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

The all-new elegant design and the support for 802.11ac Wi-Fi aside, the new Apple AirPort Time Capsule is very much the same as the previous generation.

Dong Ngo SF Labs Manager, Editor / Reviews
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 3D printers, networking/storage devices, and also writes about other topics from online security to new gadgets and how technology impacts the life of people around the world.
Dong Ngo
11 min read

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.

Without the boxes, you can't tell Apple's new AirPort Base Stations apart.

Apple AirPort Time Capsule

The Good

Apple's new supercompact <b>AirPort Time Capsule</b> is aesthetically attractive, supports 802.11ac Wi-Fi, and offers overall fast performance.

The Bad

A Wi-Fi speed boost and a new design are the only real improvements versus the previous model. Not the best option if you're looking for advanced features, household media streaming, and non-Mac options.

The Bottom Line

As long as you don't need expert-level features, the 2013 AirPort Time Capsule is an excellent backup/file server for Apple fans -- especially for those with 802.11ac-enabled Macs.

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).

Without the boxes, you can't tell Apple's new AirPort Base Stations apart.
Without the boxes, you can't tell Apple's new AirPort Base Stations apart. Dong Ngo/CNET

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.

Using the AirPort Utility as the only means of setting up and managing its features, the Time Capsule remains rigid and lacking as to what features and customizations it has to offer.
Using the AirPort Utility as the only means of setting up and managing its features, the Time Capsule remains rigid and deficient as to the features and customizations it has to offer. Screenshot by Dong Ngo/CNET

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.

The new Time Capsule now stands 6.6 inches tall and is just 3.85 inches wide.
The new Time Capsule now stands 6.6 inches tall and is just 3.85 inches wide. Dong Ngo/CNET

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.

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, 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)
Apple AirPort Time Capsule
Netgear R6300
Asus RT-AC66U
D-Link DIR-865L

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)
D-Link DIR-857
Asus RT-AC66U
Belkin N900 DB
Linksys EA4500
Apple AirPort Time Capsule
Asus RT-N66U
Netgear R6300
D-Link DIR-868L
Netgear WNDR4500
D-Link DIR-865L
Trendnet TEW-692GR
CNET Labs 2.4GHz Wireless-N Performance
(In megabits per second; longer bars indicate better performance)
Apple AirPort Time Capsule
D-Link DIR-868L
Linksys EA4500
Asus RT-N66U
Trendnet TEW-812DRU
Netgear R6300
D-Link DIR-857
Asus RT-AC66U

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)
Seagate Central
Apple AirPort Time Capsule (Summer 2013)
Asus RT-AC66U
Asus RT-N66U
D-Link DIR-868L
Asus RT-56U

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.

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.

Without the boxes, you can't tell Apple's new AirPort Base Stations apart.

Apple AirPort Time Capsule

Score Breakdown

Setup 10Features 5Performance 8Support 9