Editors' note (July 8, 2011): This is an older version of the Apple Time Capsule. The current (June 2011) versions of the Time Capsule can be found here: Apple Time Capsule (2TB) | Apple Time Capsule (3TB).
Editors' note: Apple recently released a new revision of Time Capsule, presumably to address speed and performance concerns with the older model. We tested the new model and retested the old one for this review. Only the Performance section of the review has been changed from the review of the previous model, as that is the only difference between the old version of the Apple Time Capsule and the new one.
The Apple Time Capsule is one of very few Wireless N routers with built-in storage, making it a rare and simple all-in-one router-and-backup option for your home. Unfortunately, it's still too expensive. The newly revved versions of Time Capsule cost $300 for the 1TB version and $500 for the 2TB version, and although its NAS performance is much improved over the previous revision, it still suffer from some key shortcomings, such as a lack of many NAS and networking features, a nonuser-serviceable hard drive, no iTunes or media server support, and no Web interface management. For about $400, you can get the Linksys WRT610N plus a 2TB Western Digital My Book Mirror Edition external hard drive, which would give you all the basic functions of the Time Capsule as well as the aforementioned missing features.
However, Apple's Time Capsule is the only combined wireless-router-and-network-storage solution to come in a very good-looking box.
Design and ease of use
Out of the box, the Apple Time Capsule could pass as the Apple AirPort Extreme Base Station's big brother. They share a look, but the Time Capsule is about 30 percent larger. Functionality-wise, the Time Capsule is basically an AirPort Extreme Base Station with a hard drive built in.
(Because the two devices share the same setup, administration process, networking and storage features, functionality, and system requirements, consider this review an enhanced version of our earlier AirPort Extreme Base Station review.)
For a wireless router, the Apple Time Capsule is bulky, but relatively compact compared with competing NAS servers. It has a clean, square design and is classically Apple in white. There are no external antennae, buttons, or switches, aside from the tiny reset hole on the back of the device. Stick a pin in this hole and the router will reset to its default manufacturer settings. Also on the back are three gigabit Ethernet ports--which is one fewer than most competing routers offer--for use with wired clients, and a USB port. The USB port can be used to host another external hard drive or a printer.
On the front, the device has only one status light that changes color according to the working condition of the device. The light flashes amber to indicate a problem or stays solid green to show that everything is in good, working condition.
Like the Base Station, the Apple Time Capsule doesn't offer a Web interface, which means you'll need to install the included AirPort Utility software to set it up. The software comes in both Mac and Windows versions. The Windows version installs a number of services, such as Apple's networking service Bonjour and the AirPort Base Station Agent, which runs whenever your computer boots up. Installing any new software may adversely affect your computer's performance (we didn't test for system degradation), but without Bonjour, Windows won't be able to connect to the device. The AirPort Base Station Agent helps by automatically detecting shared folders from the Time Capsule.
Generally, we prefer devices that you can access and manage via a Web interface, letting you get the job done conveniently from virtually any computer that's connected to the device over the network. Apple is the only networking vendor that doesn't offer this type of interface. Some vendors, such as Linksys, also offer a desktop software application (available for both PC and Mac ) to help those who aren't comfortable using the browser for the task.
To its credit, the AirPort Utility does make setting up the Time Capsule easy for novices. Its wizard mode walks you through the configuring process step by step. To customize the router beyond the recommended settings, the utility offers a manual mode that includes access to more advanced functions.
The Apple Time Capsule requires a restart to apply any changes made to its settings--a nuisance, because doing so interrupts the connections of all users and makes setting up take longer than we're accustomed to having to wait. Other high-end routers can apply most minor changes without restarting.
Nonetheless, there were no gaffes when setting up the Time Capsule, and we were able to get it up and running within 10 minutes or so.
Like the AirPort Extreme Base Station, the Time Capsule supports a maximum of only 50 clients at a time, according to Apple's documentation. We didn't test this claim, but if true, that is a lot fewer than the 200 clients that other vendors claim their routers support.
