You likely won't recognize Apple's fifth-generation AirPort Time Capsule, and you definitely won't be able to distinguish it from the new AirPort Extreme Base Station, either.
For the first time since the introduction of Apple's AirPort networking devices, the two share the exact physical shape and size. In fact, other than the internal storage -- which only the Time Capsule has -- they are virtually the same.
Compared with the previous generation, the new Time Capsule is much more compact and noticeably better looking. On top of that, it now supports the new 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard, which offers very fast wireless data speeds when used with 802.11ac-enabled clients. The rest remains unchanged, however, including the internal storage capacities, features, and even the network storage performance.
For existing Time Capsule owners, there isn't a compelling reason to upgrade, unless you have just bought the new MacBook Air, which is the first hardware client from Apple that supports 802.11ac. In this case, the new Time Capsule will be an excellent home network gateway since Time Machine backup and data-sharing will now be much faster via Wi-Fi. Savvy and non-Mac users, however, will still find the new Time Capsule lacking, both in features and customization options, considering it costs $299 for 2TB (or $399 for 3TB).
Easy setup, all new top-down approach to design
The new Time Capsule comes sporting a completely new look, which Apple calls the "new top-down approach" to design. Instead of the traditional squarish tile shape that's been used for years, it now looks like a rectangular tube standing 6.6 inches tall and 3.85 inches wide. This design helps shrink the device's footprint by 75 percent while retaining the same element of style. In fact, I find the new design much better looking, kind of overkill for a networking device that's generally tucked away under the desk.
On its front face, it comes with a tiny status light that glows green when all is working well. The light changes to amber or flashes to indicate that the device needs attention.
On the back, stacking up in a vertical array, there are the usual three LAN ports (to connect wired clients, such as a Mac Pro), and one WAN port (to connect to an Internet source, such as a broadband modem). All of these ports are Gigabit compatible, offering up to 1,000Mbps data speeds. It's kind of disappointing that the Time Capsule doesn't offer more LAN ports, since there seems to be enough space to add more.
What's also disappointing is the USB 2.0 port. By now you'd think Apple could use the support for USB 3.0 on its AirPort devices. This port can be used to host a printer or an external storage device to supplement the Time Capsule's internal drive. It can also be used to archive the content stored on the internal drive to an external one, for data safety. And finally, I'm also a little surprised and disappointed that there's no support for AirPlay, which is available in the AirPort Express that came out last year.
Similar to the previous generation, the new Time Capsule is completely closed in. There's no way to open its casing to replace or service the internal drive on the inside, which, by the way, is a 3.5-inch standard hard drive. The fact that it uses a 3.5-inch model and not a 2.5-inch drive shows just how amazing the new design is: the device's chassis is just barely larger than the hard drive itself.
The device requires AirPort Utility, available as both a desktop software application (Windows and Mac) and a mobile app (iOS) for its initial setup and ongoing management. Using this software, the device can be quickly set up in just a few simple steps. This is mostly because the networking device is rigid and relatively lacking in terms of what it has to offer.
Seamless combination: A Wi-Fi router and a network storage server
At its core, the Time Capsule is a true dual-band router, offering Wi-Fi coverage on both 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency bands at the same time. This means it supports all existing Wi-Fi clients, regardless of their standards and platforms.
As a high-end product, the new networking device supports the current top tier (three-stream) of the new 802.11ac standard, which is available only on the 5GHz band, to offer wireless data speeds of up to 1.3Gbps to 802.11ac-enabled clients. For existing Wireless-N (802.11n) clients, the devices also supports the top tier of this standard to deliver up to 450Mbps data speeds. Note that these are the ceiling speeds of the respective standards. In real-world use, the actual sustained Wi-Fi speeds fluctuate a great deal and are generally much lower than the cap speeds. Nonetheless, the support for higher tiers always means faster speeds. (Read more about Wi-Fi standards here.)
In addition, the Time Capsule also comes with internal storage that can be used to host Time Machine backup files or as a shared folder for connected devices. That said, the device can work both as a Wi-Fi router and a NAS server simultaneously, and for the most part it works well. Unfortunately, it's very limited in terms of features and customization in either of those roles.
A powerful but rigid dual-band Wi-Fi router
As a Wi-Fi router, the Time Capsule is fixed in what it can do, and it lacks certain customization options that are available in almost all other routers on the market -- even those costing just half its price. For example, guest networking -- a feature that allows for creating an isolated Wi-Fi network for guests -- is available only on the 2.4GHz band but not on the 5GHz one. You can reserve IP addresses for connected clients (so that they have the same IP each time they are connected), but this process is very complicated and involves typing in the client's MAC address. It would be much easier to be able to quickly add a connected client to this list. This is similar to the process required when you want to control the access of a client. Again you have to type in its MAC address, which is generally difficult to find.
There's no way to set up Web filtering, in case you want to block a certain Web sites or keywords. You can't customize QoS or firewall services, either, and this means it's not possible to manually prioritize Internet traffic for certain applications, such as media streaming or online gaming.