updated 12:30 pm EDT, Mon March 10, 2008
First Look: Time Capsule
While all new Macintosh computers come with Time Machine, Apple's unique backup program that allows you to go back and retrieve previously deleted files or older versions of recently modified files, you can't use Time Machine unless you also have a second volume. To take the guesswork out of which type of external hard disk to buy, Apple offers Time Capsule, a simple, fool-proof external hard disk specifically designed to work with Time Machine. The simplicity of Time Capsule is apparent when you open the box and find just four items: the Time Capsule unit, a power cord, an installation CD, and a printed setup manual.
Physically, Time Capsule is wider (7.7 inches), longer (7.7 inches), and shorter in height (1.4 inches) than the current Mac mini, giving it a flatter, squatter appearance in comparison. Weighing only 3.5 pounds, Time Capsule is easy to move anywhere, although its short height makes the unit stable only when laying flat on a surface rather than propped on its side.
The back of Time Capsule includes a plug for the power cord, a single USB 2.0 port, one 10/100/1000Base-T Gigabit Ethernet Wide Area Network (WAN) port for connecting to a DSL or cable modem, three 10/100/1000Base-T Gigabit Ethernet Local Area Network (LAN) ports, and a single security slot.
Although marketed as an accessory to work with Time Machine, Time Capsule is actually a multi-purpose accessory that combines wireless Internet access, wireless sharing of USB devices, a 3-port Ethernet router, and an external hard disk available in two sizes: 500GB (gigabyte) and 1TB (tetrabyte).
Before you can use Time Capsule, you must first install the version of the Airport Utility program that comes on a CD. Loading this CD displays various help files stored in PDF format.
Running this installer program guides you through the process of installing the latest version of the Airport Utility program, capable of controlling Time Capsule.
As a wireless Internet router, Time Capsule supports the 802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g standards along with the 802.11n draft specification. To set up Time Capsule, you need to give your unit a distinct name (or use the default Time Capsule name) and a password.
If you have an existing WiFi network, you can replace your existing WiFi router (such as Apple's own AirPort Extreme) with Time Capsule. Time Capsule automatically recognizes when it's being added to an existing WiFi network.
For security, you can turn on WPA/WPA2 security to protect your WiFi network from unauthorized intruders. (You can also choose to avoid any security whatsoever, which isn't recommended.)
After configuring your WiFi network, you still need to connect it to a DSL or cable modem and then configure your network settings, which for most people means simply relying on DHCP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol) to configure your network settings automatically.
When you finish configuring Time Capsule, any computer running Mac OS X or Windows XP SP2/Vista can now access your WiFi network.
You can find dozens of WiFi routers but what makes Time Capsule unique is its combination its WiFi capabilities and built-in hard disk to backup your Macintosh wirelessly, which can be especially handy for laptops or even desktop models that aren't conveniently located near the Time Machine unit.
Accessing Time Machine through Mac OS X 10.5.2 is as simple as clicking on the Time Machine menulet and choosing Open Time Machine Preferences. From this Preferences window, you can turn on Time Machine and start backing up your entire hard disk.
The first time you backup your hard disk with Time Machine, expect a long wait of several hours or more. Fortunately, you can continue using your Macintosh during this backup process. Once Time Machine finishes backing up your entire hard disk, all future backups only copy modified or new files, so the backup process takes minutes instead of hours.
Unlike a traditional external hard disk connected to a single computer through a USB or FireWire cable, Time Capsule connects wirelessly to multiple computers, which means it can back up the contents of multiple Macintosh computers simultaneously.
Time Capsule's wireless abilities also lets it act as a shared USB port. Plug a printer into Time Capsule's USB port and multiple computers can share that printer as if it were connected directly to each computer.
Time Capsule's three Ethernet ports makes it easy to set up a wired network. Since a wired network is much faster and more secure than WiFi, you might prefer connecting nearby computers through Ethernet cables and rely on WiFi only for distant computers or occasional laptop computer use.
Perhaps Time Capsule's biggest advantage is its price ($299 for 500GB unit or $499 for 1TB unit). For $179, you can get an Airport Extreme Base Station, which duplicates every Time Capsule feature except for the hard disk. For an additional $125, you can buy a 500GB external hard drive from a company such as LaCie, bringing the total cost slightly over Time Capsule's $299 price tag with the added clutter of a separate external hard disk and a WiFi router.
For convenience, ease of set up, simplicity, and a comparable price to a separate Airport Extreme and external hard disk combination, Time Capsule is a worthwhile addition for anybody who needs both wireless access and Time Machine backups. Toss in USB port sharing and Time Capsule becomes even more attractive.
The only reason not to consider Time Capsule is if you don't need a WiFi router, either because you don't need wireless access or because you already own a WiFi router. For anyone who needs WiFi access and external hard disk backup, Time Capsule is almost a convenient and essential buy.