Along with the AirPort Extreme Base Station, the Apple Time Capsule is one of the few routers that offers very little in terms of networking features. Other high-end routers, such as the D-Link 825 or Linksys WRT610n include a Web site-and-service filter (that lets you block Web sites or Web services based on certain criteria), Port triggering, Wi-Fi Protected Setup (allows you to hook up clients to the network at the press of a button), and Dynamic DNS . The Time Capsule offers none of these.
Though easy to use at its most basic configuration, the Apple Time Capsule can be frustrating when you want to use more advanced functions. For example, if you want to add a client to a DHCP Reservation or the Media Access Control (MAC) address list, you will have to go to the "Log and Logistics" window to view the list of the connected clients, copy the MAC address of the client in question, and then go back to the list to enter it. Many other routers, such as those from D-Link, Linksys, and Netgear, display this information more conveniently and allow you to complete the same task with a few mouse clicks.
Some service providers, especially in college dorms, require users to register a client's MAC address to get connected to the Internet. The Apple Time Capsule doesn't feature this ability to replicate a client's MAC address. Most competing routers can take a client's MAC address as its own.
The Apple Time Capsule offers true dual-band Wireless-N, which means it can provide a Wireless-N (802.11n) signal in both 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies simultaneously, making it support virtually any existing wireless-networking client. However, we found out that it offers users less control over the wireless aspect than most routers.
Apple recommends using the same service set identifier (SSID--the name for a wireless network) for both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, under the pretext that the client will intelligently detect the band by itself and, if it supports both bands, it will pick the 5GHz over the 2.4GHz. In our tests, this worked with a MacBook Pro; indeed, the laptop immediately picked the 5GHz band every time.
Using a Windows-based system was a different story. Our Windows laptop, which supports both 5GHz and 2.4GHz Wireless-N, picked the 2.4GHz every time. We couldn't figure out why this happened, and the router wouldn't let us manually set the machines to use the 5GHz band to take advantage of the higher throughput speeds.
For this reason, we would recommend always having a separate wireless-network name for each band so you can have more control over which band you connect a client to. The Wireless Option button in the AirPort Utility allows you to do this. Unfortunately, although you can choose to turn off the wireless function of the router altogether, you can't turn off either of the bands separately. This means getting the router to work as a 2.4GHz-only or a 5GHz-only wireless network is not possible. All other true dual-band routers we've reviewed allow users to have more control over the router's wireless functionality. In many situations, you'll want to use only the 5GHz band and turn the 2.4GHz band off to save power or keep the spectrum cleaner for other devices. You simply can't do this with the Time Capsule.
You have even less control over the Time Capsule's Guest Networking feature, which lets you create a separate wireless network that has access to the Internet, but not to local resources, such as your computer or printer. The feature worked fine in our trials, but we found its functionality somewhat limited. All you can do is turn on or off the Guest network, change the network's name, apply encryptions to it, and give guest clients the ability to interact with one another. The Time Capsule doesn't let you choose which band you want the Guest network to operate in, nor does it allow you to make a separate guest network for each band.
You'll need to install Bonjour on any Windows-based machines you want to share either the printer or the storage on Time Capsule, which is a bit of a hassle. You'll also want to check ahead of time to make sure your printer supports Mac. Setup with some printers didn't go smoothly in our tests.
When we plugged the Brother in using the USB connection, the Time Capsule did not react at all. The Samsung was recognized by the router, but there is no Mac version of the printer's software driver. Nonetheless, we figured it would have been easy to install if there had been a driver, as the printer did appear in our MacBook Pro's "Print & Fact" utility.
Other routers we've reviewed, when applicable, generally had much better support for printers. For example, the D-Link DIR-825 worked with virtually every USB printer we tried it with. We didn't try the D-Link with these two printers, however, as they weren't available at the time of our review.
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.