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Apple Time Capsule Winter 2009 review: Apple Time Capsule Winter 2009

Apple Time Capsule Winter 2009

Dong Ngo
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.
13 min read

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).


Apple Time Capsule Winter 2009

The Good

Fast wireless 5GHz throughput; storage included; easy to use; true dual-band; guest networking; printer and network storage support; works with Apple Time Machine software; good-looking design.

The Bad

Expensive; limited networking and network storage features; no bundled backup software for Windows; hard drive is not user-serviceable; no media or iTunes server; picky support for USB printers; only three Ethernet ports; no Web interface; no remote access for Windows users; setup, administration, and storage sharing require OS X 10.4 or later; runs hot.

The Bottom Line

Apple Time Capsule is a convenient and simple wireless router and NAS server combo for your home. Unfortunately, especially in the case of the 1TB version, you can find better deals on devices that offer greater storage space and many more features for the price.

Editors' note: The Apple Time Capsule was upgraded by Apple in November 2009. Check out the new review here.

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 also painfully expensive. The Time Capsule costs $300 for the 500GB version and $500 for the 1TB version, and suffers from some key shortcomings, like the lack of many NAS and networking features, a non-user-serviceable hard drive, slow network-attached storage (NAS) throughput, 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.

Wireless networking
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.

Printing and storage
We tested two USB printers with the Apple Time Capsule, the Samsung SCX-4100 and the Brother HL-1850.

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.

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.

Remote access
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.

2.4GHz Wireless-N performance test (in Mbps)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Mixed Mode  
D-Link DIR-825 (2.4GHz)
Linksys WRT610n (2.4GHz)
Apple Time Capsule (2.4GHz)

5GHz Wireless-N performance test (in Mbps)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
D-Link DIR-825 (5GHz)
Apple Time Capsule (5GHz)

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.

NAS performance test (via wired Gigabit Ethernet connection)
(Throughput in Mbps. Longer bars indicate better performance)
Apple Time Capsule (Single Volume)
Maxtor CentralAxis (Single Volume)

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.


Apple Time Capsule Winter 2009

Score Breakdown

Setup 7Features 5Performance 6Support 7
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