The Time Capsule's support for USB external hard drives is much better than for USB printers, and better than the Airport Extreme Base Station's support, as well. Still, it's far from perfect.
The Time Capsule doesn't read drives formatted in the NTFS file system--only files formatted as FAT32 and Mac OS Extended. In general, it's more difficult to format a drive larger than 32GB using FAT32 than using NTFS. This means that because the majority of external hard drives nowadays are much larger than 32GB, Windows users can't simply plug most of their USB external hard drives into the router and expect to share the data contained on it. If you are willing to reformat your hard drive, you'll need to use a computer to do so, as Time Capsule doesn't include a formatting function.
Unlike the Airport Extreme Base Station, the Time Capsule quickly recognized our external hard drive formatted using FAT32, and it worked as well as when it was formatted in the Mac OS Extended file system. Once the drive was plugged in, the Time Capsule instantly recognized the drives and started sharing them. Sharing worked well in Windows, too.
The hard drives can be shared only as one shared folder, however. You can't make multiple folders and share them separately with different access privileges, which is a common NAS feature. You can, however, use the Airport Utility to create user accounts that each has a private folder of its own.
The Time Capsule's internal hard drive allows you to erase its content or manually archive it to an external hard drive. You can also change the default share name to whatever you like. Unfortunately, you can't physically access or replace the hard drive by yourself. (Most of the NAS servers we've reviewed, and even some external hard drives, allow users to replace the internal hard drives.)
Other than file sharing, the Time Capsule offers none of the more popular NAS features. You cannot use the device as an iTunes or Media server to stream digital content from the device to computers, set-top boxes, or game consoles--ironic, given that most other NAS servers we've tested feature a server for Apple's own iTunes software. In addition, the Time Capsule can't download files by itself or work as an FTP or an HTTP server--both features normally found in NAS servers.
The Time Capsule lets Mac users access the shared folder remotely via the Internet using a MobileMe account--$99 a year, after a 60-day free trial. In our tests, everything worked just as it would if the computer were connected to the device directly via its wireless or wired connection. The share folder appeared the same as when we accessed it via the local network, but it took a little longer because of the Internet connection. We could also access the Time Capsule's settings this way using the Airport Utility. Sadly, remote access is not available for Windows users, even if you use a MobileMe account.
It's important, however, to note that the remote access might not work at all if you access the Internet via a corporate network, where, according to Apple, certain services of the Base Station could be blocked for security reasons. Though it's true that corporations tend have tight control over their networks, other NAS servers' remote access features, such as those of the WD My Book World Edition, worked fine with our corporate network. The Apple Time Capsule and the Airport Extreme Base Station didn't.
How the Time Capsule shares files with remote users is disappointing. While other NAS servers, like the Synology DS107+ or the WD My Book World Edition, allow users to share files with multiple users or share photo albums, Time Capsule only works with one MobileMe account at a time.
Note that unlike the Time Capsule, most other routers support DDNS, which lets you set up remote access without having to pay anything at all. You do, however, need some networking know-how to make that work.
If you have Mac OS 10.5 (Leopard) installed, the Time Capsule works very well with Time Machine, Apple's fancy backup software. All you need to do is run the Time Machine utility and choose the Time Capsule as the backup destination. The actual time to do a backup job, however, could be very long, depending on the amount of data you have on the computer's hard drive. Generally, you will want to connect the computer to the Time Capsule via one of its three wired connections for the first backup job. If you have a large hard drive with a lot of data, be prepared to leave it running overnight for the initial backup.
For Windows users that want to use Time Capsule as a robust backup solution, you'll need to invest in a backup software application such as Acronis. Though the built-in backup utilities of both Windows XP and Windows Vista work with Time Capsule (as they would with any external storage device), they--especially that of Windows XP--are far from comprehensive. Most network storage devices we've reviewed come bundled with backup software and don't require additional utilities to work comprehensively in Windows.
The Time Capsule doesn't incorporate a way to automatically back up the content of its internal hard drive onto an external drive, so to preserve your important files and data, you'll have to do it manually.
Just like the Airport Extreme Base Station, the Apple Time Capsule features a built-in firewall and supports WPA, WPA2, and 128-bit WEP for wireless encryption. It also supports RADIUS access control, so you can manage wireless clients from a centralized location.
Time Capsule doesn't allow parents to filter specific Web sites, but it will let them set time limits for kids' access, provided they follow the steps to get the MAC address for their kids' computers.
We tested the Time Capsule's throughput speeds the same way we tested the Airport Extreme Base Station's: by copying data from one computer to another using its wireless connection. This means the scores--while much lower than the theoretical throughout speed of the Wireless-N specification--are the actual sustained-data rates, after all the software- and hardware-overhead and interference.
On our throughput test, the Time Capsule performed better than the Airport Extreme Base Station in the 5GHz band, scoring 70.16Mbps. At this speed, it would finish transmitting 500GB of data in about 57 seconds. On our range test, where the client was 100 feet away, the Time Capsule scored 57.8Mbps--a tad slower than the 59Mbps of the Airport Extreme Base Station.
Like the Base Station, the Time Capsule performed worse in the 2.4GHz band, scoring 32.2Mbps for the throughput test and 20.8Mbps for the range test. In our mixed mode test, where it was set to work with both Wireless-N and Wireless-G clients simultaneously, it scored 20Mbps. These scores were among the slowest of high-end routers.
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
On the other hand, the Time Capsule offers very good range. In our testing facility, which is an office building and is not optimized for wireless range, we were able to hold a steady connection to the Time Capsule from farther than 300 feet in the 2.4GHz band and from about 280 feet in the 5GHz band. Both of these numbers are very impressive.
(Throughput in Mbps. Longer bars indicate better performance)
Since the Time Capsule has built-in storage, we tested it the way we test other NAS servers: by copying data between the router and a computer using a gigabit wired connection. We used a 7GB file and timed how long it took for the system to write the file to the NAS's hard drive and read it back. The scores were low, achieving only 81.2Mbps for the write test and 114.2 for the read test. These were the slowest numbers among the NAS servers we've reviewed this year. Compared with NAS servers we reviewed in 2008, the scores were about average.
The router ran hot throughout our testing, which made us concerned about the device's lifespan. We recommend you leave it in an open, well-ventilated location when in use.
Service and support
Like with the Airport Extreme Base Station, Apple backs the new Time Capsule with one year of standard support, which is short, considering it has a nonremovable, built-in hard drive, and runs hot. You can and should purchase an extended AppleCare coverage plan. Also, if your Apple computer or Apple TV is covered under AppleCare, Time Capsule is also covered. The device comes with 90 days of complimentary, toll-free phone support. At Apple's site, you can view FAQs, troubleshooting articles, user forums, and download manuals and software.