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Apple Time Capsule

March 12th, 2008
Wireless backup, router, and USB port sharing

Everyone needs to backup their data, but in the past, backing up your data meant fiddling with non-intuitive software, tape cassettes, multiple CDs or DVDs, or external hard drives. In short, backup is usually tedious or complicated. Fortunately, Apple provides a simpler solution called Time Machine, which comes with Mac OS X 10.5. While Time Machine makes backing up painless and simple, you still need an external hard disk connected to your Macintosh through a USB or Firewire cable. For desktop such as the iMac and Mac Pro, this isn’t a problem, but for MacBook users, it’s simply not practical to anchor the system to a drive. To solve this problem of backing up laptops, Apple offers Time Capsule, a combination WiFi router and external hard disk backup unit.

The hard disk

Time Capsule offers a choice of serial ATA, 7200 rpm hard disk sizes: 500Gb and 1TB. While that is plenty of space for backing up a single laptop, Time Capsule is especially useful for backing up multiple Macintosh computers. After backing up two Mac minis and a MacBook, my Time Capsule until still had over 382GB of space left. For the average user, 500GB of hard disk space should be plenty for backing up a handful of computers. For a larger network of several Macintosh computers, the 1TB hard drive size should be sufficient. If you need to backup a large network of Macintosh computers, you can always buy two or more Time Capsules.

Time Machine displays the free space remaining on Time Capsule

The more storage space available, the longer Time Machine can retain backups, allowing you to retrieve files further back in time. As soon as you start running out of storage space, Time Machine starts erasing your oldest backups to make room for newer ones. If you need to backup huge files such as video, audio, or digital photographs, you’ll obviously need more storage space than someone who only needs to backup word processor or spreadsheet files.

Unlike other types of external hard disk enclosures, you cannot open Time Capsule very easily. If the hard disk inside Time Capsule fails, you cannot swap it out and replace it with another one. While this emphasizes Time Capsule’s convenience for the average user, this prevents more technically-savvy users from upgrading the hard disk in the future.

One possible limitation is that if you want to store backups wirelessly with Time Machine, you must update to Mac OS X 10.5.2 and use Time Capsule. (Time Machine won’t wirelessly backup to any other external hard disks.) However, if you don’t have Mac OS X 10.5.2, or if you have Windows XP SP2/Vista, you can still use Time Capsule as an ordinary external hard disk. Now you will just need to use your own backup program or manually save files on Time Capsule’s hard disk as if it were just another drive connected to your computer. While Time Capsule can store media files such as audio and video, it cannot stream those files to other devices, unlike other external hard disk units such as the Hewlett-Packard Media Vault unit.

Non-Macintosh computers, such as a Vista PC, can access Time Capsule’s hard disk wirelessly

WiFi access

Although the primary purpose of Time Capsule is to back up your data wirelessly, Time Capsule includes a wireless router that supports all the different WiFi standards (802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g, and the draft specification of 802.11n). To secure your WiFi connection, Time Capsule offers WEP or WPA/WPA2 encryption. For additional security, Time Capsule also offers MAC address filtering so you can restrict specific computers to your WiFi network and even gives them time restrictions as well (which can be handy for limiting your children’s WiFi Internet access).

Time Capsule offers WEP and WPA/WPA2 encryption

Additional features

Besides providing WiFi access, Time Capsule also includes three 10/100/1000 Mb/s Ethernet ports for creating a wired network. By offering these Ethernet ports, Time Capsule gives you the option of creating both a wireless and wired network. The addition of Ethernet ports and WiFi access helps eliminate the need for a separate WiFi router and Ethernet router, which can reduce clutter around your work area.

Although it’s unlikely that your Internet speeds will ever approach the 1000 Mb/s maximum, Time Capsule’s WiFi connection speeds appear reasonable. My Vista PC managed to achieve a connection speed of 130 Megabits/second, which is more than fast enough for ordinary browsing.

Time Capsule’s WiFi connection speed as measured by Vista

Another handy feature of Time Capsule is its ability to share a single USB 2.0 port, which you can use to plug in a printer, scanner, external hard disk, or USB flash drive. This allows any computer on your wireless network to connect to that device. For added flexibility, plug a USB hub into Time Capsule’s USB port and now you can access multiple items over your wireless network. Just remember that if you plug an external hard disk into the USB port, Time Machine won’t be able to back up data to that disk.

Time Capsule’s main purpose is its close integration with Time Machine, so if you need to backup multiple computers or need wireless backup, Time Capsule may be your only option. With its multitude of features, Time Capsule can also serve as an ordinary router, shared USB port hub, and hard disk in an attractive package ($299 for the 500GB hard disk or $499 for the 1TB hard disk). If you do not need all of these features, Time Capsule may not be cost-effective but if you do need these features to backup a MacBook or multiple computers to a single hard disk, then Time Capsule does the job simply and conveniently in a single unit.
Easy to setup. Works flawlessly with Time Machine. Supports 802.11a/b/g/draft n standards. USB port sharing. Cons
Requires Mac OS X 10.5.2 for Time Machine functionality. Unable to upgrade the hard disk. Does not support media streaming.