house-wide gigabit wired network. the backup function of time machine/capsule has been flawless. the main problem i've been having is with the print server. it's been very touchy, having to find the correct printer (it shows 2 of the same printer with different names) or even having to restart the damn thing several times to reset the print options. i must admit it's been very steady of late, but i never had any problems using another airport express as the print server. the freeware program "timemachineeditor" has been the thing that has made the capsule cool. i only backup once a day so it doesn't clog up my processing or network every hour. i have 3 machines hooked to my time capsule and it's great automated peace-of-mind.
Mark · June 3, 2008 - 17:53 EST #8
Can you really do the first full backup via Ethernet than do the follow-ups by wifi?

I know it can't be done with an Airdisk on an AEBS but didn't know it could be done with Time Capsule.

Robert Leitao (ATPM Staff) · June 4, 2008 - 01:05 EST #9

The first backup can be done via of Ethernet. I also recommend it. Subsequent backups can be made via if WiFi.

Michael T:

*The only* step I take that isn't in the documentation is before doing the initial backup I connect to the drive via of the Finder's "Go" menu.

It's eliminated most of my issues and has significantly sped up the backup process. It's worked will on all five of my active Macs. Again, the first backup should be done via of Ethernet.

I connected to the drive via of the Finder's "Go" menu before commencing the backup on a retry. I had a Core 2 Duo MacBook that was taking too much time in my view to complete its first backup. I trashed the previous backup effort and started over. This step has worked extraordinarily well on all of my Macs. It's even provided for quick incremental backups following major software upgrades and the 7.5.3 OS X upgrade release.

The extra step also eliminated the issues on a Time Capsule back for an associate who called me frustrated with the slow pace of her Time Capsule backup routines and after a couple of failed backup efforts.
Sylvester Roque (ATPM Staff) · June 4, 2008 - 10:46 EST #10
Thanks for the thorough review Tom. I have been considering purchasing one of these if my current NAS drive can't be repaired/replaced. Although it would be used mainly for storage, I am interested in the backup issues everyone has raised.

Great job as usual guys. Lots of good food for thought.
bc · June 4, 2008 - 16:41 EST #11
Two days after I bought a 1 TB TC, my new MacBook hard drive died. I biked down to the Apple Store, had them replace the drive (free, of course, under warranty), biked back home, asked TC to restore the drive, went off dinner and a play, and when I came back 5 or so hours later, all 100 gigs (from a 160 GB hard drive) had been restored. Whew! My last CD backup had been a week earlier; so saving me that week of work alone was worth the price of TC.
So far, for me, TC has done exactly what I expected when I bought it: automatically wirelessly and reliably backing up my MacBook and my wife's PowerBook, plus taking over as our AirPort router, allowing us to use our old Airport Express to beam music from our computers to our stereo using AirTunes.
robert Leitao (ATPM Staff) · June 6, 2008 - 00:02 EST #12

I appreciate your posting the story. I'd like to emphasize for our readers the need to maintain a regular Time Capsule backup regiment. using the device only sporadically may increase the incidence of issues.

My concerns now are less about the durability or stability of the solution, but limits of back up space with several Macs using the drive.

I've taken time to reduce duplications of photos and movies among user accounts and multiple Macs to preserve space.
Michael Moon · June 16, 2008 - 17:52 EST #13
It's now June 16, and I've had the TC 1TB for a bit over three months. Again, the disk image is not mounting (as described above in my earlier comment). Time Machine spends hours in the 'Preparing Backup' mode. I'm actually beginning to wonder whether Time Machine is worth all of this anxiety and aggravation. This product has been a disappointment for me. I have OS X 10.5.3 and the 7.3.1 firmware update installed. You will find in the Apple Support Discussion
Rex Handle · June 25, 2008 - 17:47 EST #14
I purchased a 500GB TC about a month ago, with the hopes that it would live up to its hype. To this day, the TC will not stay mounted as an external drive. Backups are working, but I would also like to use this for iTunes and iPhoto sources to save room on my main MacBook drive. All software is up to date, by the way. False advertising by Apple, as war as I can tell.
Robert Leitao (ATPM Staff) · July 6, 2008 - 16:52 EST #15

Be sure to log into the drive through the shared devices window.
Robert Leitao (ATPM Staff) · July 6, 2008 - 16:56 EST #16
A quick update: Last night I backed up a new iMac on the Time Capsule drive. It worked flawlessly via of Airport without the need for an Ethernet-based initial backup.

I suspect the recent Airport updates have improved Time Capsule reliability. I suggest users install the recent updates.
Gustavo Wiederhecker · July 21, 2008 - 00:21 EST #17
Hello guys, I have a Macbook (2.16 GHz core duo) and I am strongly considering buying a 500 GB TC. The 2 main reasons I want it are: 1) Maybe getting less wireless interference issues (or any other reason) that causes my Leopard Airport signal to be constantly dropping. I am using a "g" router and although I experienced this problem with Tiger, it seems to be happen much more often in Leopard.
2) Be able to do wireless backups. I don't mind doing it every other day, however I must admit that some problems people reported here really frightened me.

So, anyone had any of the above reported issues solved after the latest 10.5.4 Leopard upgrade?
Thanks for the thorough discussions.
Paolo Ciancarini · August 20, 2008 - 12:54 EST #18
I got the same problems in my initial very very slow backup. I got a decisive improvement when I disabled Spotlight on the backup, using the "privacy" option of Spotlight in System preferences.
Marc Gray · September 3, 2008 - 08:04 EST #19
I love my 1 TB T.C.
It works perfectly.
Joel Davenport · December 12, 2008 - 12:02 EST #20
For a wireless hub -- it's better than anything I've ever tried. The Time Capsule backup has worked well for me, too. Unlike the reviewer, it took my Macbook only 7 hours to do a full system backup of 81 gigabytes of data. However, I was going to airport the load to my new macbook pro and it said it would take more than 17 hours to do so... I just used the migration assistant and airport connected my machines and did it in 9 hours instead. ;)

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