Apple AirPort Time Capsule review: Fast Wi-Fi and easy backup for Mac fans

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.

Overall, if you simply want to share data, back up using Time Machine, and access the Internet, as a router the new AirPort Time Capsule works well. Those wanting more, however, might find its lack of flexibility frustrating.

Similar to previous generations, the new Time Capsule has just three LAN ports and supports USB 2.0.
Similar to previous generations, the new Time Capsule has just three LAN ports and supports USB 2.0. Dong Ngo/CNET

Great for Time Machine and file sharing; no media server or Windows remote access
As a NAS server, the Time Capsule might be the best host for Time Machine backup for Mac users. You can set this up with just a few clicks, and after that backups are automatic and require no interaction from users. With up to 3TB of storage space, you can easily backup multiple Macs without worrying about running out of memory. And when you do, you can archive the backups to an external hard drive, then wipe the Time Capsule and start over from the beginning. Unfortunately, you can't use the external drive itself directly as the destination for Time Machine backup, but just for archive and data sharing.

Note that the Time Capsule doesn't support external drives formatted using NTFS (Windows) and doesn't offer the option to format a connected external drive to the HFS+ (Mac) file system for you. In other words, to use an external drive with the Time Capsule, you first need to make sure it's already formatted using HFS+ or FAT.

Other than that, the Time Machine can also function as an excellent file server, where you can share data stored on both its internal drive or on one that's plugged in via the USB port, securely. There are three sharing options: via user accounts, via a disk password, or via the device's password. In a local network, the file-sharing works on both Macs and Windows. On a Mac, the Time Machine will automatically appear in Finder. On a Windows machine, it was a bit trickier but I was able to locate the shared folder via the Time Machine's IP address, which is 10.0.1.1, by default. After that I could browse the content and map network drives. You can also opt to use the Time Capsule as a print server, which is also very easy to set up if the printer is supported (most new printers are). Since there's only one USB port, you can only use one printer or one external hard drive at a time.

Remote file and printer sharing, however, works only for Macs. To do this you just need to enable "Back to My Mac" features on both the Time Machine and the Mac itself. After that, the Time Capsule will still automatically appear on Finder even when you're out and about, as long as your Mac is connected to the Internet. However, the data performance will now, obviously, depend on the connection to the Internet, both where you are and at home, where the Time Capsule is.

With Back to My Mac, you can enable remote access to the Time Capsule's storage via the Internet, a feature available only for Mac users.
With Back to My Mac, you can enable remote access to the Time Capsule's storage via the Internet, a feature available only for Mac users. Screenshot by Dong Ngo/CNET

Other than that, there's nothing else to the Time Capsule's storage-based features. And this means there's no media streaming options that allow for streaming digital content, either stored on the Time Capsule's internal storage or on the connected external hard drive, to connected devices. In other words, if you put music, photos, or videos on the Time Capsule's storage, they won't be available to network media streamers, such as the Roku or the WD TV, or even the Apple TV. You can't use the Time Machine as a server for FTP or Web functions, either.

That said, if you buy a different 802.11ac router, such as one from this list (most of them cost in the vicinity of $170), and a home NAS server, such as the Seagate Central, which costs another $170 for 3TB, you can easily get a lot more out of your home network -- including the native support for Time Machine backup -- than what the new Time Capsule can accomplish, and for a lower cost. But if you do, you'll miss out on the new, compact design.

Fast but not furious performance

The Time Capsule offered overall very fast performance in my testing, but it wasn't the fastest I've seen in all categories. This doesn't mean it wasn't impressive, however. I tested it as a dual-band Wi-Fi router as well as a single-volume NAS server.

As a router, when used with with 802.11ac clients, it scored 254Mbps for short range, about average compared with other 802.11ac routers. When I extended the distance to 100 feet, it scored 219Mbps, placing it as the second fastest on the chart, just behind the 221Mbps of the D-Link DIR-868L. Note that 802.11ac is available only on the 5GHz frequency band.

CNET Labs 802.11ac performance
(In megabits per second; longer bars indicate better performance)
Range  
Throughput  
D-Link DIR-868L
221 
271 
Apple AirPort Time Capsule
219 
254 
Netgear R6300
208 
331.32 
Trendnet TEW-812DRU
192.4 
263 
Asus RT-AC66U
178.5 
339.2 
AirStation WZR-D1800H
144 
233.6 
D-Link DIR-865L
135.2 
199.2 
Cisco Linksys EA6500
113 
244.5 
Belkin AC 1200 DB
57 
162.6 

With Wireless-N clients, on the 5GHz band, the Time Capsule scored 182Mbps and 118Mbps for short and long range, respectively, making it about average among its competition. On the 2.4GHz band, it topped the chart at short range with 84Mbps but didn't impress much with 28Mbps in the long-range test, which was just average.

