Time Capsule Review

Time Capsule - Apple’s AirPort Extreme and hard drive combo - promises to make backing up and recovering data simple and wire-free. However, in initial tests, Time Capsule failed to live up to its potential.

We found transfer speeds sluggish and the device lacked stability - we were forced to restart several times.

Our problems increased when we attempted to set it up in the Macworld office, with a number of ‘error’ and ‘failed’ messages and frequent dropped connections. Even AirPort Utility had difficulty locating Time Capsule.

Clearly when Time Capsule went on sale at the end of February it wasn’t ready to ship to customers. Apple took three weeks to remedy the situtation with a set of updates to Time Machine, Leopard’s AirPort drivers, and the Time Capsule firmware. With the firmware updated, many of the problems we encountered seem to have disappeared and networking throughput slightly improved.

A time and a place

Time Capsule is designed to complement Time Machine, Apple’s automated backup solution introduced with Mac OS X Leopard. Plug a single USB or FireWire drive into a Mac and Time Machine creates a constant backup. If an important file has been deleted, a snazzy Star Trek-style interface enables you to search for it.

One problem is that Time Machine requires an external hard drive tethered by a USB 2.0 or FireWire cable. This is all very well if you have a desktop with an external hard drive permanently attached, but a laptop becomes much less portable once it’s tethered to a hard drive. As a wireless backup solution Time Capsule meets the needs of those who wish to remain wire-free.

First moves

While we faced a number of issues setting up Time Capsule in the office, installation in a home environment was easy. The AirPort Utility took us through familiar steps for connecting to the internet and setting up a password-protected router. You can create a new WiFi connection, replace your current WiFi router or connect to your current WiFi router and access the Time Capsule through that connection.

The included document marked ‘The Need-to-Knows of Backing Up’ states that the backup could “take overnight or longer” so be prepared for a wait. The innitial backup of our MacBook using WiFi 802.11n took 10 hours. However, an older iMac using WiFi 802.11g with almost 80GB of data took closer to 40 hours (transferring data at a rate of 2GB per hour).

When transferring files via 802.11n, we tracked a speed of 50.4Mbps. Transfer via the 802.11g network was a sober 8.8Mbps. and the Gigabit Ethernet connection was sorely lacking, providing a transfer speed of 56.8Mbps. This is little more that 802.11n, and therfore no alternative for a speedy first backup.

After the initial backup, the second backup of our 802.11n MacBook took seven minutes via WiFi. From then on, Time Machine takes hourly, daily, and weekly backups. It can’t be configured to update less frequently, unless you install third-party hacks - one of which was disabled by the latest Leopard updates. On an 802.11g network with multiple computers using email programs like Entourage that create large databases, which will be entirely backed up each time, this is far from ideal.

Following the Firmware update we did see some speed improvements. We measured Time Capsule’s AFP (AppleTalk Filing Protocol) performance before and after the updates and found that transfer times improved by about 25 per cent. After the update a 1.07GB file took 40 seconds to transfer between two Leopard systems over AFP on a Gigabit network (about 200Mbps), but the same file took 115 seconds to copy directly from a Time Machine backup folder to a Leopard system (about 75Mbps). While its speed as an AFP server isn’t fantastic - it’s about half to a third the speed of Leopard-to-Leopard transfers - it’s fast enough for most users.

Recovery, as with Time Machine via a USB drive, 
is a mere click away. Although recovering the files via WiFi takes longer than via USB, we had little trouble finding and restoring files that we deleted.

Overall, and even following the Firmware update, what we would say is that running Time Machine over WiFi is by no means a speedy process, but neither is it an annoying affair. Time Machine quietly ticks away in the background, neither bothering you with input requests nor slowing down your Mac.

Making the grade

Inside the Time Capsule is a Hitachi Deskstar 7K1000 7,200rpm hard drive, of either a 500GB or 1TB variety. This has raised a few eyebrows because Apple is advertising the drive as ‘Server Grade’, which it is justifying because it ships this drive with Xserve units. Although no official guide to what ‘Server Grade’ means, most experts agree that the 7K1000 is more in the desktop, than server, camp. Still, it is a high quality drive and because the Time Capsule is unlikely to continuously use the drive as much as an industrial server we are confident of its reliability.

Nice and NASty

As well as creating multiple backup files, you can use the Time Capsule drive (or a second drive attached to the USB socket) as a NAS (network attached storage) drive. This can be accessed via WiFi or Ethernet.

Unfortunately, as mentioned earlier, the Gigabit Ethernet connection is lacking. It’s barely faster than the WiFi 802.11n connection, with throughput ranges from 45-60Mbps over gigabit Ethernet. This would put an initial 100GB backup at four to six hours.

A direct connection from Mac to Mac via Gigabit Ethernet, in contrast, produces a much more respectable speed of 269.6Mbps. So something inside Time Capsule itself (perhaps the CPU) is limiting the Gigabit Ethernet speed of the device.

This is depressing on two fronts. First, it prevents the Time Capsule from reaching its full potential as a NAS solution. Second, it prevents you from using Gigabit Ethernet to speed up the initial back up.

Another point to note is that Ethernet isn’t an option for MacBook Air users, unless they consider buying a USB-to-Ethernet adaptor from the Apple Store (£19, 
www.apple.com/uk) alongside any purchase of Time Capsule. In our earlier testing of Time Capsule the only way to fix our networking issues was to break out an Ethernet cable, with which we managed to rescue the device.

Like the AirPort Extreme, Time Capsule sports a USB socket that can house either a second hard drive (via a technology called AirDisk) or a printer. After configuring Time Capsule for a local network, its internal drive, as well as an external drive connected via its USB port or a USB hub connected to the USB port, appear as potential target volumes in Time Machine. The printer is fairly straightforward, enabling you to print out via WiFi.

The second hard drive is more interesting, offering an easy way to expand the device or house media. Owners of AirPort Extreme devices were dismayed that this feature - originally promised to them - wasn’t available. However, the 7.3.1 firmware update for AirPort Extreme coupled with the Time Machine and AirPort update for Leopard seems to allow the use of mounted AFP drives: that is, they don’t appear in the list unless mounted, which is a change from previous behaviour. We confirmed this in testing, but it’s not mentioned in release notes, and Apple declined to comment.

Bug fixes and new features

With the firmware updated, many of our issues with Time Capsule disappeared and some of our requests were answered. Time Capsule, like the AirPort Extreme, accepts almost no new settings without restarting - a particular problem when backups are in progress. The original AirPort Utility 5.3 that shipped with Time Capsule failed to warn of this; the revised 7.3.1 software provides an explanation of what will happen.

An important addition in the update resolved an issue with off-site backups. We recommend that users keep at least one off-site backup to avoid losing files in a disaster. Such security was impossible with Time Capsule as its contents couldn’t be transferred to another drive and taken off site. However, the update saw Apple add an option to copy the contents of Time Capsule to a USB drive. Click Archive and you can copy the full current state of the drive onto an external USB drive. Unfortunately, if you already have a backup on a USB drive, you can’t transfer it to Time Capsule.

In testing, Time Capsule copied at a decent 100Mbps, so a 300GB archive would be duplicated in less than seven hours. While copying over USB, Time Capsule won’t make Time Machine backups. Time Capsule’s LED shows amber until the operation is complete.

OUR VERDICT

Time Capsule seems ideally suited for a home network that hasn’t yet upgraded to an 802.11n wireless network (and, thus, doesn’t yet have a new AirPort Extreme Base Station). Time Capsule is a big improvement for such networks, although the £199 to £329 price tag may be slightly too high for that kind of casual user. For those who already have an 802.11n AirPort Extreme, attaching an external drive or connecting a drive to another computer on the same network are both reasonable alternatives to Time Capsule. Small offices might consider Time Capsule an option, especially the 1TB version paired with regular archiving of the internal drive to an external drive that’s taken off-site for safety. However, Time Machine’s failure to allow configuration of frequency or time of day to perform backups could easily overwhelm a network that’s full of 802.11g devices. Apple needs to consider an Advanced button in Time Machine to accommodate network backups that should happen when networks aren’t busy; hourly is too often. We recommend that all Time Capsule and AirPort Extreme Base Station users download and install the Time Capsule and AirPort Base Station (802.11n) Firmware 7.3.1 update, and the companion Time Machine and AirPort Updates v1.0 update for Leopard. Without these updates we cannot recommend Time Capsule as a solid backup device.

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