CNET Labs 5GHz Wireless-N Performance
(In megabits per second; longer bars indicate better performance)
Range  
Throughput  
D-Link DIR-857
172.4 
214.6 
Asus RT-AC66U
166.6 
208.2 
Trendnet TEW-812DRU
160 
195.3 
WD My Net N900 HD
74 
195 
Belkin N900 DB
138.2 
189.6 
Linksys EA4500
176.8 
186.8 
Cisco Linksys E4200 v.2
122.2 
185.6 
Apple AirPort Time Capsule
117.7 
182.2 
Asus RT-N66U
155.3 
181.8 
Netgear R6300
144.8 
178.8 
D-Link DIR-868L
161.5 
178 
AirStation WZR-D1800H
120 
172 
Netgear WNDR4500
92.7 
152.8 
D-Link DIR-865L
121.6 
147.6 
Cisco Linksys EA6500
105.7 
124.6 
Trendnet TEW-692GR
105.8 
116.1 
Belkin AC 1200 DB
79 
116.1 
CNET Labs 2.4GHz Wireless-N Performance
(In megabits per second; longer bars indicate better performance)
Range  
Throughput  
Apple AirPort Time Capsule
27.6 
83.8 
Trendnet TEW-692GR
31.3 
77.8 
Netgear WNDR4000
23.9 
67.8 
D-Link DIR-868L
55.6 
63.3 
Linksys EA4500
41.6 
62.4 
WD My Net N900 HD
16 
58.1 
Asus RT-N66U
45.5 
55 
Trendnet TEW-812DRU
37 
52.8 
Netgear R6300
41.6 
51.2 
Belkin N750 DB
26.6 
50 
Cisco Linksys EA6500
33.6 
48.8 
D-Link DIR-857
29.6 
47.8 
Netgear WNDR4500
31.1 
45.3 
Asus RT-AC66U
15.2 
36.8 
D-Link DIR-865L
22.1 
36 
Belkin AC 1200 DB
9.6 
33.5 

The Time Capsule offered about the same range as the previous generation, up to about 270 feet away. Its effective range, however, is within approximately 150 feet or less, which is rather standard for a dual-band router. Note that Wi-Fi range varies a great deal depending on the environment. The device also passed my 24-hour stress test, during which it didn't disconnect once.

As a NAS server, when connected to a computer via wired Gigabit connection, the Time Capsule offered 26MBps and 29MBps, respectively, for writing and reading. These are fast speeds, about the same as that of a USB 2.0 external hard drive. However they are almost exactly the same speeds offered by the previous generation of Time Capsule. Compared with single-volume dedicated home NAS servers, the Time Capsule was still significantly slower. Nonetheless, its speed is fast enough for most data-sharing and Time Machine backup needs. And if you use 802.11ac-enabled Mac, note that Time Machine backup would then be about three times faster than with the previous Time Capsule.

CNET Labs NAS Performance
(Via wired Gigabit Ethernet connection; measured in megabytes per second;
longer bars indicate better performance)
Read  
Write  
Buffalo CloudStor
78.6 
44 
Seagate Central
74.4 
39.5 
Apple AirPort Time Capsule (Summer 2013)
28.67 
25.8 
Corsair Voyager Air
50.4 
19.7 
Asus RT-AC66U
9.6 
16.7 
Asus RT-N66U
11 
16.5 
D-Link DIR-868L
12.81 
12.5 
Asus RT-56U
13 
11.9 
Belkin N900 DB
17.6 
9.1 
D-Link DIR-827
15.8 
8.5 
Netgear WNDR4500
8.2 
7.9 
Netgear WNDR4000
7.2 
6.5 
Belkin N750 DB
6.9 
2.7 

The new AirPort Time Capsule comes with a well-designed ventilation integrated on its base that worked very well. The device remained cool even during heavy load and emitted no noise. Overall, it performed very well in my testing and projects a sense of quality and reliability.

Conclusion
It's fair to say that the AirPort Time Capsule isn't for everyone. Windows users and anyone who needs any measure of advanced networking features -- redundant backup, user-swappable internal hard drives, flexible admin tools -- should look elsewhere. The same goes for those seeking a flexible streamer for local media files.

But unlike nearly all of the competition, the new Time Capsule is attractive enough to be displayed openly, rather than staying buried behind your desk. Mac users looking for real-world file backup paired with superfast 802.11ac Wi-Fi will find a lot to love here, especially if they value ease of use.

Don't Miss

 

ARTICLE DISCUSSION

Conversation powered by Livefyre

Quick Specifications See All

  • Total Storage Capacity 3 TB
  • Type standard
  • Data Link Protocol IEEE 802.11b
  • Compatibility Mac
About The Author

CNET editor Dong Ngo has been involved with technology since 2000, starting with testing gadgets and writing code for CNET Labs' benchmarks. He now manages CNET San Francisco Labs, reviews networking and storage products, and also writes about other topics from online security to new gadgets and how technology impacts the life of people around the world.